Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fiji Coup Culture - Where to from here?

Fiji – Where to from here?

Presentation to the Leadership Fiji program, 21 March, 2007

Sandra Tarte, University of the South Pacific.


First I would like to say that it is an honor to be talking to you today. I have heard a lot about Leadership Fiji over the past years and it is a special privilege to be invited to participate in this year’s program.

I have been given the challenging and I think unenviable task of looking ahead: to talk on the question ‘Where to from here?’ I believe the answer to that question will depend very much on the patterns that have shaped and continue to shape our nation. It is not that the future is already written, but our history and our recent past will have a lot to do with determining where we go from here.

My colleagues who have already spoken to you today have no doubt given you a good grounding in some of the main historical and political developments that have shaped Fiji. What I want to do in the limited time we have is to focus on just one aspect of our politics: what some have termed our ‘coup culture’. I would suggest that if there is one thing that will determine our future as a nation (one thing that is in our control that is) it is this.

By most counts, we have had four coups in the past 20 years: two coups in 1987; one civilian seizure of power followed by a military take-over in 2000 (a bit more complicated); and this coup at the end of 2006 (more complicated still). I want to, in the first part of this presentation, analyze our so-called coup culture by comparing and contrasting the December 2006 coup and the three previous ones. I will then use this to provide some discussion of the future directions for Fiji.

What was ‘different’ about the latest coup?

  1. Previous coups were carried out in the name of indigenous rights and were broadly popular among ethnic Fijians and the Fijian institutions (the Great Council of Chiefs, the Methodist Church etc). This coup has been carried out in the name of good governance and anti-corruption (like in Thailand last year). It hasn’t even been called a coup by the military. It has been called a ‘clean-up campaign’. Moreover it has expressly defied – if not ridiculed and marginalized – traditional Fijian institutions. The most compelling feature of this coup – and its greatest potential threat – lies in the resounding silence of Fijian nationalism. The nationalist voice has been shut down/shut out, but the question remains for how long. That may depend on how effective the army propaganda is in winning the hearts and minds of (mainly) rural Fijians.
  1. Previous coups put into office governments that were nationalist and pursued a nationalist (what some would label racist) agenda (eg affirmative action for indigenous Fijians, land reform for Fijians and so on). Indeed that was the problem with the previous government, according to the military commander, a problem which also fuelled a culture of corruption. This coup is – ostensibly – not only against nationalism, racism and affirmative action; it has also installed an interim government comprising people who have been the voice of multiculturalism and moderation; people who have promoted ethnic equality and liberal democratic politics.
  1. Previous coups led to the abrogation of the existing constitution – usually to allow for a more pro-indigenous, racially-based constitution. This happened in 1987 (October). It also happened in May 2000 although the Courts subsequently ruled that the Constitution then was not in fact abrogated but still existed. There was no legal basis for abrogating it. So it remained in place. This time the military has not attempted to abrogate the constitution, claiming (rather incredulously) that all their actions have in fact been about preserving the constitution. There has even been a legal document drawn up purporting that the coup was legal because it overthrew an illegal regime (ie events dating from 2000 were in violation of the constitution). It remains to be seen, however, whether it becomes necessary to abrogate the constitution sometime in the future when these arguments are no longer tenable and actions and policies begin to directly contradict the constitution. We are also to see the outcome of any court challenge to the take-over.
  1. Previous coups alienated the minority and non-indigenous races; in particular they were seen as ‘anti-Indian’ and they tended to unleash an anti-Indian backlash, manifesting at one level in attacks on rural Indian communities or on Indian businesses. This coup has not only silenced the nationalist Fijian elements (as noted above). It has been welcomed by many Indo-Fijians (grateful at least that this time they are not the targets). It is not that that this coup is seen as pro-Indian (although that is how some might see it); it is that this coup has been seen as redressing past injustices and grievances committed against Indo-Fijians in previous coups. And this somehow makes it right. But that does not mean the backlash won’t happen. As I mentioned earlier, the great concern now is that the Fijian nationalist elements that have been sidelined, represent a potentially dangerous and volatile force.
  1. Previous coups created what appeared to be a fairly clear – if false – dichotomy in Fiji’s political culture: between promoting indigenous rights on the one hand and the rule of the law on the other. There has been a strongly held view amongst Fijians that the government or the state should remain in indigenous Fijian control in order to safeguard Fijian interests and lift Fijian socio-economic standards (such as through affirmative action programs). That was the force and the rationale behind past coups: to put back into power a Fijian leadership that had been removed by the ballot box. The rule of law was secondary to Fijian rule. Moreover human rights were viewed as antithetical to traditional, Fijian authority. This coup has created a different – and rather ironic – dichotomy: between social justice and good governance on the one hand, and the rule of law on the other. Past anti-coup/ pro-democracy activists have become transformed into skeptics of the relevance and importance of democracy in Fiji.

The arguments that are being heard now include the following:

  • ‘It seems regrettable that those who have condemned the military takeover seem obsessed with the violation of democracy perspective and fail to recognize the anti-racist and pro-people aspects of the take-over, which could be termed the social justice perspective’. So this is seen as a ‘pro-people’ and ‘anti-racist’ coup, which makes it legitimate.
  • Furthermore it has been claimed that the previous government (the one overthrown) ‘clearly showed how democracy could be manipulated to serve the narrow Fijian nationalist interests’. In other words, our democracy was not real democracy. It was in fact deeply flawed, especially when measured against Western standards, and based on the criteria of ‘free and fair elections’. Such a flawed democracy is not as sacred or as worthy of protection. One person even argued that we need a ‘benevolent dictator’ in Fiji to solve our problems. Until then we are not ready for democracy.

These arguments, by the way, were made by the so-called progressive NGOs and clergy.

This leads me to the question: What was the ‘same’ about the latest coup? For all the differences, noted above, there are still some depressing parallels.

  1. The argument that Fiji was not ready for democracy has been heard each time we have had a coup. In 1987, the popular refrain of Fijian nationalists was ‘Democracy is a Foreign Flower’. What Fiji needed was a Fijian state, based on the prior rights of the indigenous Fijians, and elevating their institutions and their faith above others. Following the 2000 coup, the newly installed PM, Laisenia Qarase, suggested that Fiji was somewhere ‘in the middle of a journey between communal democracy’ (or traditional governance) and liberal democracy, adding that it would be better if Fiji never fully reached its destination. In the latest coup, people who had been outspoken critics of previous undemocratic overthrow of government started to make similar utterances: that Fiji was not a real democracy and perhaps we are not ready for democracy; perhaps what we need right now is a ‘benevolent dictator’ who will ‘heal the cancers of corruption and racialism’ so that ‘normal legalities can truly be reasserted’.
  1. Another parallel is of course the political role of the military. This is the obvious common thread throughout. Whether the military is acting for indigenous rights; or whether it is acting against the forces of indigenous rights; whether it is called a clean up campaign or a coup; the common element is that the military and its leaders have arrogated to themselves a political role, above and beyond that prescribed by law. This pattern began in 1987; it seemed to subside in the 1990s; but the events of 19 May 2000 catapulted the army back onto the political stage – however reluctantly. Since 2000, the military has not fully departed this stage. It has been a political force – sometimes at the forefront, sometimes in the background; but always calling the shots (or trying to). To understand why this is so, you need to understand that it was the army which stopped the country from teetering over the edge of anarchy in 2000. The army – and its commander in particular – also experienced a bloody wake-up call with the mutiny attempt in November. To them the enemy – the threat – is still out there (radical nationalists and corrupt chiefs). That is why they must now take power, to stamp out the threat once and for all.
  1. The third parallel relates to the human consequences of coups, whatever the cause they are promoting. You all are aware of the clampdown on certain freedoms (such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement). These almost always accompany a coup. In 2000 the crackdown on freedom of speech was perhaps less notable (because the army was seen as being on the ‘right’ side by most people). However there was widespread terrorizing of (mainly) Indo-Fijian rural communities by (Fijian) civilian groups (sometimes working with police collusion and protection). This time, the military is showing no tolerance for dissent. Critics – whether real or imagined – have been detained and ‘given a warning’ not to cause trouble. Two men, so far, have died as a result of this ‘warning’. Many have been intimidated (rather harshly) into silence. Human rights violations have been justified on the grounds of national security. This is a familiar catch-cry of military dictatorships that see any criticism as a potential threat to their control. More broadly, each of the coups we have experienced has created a new wave of injustice – people who have been wronged; people who have been victimized. This coup is no different. Injustices will breed resentments and conflicts and the need for yet another attempt at building reconciliation and peace and nation building.
  1. The fourth parallel is that this coup, like all others, has exposed the deep divisions within our society – and created new ones. The divisions are racial –which have always marked Fijian society; they are class; they are regional. But ultimately they are political and in a post-coup environment these political divisions run very deep. And what makes the situation so unstable – I guess – is the absence of any peaceful channel to resolve or bridge these divisions. One side holds the guns and that is why they have power. The other side must be silent. In the absence of democratic institutions, there are no obvious ways – short of violence – of redressing this situation. New divisions have also manifested themselves in this latest coup. I alluded to this earlier when I mentioned how some human rights and civil society activists who have traditionally stood against coups have come out in support of (or at least sympathetic to) this one. This is due to their animosity towards the deposed government (and its policies). Some members of the legal fraternity have also given their support to the new regime. As a result, the judiciary is divided; so is civil society – traditionally two of the most progressive forces in society.

So what of the future?

I have reluctantly come to the view that perhaps the best thing we can hope for (work towards) is that the current regime (however illegitimate it is) succeeds. And by succeed I mean that it safely steers the nation back to democratic rule. I don’t believe that the Commander will step aside voluntarily and perhaps there are dangers if he does. I believe the alternative to this regime succeeding (ie that it fails) is the far worse option because it suggests – most likely – a fragmentation of the military and a violent power struggle erupting within the country.

I also believe that two of the core policies of the Bainimarama regime hold the key to our future development as a nation. One is the campaign against corruption – corruption that in turn has been fostered by the mismanagement and abuse of affirmative action programs over the years. The failure to deliver on the part of our leaders because of corruption continues to fuel discontent and frustration, especially among our more marginalized Fijian communities who have been led to expect much more.

The other policy is the communal based electoral system which – as we have seen – has encouraged racial polarization in elections and has caused politicians to employ racially divisive and nationalistic tactics. I don’t believe we will ever progress politically if we continue to tied to the communal voting system; I don’t think we will see truly national leaders (as opposed to parochial, ethnic leaders) emerge within the confines of the current communal system.

But for change to come about – whether it is to eliminate corruption or to remove communal voting – there has to be acceptance and understanding of the need for change. There has to be consensus.

To conclude, my view of the future is a mixed one. On the positive side, we have always managed to muddle through and to find a way out of the political mess left by a coup. Sometimes it has taken years and the toll has been high (in economic terms, in brain drain terms etc). But there is a resilience about Fiji that defies the most pessimistic prognoses. There have been some hard lessons learnt but there have been some positive outcome as well. For example, in the wake of the 1987 coups – in the decade that followed – Fiji witnessed a flourishing of civil society organizations; stepping into the gaps left by a political establishment weakened and tainted by the military coups of 1987. These have, for the most part, been a positive force in Fijian society. The fact that they appear weakened by the latest coup is a cause for concern but this does not spell the end for civil society activism.

On the negative side, the outlook for a coup-free future does not look very promising. If anything, the latest coup has virtually sealed our fate as coup prone society. It would take a huge leap of faith to believe that somehow the coup ‘solution’ will never again be contemplated by a future military commander, or even his junior officers. Other countries in our wider neighborhood that share a similar fate seem to be the Philippines and Thailand.

The means to carry out a coup will always be there (so long as we have a military). So what needs to change is the notion that carrying out a coup is somehow right and a justifiable political option. I guess it is apparent by now that I am no supporter of military coups – this latest one being no exception. I believe we need to break out of this cycle. The way to do that is to somehow change the mindset. As the latest coup revealed, support (whether tacit or explicit) for a military takeover of a democratically elected government is widespread. It is evident within sections of the western educated elite, the intelligentsia, the business community, the urban middle class, the NGO community. This reveals the enormity of the challenge facing our society. Until we as a society – and our leaders in particular – can categorically renounce and reject the use of force in our political life – democracy has little hope of becoming an entrenched force in our lives. And we will never realize our full potential as a country.

Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting article. Thanks for sharing.