Feuding Fiji leaders set for face-off

By Nick Squires

The potentially explosive showdown looming in Fiji between the country's embattled Prime Minister and its maverick military chief is both political and personal.

As Fiji waits for the return of Frank Bainimarama from overseas, the bitter feud between the Commodore and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase threatens to unleash the South Pacific nation's fourth coup in less than 20 years.

Qarase plans to introduce a bill which would pardon many of the Fijians convicted for their involvement in the last coup in May 2002, and a subsequent military mutiny six months later. Bainimarama nearly lost his life in that coup, which happened six years ago yesterday. He was chased down a hillside by rebel soldiers as troops from the Counter Revolutionary Warfare squad tried to seize control of the country's main military barracks in the capital, Suva.

The mutiny was thwarted, with five rebel soldiers shot dead, but the commander has not forgotten how very differently it might have ended. Hence his repeated threats over the past year to topple the democratically elected Government if Qarase goes ahead with the contentious legislation to grant amnesties to the coup plotters, including ringleader George Speight.

He reiterated those threats in even stronger terms yesterday, warning that there would be violence and bloodshed if the the bill was passed. It would pitch the country into chaos, with the prospect of Fijians hacking each other to death, said Bainimarama, due back within a week from Egypt where he is visiting Fijian peacekeeping troops.

>>Two bills at heart of Fiji coup tension

The military is also angry over a second proposed bill that would enshrine indigenous ownership of coastal land. Bainimarama fears it could damage foreign investor confidence and harm the tourism industry.

The Army has been critical, too, of links between a former official from Qarase's party and notorious Australian conman Peter Foster, who was arrested in Fiji last week on charges of organising a smear campaign against a rival New Zealand businessman.

Overseeing the growing acrimony between the adversaries is Fiji's ailing President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who is in his eighties and rarely seen in public.

Relations have deteriorated sharply since Qarase was appointed Prime Minister, with Bainimarama's blessing, in 2001. He headed a coalition Government which, it was hoped, would heal the racial tensions between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians, the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the country in British colonial days to cut sugar cane.

Jon Fraenkel, a political scientist at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, said it was meant to be a group of apolitical technocrats who would stabilise the country.

But Bainimarama feels the Government has become too sympathetic to the coup supporters. He wants the process of securing convictions against those responsible for the coup and the mutiny to be pursued right to the very end.

There are still some cases yet to be resolved.

Qarase, who leads the mainly indigenous Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua (SDL) party, secured a second, five-year term in closely fought elections in May.

On Wednesday he said there was no question of him stepping down, despite a demand by Bainimarama that he resign by next Monday.

How much weight Bainimarama's threats against the Government carry is a key issue. Eighty per cent of ethnic Fijians voted for the Qarase Government, and the rank and file of the Army, which is 99 per cent ethnic Fijian, is likely to be similarly supportive of the Prime Minister.

Soldiers are also acutely aware of the heavy jail sentences handed down to those involved in the 2000 coup.

Many Fijian soldiers learned that the defence that "orders are orders" is no defence at all, noted Jane's Foreign Report this week.

Sources suggest that if Bainimarama were to instigate a coup, he might face mass desertions from men not keen to pay the price of following orders again.

So Bainimarama, who has refused to say exactly when he will return to Fiji from the Middle East, might only have the support of senior officers.

Qarase sounded a more conciliatory note yesterday. "I think it's the beginning of easing the situation, the tension between the military commander and the Government," he told ABC radio.

"We are awaiting his return so that we can establish dialogue."

He called on Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs to help resolve the crisis.

"Fiji has suffered three military coups since 1987. Another one would be a total disaster," Qarase has said.

But Bainimarama's intentions remain unknown, his next step unpredictable.

"He's lost the support of the President, the police chief [an Australian, Andrew Hughes] and others who were previously sympathetic to him," Fraenkel said. "When people have their backs to the wall, you can never be sure what they'll do."

Trouble in paradise

What's It All About?

The Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, proposed by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase last year, aims to grant amnesty to those involved in the coup on May 19, 2000, that toppled the Chaudhry Government.

The bill would allow coup leader George Speight, who is serving a life sentence for treason, to be released. Qarase has merged his party with Speight's Fijian Conservative Alliance.

Opposition to the bill's amnesty clause has come mainly from the military chief and the Fijian police force, saying it would be seen to condone the coup and could lead to further political instability in the islands.

The bill was shelved last year but Qarase, who won a second term in elections in May, wants to reintroduce it.

Rising tensions

October 17, 2006 - Military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama gives Qarase an ultimatum to drop plans for the amnesty deal or be forced from office.

Tuesday - President Ratu Josefa Iloilo summons Lieutenant-Colonel Ratu Meli Saubulinayau and asks him to replace Bainimarama, who is visiting Fijian troops in the Middle East. Saubulinayau declines.

Wednesday - Qarase goes on national radio to repeat his refusal to resign. Bainimarama, expected back in Fiji this week, says he will remove the Prime Minister on his return. Troops seize tonnes of ammunition as political and security leaders meet amid fears of a coup. Australia places two warships on standby to evacuate its citizens.

Yesterday - Police are investigating Bainimarama, saying his threats to unseat the Government may have breached the country's sedition laws. But Fiji Police Commander, Australian Andrew Hughes, says he won't immediately arrest Bainimarama when he returns because it would be seen as a "provocative" act.

History of coups

Since 1987 Fiji has suffered three coups and a failed mutiny. The coups were racially fuelled, with indigenous Fijians fearful of losing political control to ethnic Indians, who dominate the sugar- and tourism-based economy.

Fiji adopted a multi-racial constitution in 1998, creating a 71-seat race-based Parliament. Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji's first ethnic Indian Prime Minister in 1999 but was overthrown in a nationalist coup in 2000.

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