Editorial: Outlook for a freer Fiji looks brighter

Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Dev Nadkarni
Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Photo / Dev Nadkarni

With little fanfare, a turning point has been reached in New Zealand's relations with Fiji. Commodore Frank Bainimarama's regime has shown sufficient evidence of progress towards democratic elections in 2014 for Foreign Minister Murray McCully to decide travel bans will be eased and high-level diplomatic representation restored in Suva.

Australia has also agreed to start re-establishing old ties, following a meeting between the three nations, the first since 2010, in Canberra. This reflects what appears to be justified optimism that for the first time since Bainimarama's coup six years ago, the future for Fiji and its people is definitely brightening.

Fifteen months ago, Mr McCully indicated he thought matters were looking up. There was some scepticism about this, as Bainimarama had previously dishonoured pledges for a return to democracy. But Mr McCully has kept lines of communication open while seeking evidence of changes that "improve the lives and freedoms of ordinary Fijians". This has involved him going to Fiji as part of the Pacific Islands Forum ministerial contact group in April, and making a short visit to Suva recently.

What he saw and heard has clearly convinced him that Bainimarama is sincere about a return to democracy in 2014. As a first step towards this, forums designed to achieve consensus on a new constitution are being held. One last week attracted academics, former politicians and human rights activists.

Pointedly, however, Bainimarama has also taken steps to ensure his vision of a democracy featuring equal suffrage for all of Fiji's racial groups will hold sway.

This year, he disbanded the Great Council of Chiefs, a leadership tradition that dates back more than 130 years. This was to prevent the council being written into the new constitution. Last week's imprisoning of Laisenia Qarase, the country's last democratically elected Prime Minister, on nine charges of corruption was also a conveniently-timed damning of the pre-regime government.

Bainimarama has further decreed that the term Fijian applies to all 837,000 people in the archipelago, including the 37 per cent who are Indian.

"We must now look to our commonalities as citizens of the same nation, not to what separates us as individuals or groups," he has said.

This admirable sentiment, in a country where extra voting power has historically been allotted to ethnic Fijians, does not mean, however, that the draconian nature of Bainimarama's regime can be overlooked. Or that emergency powers of the sort that effectively suppressed any sign of dissent, can be excused.

There has, , however, been obvious progress in the lifting of some of these powers, public consultation on the new constitution, and preparations for electronic voter registration - enough to encourage the restoring of diplomatic relations and the more flexible, case-by-case implementation of travel sanctions on members of the interim Government and the military regime.

But, quite rightly, Mr McCully and Australia's Senator Bob Carr brought up the subjects of media freedom and human rights when they met Fiji's Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, in Canberra. The 2014 elections must be free and fair, not circumscribed by remnants of the regime's grip.

Bainimarama's coup was one of a series in the past 24 years. The Fijian people must, therefore, assert themselves and ensure the new constitution includes measures that keep the armed forces in their barracks. The past six years have been a wretched time for them. They have had to live with severely curtailed rights and freedoms, as well as suffer the effects of appropriate international sanctions and the regime's inept economic management. The mood swing implicit in the re-establishment of a working relationship with New Zealand and Australia can only offer encouragement for a much better future.

- NZ Herald

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