Editorial: Step in right direction for Fiji freedom

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Fiji's new self-appointed President, military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Greg Bowker
Fiji's new self-appointed President, military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Greg Bowker

There have been several false dawns in Fiji, with previous pledges for a return to democracy being dishonoured.

Eight months ago, Foreign Minister Murray McCully suggested that Fiji was "closer than it was before" to delivering hard evidence of progress towards elections in 2014.

The statement placed him out on a limb because there had been little evidence that Commodore Frank Bainimarama's regime was about to turn a corner. Nor, for that matter, has there been any great cause for hope since.

But in a New Year address, the military dictator announced that emergency powers that have been in force since 2009 will be lifted on Saturday.

This, he said, paved the way for public consultation, starting next month, on a new constitution.

The announcement was clearly a cause for optimism, not least for the Fijian people who have been living with drastically curtailed rights and freedoms.But there is every reason to temper this.

There have been several false dawns in Fiji, with previous pledges for a return to democracy being dishonoured.

Understandably, therefore, the international reaction has been cautious. Mr McCully reflected this when he said these changes must "improve the lives and freedoms of ordinary Fijians".

This must not, in other words, be a cosmetic exercise designed to placate world opinion and trigger the withdrawal of international sanctions.

It is difficult to gauge just how serious Bainimarama is.

It would be comforting to think he believed that Fiji was ready to begin positive steps towards his vision of a democracy featuring equal suffrage for all of the country's racial groups.

It is equally plausible, however, that the sanctions and dire economic management are starting to bite deeply.

In time, these are bound to increase popular resentment towards the regime and create fissures among its leaders.

The suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum may also have played a part.

Either way, the Key Government's policy of ongoing communication is showing encouraging signs of bearing fruit.

The soon-to-expire martial law restricted the freedom of assembly and the right to protest and installed army officers as censors in media outlets.

It was imposed at the same time as Fiji's constitution was abolished, itself a response to a Court of Appeal judgment that the military regime was illegally appointed after Bainimarama's coup in 2006.

Since the emergency powers were imposed, dissent has been progressively squashed.

The relaxing of the regime's grip, should it happen, will be especially welcome if it ushers in a fully inclusive national debate that leads to a consensus on a new constitution.

This is vitally important in a country that has seen a series of coups in the past 24 years.

Historically, extra voting power has been allotted to ethnic Fijians.

Bainimarama's plan for equal suffrage has previously been the subject of consultation on a "national charter" four years ago.

Further debate starting next month is an opportunity for Fijians to assert themselves and to arrive at a constitutional framework that will keep the army in its barracks.

And because putting the fundamentals for democratic elections in place would not take a great deal of time, there should also be pressure on Bainimarama to advance the proposed 2014 date.

If he is finally preparing the groundwork for restoring democracy and human rights, there is every reason for the New Zealand Government to look at easing its sanctions.

The stick can be abandoned when it has served its purpose. But it is still too early for that.

Far too often, Bainimarama has failed to live up to his promises and seized on any sign that could be misinterpreted as recognising his regime's legitimacy.

It is up to him to prove that this time it will be different.

- NZ Herald

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