I explained yesterday how the fear of driving Fiji into China’s arms has been wrongly used by what I call the ‘appeasement lobby’ as a reason to lessen the isolation of Fiji’s regime. It isn’t the only error they’ve made. They also fear that further isolation by Australia would destroy Fiji’s economy. Here they are on firmer ground. But the sad truth is that there’s little left to destroy. After six years of military rule Fiji’s GDP is lower in real terms than it was in 2006. All credit is due to the Minister for Finance: J.V. Bainimarama. In the same period, sugar production—on which at least 200,000 people depend for their livelihoods—has halved. Credit to the Minister for Sugar: J.V. Bainimarama. In the same period, wages have fallen, pensions have been slashed by up to 60%, and poverty now affects at least 40% of the population and possibly many more. The tax burden has been steadily shifted from the wealthy to the poor. The Minister responsible: J.V. Bainimarama.
It’s hard to see how Australia’s isolation could make this worse. In fact, most Fiji islanders would welcome the short term pain involved in removing Bainimarama if it meant a return to the rule of law and a return to growth.
The appeasement lobby has also bought into the myth that Bainimarama is eradicating racism and it expresses fear that any further action by Australia would further polarise and radicalise Fiji’s society. Again, sadly, there’s not much more that can be done to that end. Fiji is divided—but not along the racial lines that the Bainimarama cheer leaders fear. It’s increasingly divided between rich and poor, the powerful and the voiceless, the armed and the unarmed. The eve of coup pledge to stamp out racism was received with joy by many—but it has turned out to be just another empty promise. While Bainimarama’s spin doctors loudly praise his token tinkering at the edges of racism, the military remains the most racially skewed organisation in the country, with some 99% of its membership ethnic Fijians. As a result, the militarisation of the public service has seen it become staffed almost exclusively by an ethnic majority representing about 58% of Fijians.
The lobby’s concerns are misguided and misplaced, born as they are of an inadequate knowledge of Fiji’s situation. The thrust of its argument is that the Australian government—not to mention the small coterie of academics who regularly raise mirth with their breathtaking ignorance as expressed through their favoured contributor status in opinion pages of The Australian and elsewhere—has got the policy settings right. If only it were so.
There are two issues in play. One is moral: how can Australia look the other way while a friendly people suffer under the military jackboot? The other is pragmatic: wouldn’t it be better for Australia to act now rather than wait for one of the most populous states in the region to fail? For ‘failed state’ is where Fiji is heading. In his desperation for money, Bainimarama has very probably exhausted even China’s willingness to lend. He is now looting the nation’s savings—but even that’s no bottomless pit. Sooner rather than later the money will run out and the nation will implode—with Australia left to pick up the major share of the tab. Neither China nor America is likely to offer other than moral support—if that. And China is highly unlikely to write off any of its debt, the total of which is unknown.
So it is the policy of appeasement—not sanctions—that would be counter-productive. We almost hear daily the argument that sanctions haven’t worked (which is not true, but that’s another discussion) and need to be abandoned in favour of engagement, as if it were a matter of night following day. There is, however, a never mentioned alternative: ratchet up the sanctions with the aim of removing an illegal regime that very clearly has no regard for the people it has subjugated by threat and sometimes force of arms and from whom it has no mandate whatsoever.
And elections next year—assuming they actually happen—won’t change a thing. Already we see moves to outlaw all opposition, meaning the forces of democracy. The submissions to the Ghai Commission leave no room for doubt that Bainimarama and his gang are unelectable in any free and fair expression of the public wish. The leader of the most popular opposition political party is aged 72 and probably doesn’t have another election in him. Nevertheless, he languishes in jail on charges seen by many as politically motivated while a similar fate very probably awaits the leader of the well organised Fiji Labour Party.
So a one party state with the military at its apogee is for now at least, the favoured plan. A ‘guided’ or ‘protected’ democracy is freely talked about by the military. Protected from precisely what is not difficult to guess.
Will Australians support this? Of course they will not and neither should their elected government. Australia needs to discover some backbone—and stand up for what is after all in Australia’s interest; stand up for a people who hold Australia in the highest regard; and pull the plug on an illegal, dishonest, selfish plundering regime.
Again to be pragmatic, Australia can’t do anything much about the situations in Sri Lanka or Myanmar. Nor can it can do anything about Robert Mugabe. But it can and should do something about Voreqe Bainimarama.
Victor Lal is an Oxford-based academic researcher and is a former Fiji journalist and human rights activist. He is the author of Fiji: Coups in Paradise – Race, Politics and Military Intervention. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.