Fiji: the perils of appeasement
20 Feb 2013|

Australian policy on Fiji is shifting to appeasement in ways that will gladden the military regime and sadden Fijians. What might be called the Bainimarama appeasement lobby—broadly speaking a group of academics and journalists who have never lived under the Fiji dictatorship—make valid points about Australia’s interests but they are necessarily made from the viewpoint of a comfortable and calm Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu or Auckland suburb without recourse to public opinion and conditions in Fiji.

Their position is well summed up by The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, in a recent column on the Australian Foreign Minister’s increasingly warm approach to the regime:

Carr was right on the substance and in the larger strategic picture. It would do the Fijian people no good at all to isolate Fiji, to send it into the arms of China, to destroy its economy, to further polarise and radicalise its society. The government there has done a lot of undemocratic things and these deserve to be criticised, but on the international scale of human rights abuses it is at the absolute gentlest end of the spectrum.

This is the view that rights and freedoms can be partially abused—that Bainimarama has done some bad things but these are at ‘absolutely the gentlest end of the spectrum’. He hasn’t killed many people. He has tortured only a few compared to other dictators. Further, the appeasers ask, what is the point of further dividing Fiji and driving it even closer to Beijing?

This view finds little support in Fiji itself. It ignores the fact that all of the above—and much more than that—are being implemented by a self-appointed regime estranged from its people and without mandate. Like the United States, the appeasement lobby, understandably perhaps, confuses ‘the Fijian people’ with the group of thugs that purports to govern them. And while it would be unreasonable to expect them to have read or even glanced at the 7,000 submissions to the Ghai Commission which display the nearly total absence of public support for the illegal regime, they would benefit from a deeper understanding of conditions there before offering a view. Such an understanding will not be gained from occasional, carefully shepherded visits.

The Bainimarama regime, in fact, is not representative of anyone but the military leader and a handful of cronies. But they have the guns. So the notion that Australia is taking a hard-nosed pragmatic approach that will serve Australia’s national interest is deeply—probably fatally—flawed.

The presence of China in Fiji and the Pacific is seized on by the appeasement lobby to justify a softer line on Bainimarama. The argument, also seen in comments from the US State Department, goes that there needs to be a counterbalance to China’s growing presence in the islands region and that counterweight can only be provided by the United States. China’s influence on Fiji in particular needs to be addressed by giving Bainimarama at least some of the international respectability he so badly craves in order to bring Fiji back into the Western camp.

In fact, the truth is almost diametrically opposite to that reading. The United States, not for the first time in the Pacific, has misinterpreted the situation by assuming that governments reflect public opinion. Thus, there is neither understanding nor even knowledge of the anger that exists in Suva, Apia, Post Moresby and Lae (to name only a few) at the rapidly expanding Chinese presence in both the licit and illicit  business sectors normally thought to be the preserve of the local populations. The region has seen what can happen if this is not addressed—and chumming up to Bainimarama will, if anything, encourage it.

Regional political leaders, too, cheer on the US in its thinking at every opportunity, for they would like nothing better than an aid war between America and China. Indeed, many of them were ‘playing the Russia card’ in the Cold War years when most of the junior American planners responsible for the Pacific were still in school.

So to fear, as the appeasers do, that any further isolation would drive Fiji into the arms of China is to state what has happened as opposed to what could happen. And this had nothing whatsoever to do with Australian policy. But, again, the people of Fiji—who still hold Australia in very high regard and still look there for understanding and support—are deeply resentful of China’s activities. They fear the (unknown) level of debt to China. They detest China’s use of its own labour and materials on projects that have not always delivered what they promised. And they object to China’s treatment of local labour on the few occasions when it is employed. They are very worried and increasingly resentful about the Chinese presence and cannot understand why, in their view at least, Australia is now sucking up to a regime that encourages China. They feel abandoned by Australia and are deeply perplexed by this.

Tomorrow I’ll examine some other arguments that have been put forward to justify a more relaxed approach to the Fijian regime.

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