Bainimarama puts patience of Fiji people to test

By Phil Taylor

The people of Fiji have once more been given allegations and asked to be patient for evidence. But abuses of process in the arrest of 16 people in the investigation into an alleged plot to assassinate commodore Frank Bainimarama have not made for a good start.

Since the military ousted the government of Laisenia Qarase on December 5, most government departments have sacked officials, alleging corruption and mismanagement but these moves have not been followed by court cases.

Eleven months on and the interim government under the prime ministership of Bainimarama has still not produced the promised evidence to justify his rhetoric that his coup was a "clean-up".

Earlier this year Bainimarama said his administration had accumulated a huge body of evidence and was ready to produce it once legislation setting up an anti-corruption commission was passed.

"Just four or five months after December 5 we will have plenty to show the international community why we did what we did," Bainimarama said.

That timetable would have meant the public learning of this evidence in April or May. The continuing failure to produce evidence has caused some Fijians to regard the current claims of an assassination plot against him with scepticism.

"If it is true, people want to see evidence, especially as they [Bainimarama's regime] are the ones saying they want to get rid of corruption regarding the previous government," says Asaeli Lave, Fiji Times' head of staff. "They have to make sure they are transparent themselves."

There is speculation the arrests of the alleged plotters may have something to do with recent events: the jailing of Bainimarama's brother-in-law, Francis Kean for manslaughter, the arrest of eight soldiers in connection with the death in January of a 19-year-old and the arrest last week of another soldier who has been charged in connection with the death in the military barracks in January of a civilian arrested by soldiers for causing unspecified trouble in his village.

Kean, who was Commander of Fiji's navy, has appealed against his 18-month sentence for the manslaughter of salesman John Whippy at a wedding reception.

A rift between the police (an extension of the military) and Fiji's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Josaia Naigulevu has added to disquiet regarding the alleged assassination plot. The eight soldiers were taken from a plane about to leave for United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Middle East two weeks ago at the intervention of the DPP after consultation with the military about the case failed.

It may be significant that it was the head of police whose comment that two neighbours might be involved in the plot led to a hasty backtrack of any suggestion that the governments of New Zealand and Australia were involved.

Two New Zealanders Ballu Khan and his employee Sivaniolo Naulago were among 16 people arrested last weekend. Naulago is among 11 who have been charged with conspiracy to murder and inciting mutiny against the regime of Bainimarama.

Five have been released, though they remain under investigation, and Khan remains in hospital with severe injuries his family says were inflicted during his arrest. He is yet to be charged. Khan has been a backer of Qarase's SDL Party.

Many of those charged, including Naulago, appeared to have facial injuries when brought to court. Already treason charges have been dropped. "Everyone is waiting to see whether there is going to be any evidence at all," says Lave.

That there might have been a plot to murder Bainimarama is plausible. An attempt to assassinate him was the aim of the November 2000 mutiny at Suva's Queen Elizabeth barracks. The sentiment that sparked that attempt had not gone away.

Several of those charged were convicted of involvement in the Speight coup of 2000. Among those now charged are Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, who was sacked by Bainimarama for insubordination last year, and high chief Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, imprisoned for life in 2004 for inciting the mutiny in 2000 (the conviction was quashed this year pending a retrial), former Fiji Intelligence Services director Metuisela Mua and six former officers from the counter-revolutionary warfare unit, the unit involved in the coup and mutiny in 2000.

There were distinct difference between Bainimarama's coup and those before it.

The 1987 coups of Sitiveni Rabuka, and the coup that failed businessman George Speight fronted in 2000 were said to be in the interests of indigenous Fijians, overthrowing governments they felt paid too much heed to the interest of Fiji Indians.

Bainimarama emerged, initially, as the peacemaker from the 2000 coup. He was the military strongman who brokered the release of parliamentarians held hostage, thus leading the country back to an elected Government, albeit one that he directed his army to over-throw five years later. But he claimed more defensible grounds for his coup, the removal of a racist and corrupt regime.

When Qarase formed that regime in September 2001, it was against the urging of New Zealand which was among those who believed a government was needed to be formed that represented all Fijians. This would have required a grand alliance with the predominantly Indian-backed Fiji Labour Party.

The failure to do so moved politician Tupeni Baba to observe at the time, that "the politics of revenge are still evident". If there is substance in the allegation of a plot to assassinate Bainimarama, it may be further endorsement of Baba's comment.

Bainimarama may have enjoyed the role of the only statesman in Fiji who counts, but that doesn't mean he is not genuine in his stated objectives, says associate professor John Henderson, a Pacific politics expert from Canterbury University.

There is speculation the assassination plot allegations may be a diversion to buy more time before Fiji holds elections. Bainimarama may have felt pressured into confirming at the recent Pacific Forum that elections would be held early in 2009 a year earlier than originally intended.

That may be insufficient time to fulfil his intentions of instituting a one-person one-vote electoral system and replacing a culture of graft for one of service.

While Fijians wait for evidence to support charges of an assassination plot, Bainimarama would be wise to keep a constant eye on his own. If a threat to his interim government comes, it is most likely from within the military, says Henderson.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a real attempt is made at running a counter-coup. The military is a very Fijian institution and not necessarily very happy with Bainimarama's commitment to multi-racial Fiji."

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