Coup Fears in Fiji

The possibility of a military coup is currently hanging over Fiji, and Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have issued travel advisories suggesting that all non-essential travel to Fiji be deferred. As a result, tourism has plummeted, and Fiji's large resorts are losing millions of dollars a day in cancelled bookings. Government leaders in Australia and New Zealand have warned of dire consequences for Fiji if there is a coup, and Australia has threatened to intervene militarily if requested to do so by the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Yet the head of the 3,500-member Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, insists that his list of nine demands is non-negotiable and that a “clean up campaign” will begin at the appropriate moment. As of this writing, a coup hasn't happened yet.

What has brought Fiji to this impasse? In May 2000 a civil coup led by rabble rouser George Speight overthrew the People's Coalition Government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. Chaundry and several dozen other members of parliament were held hostage by the Speight terrorists for almost two months until their release was negotiated by Bainimarama. In the process, Bainimarama abrogated Fiji's 1997 constitution and forced President Kamisese Mara to resign. Laisenia Qarase was installed by the army as a temporary “caretaker” prime minister, a position he has held ever since.

It should be noted that neither Qarase nor Bainimarama reestablished democracy in Fiji after the May 2000 coup. It was a ruling of the Fiji Court of Appeal in March 2001 which brought back the 1997 constitution, allowing for free elections in August 2001, which Qarase's United Fijian Party (SDL) won. Qarase governed in coalition with the pro-Speight Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV) until February 2006, when the CAMV dissolved itself and merged with the SDL. This combined party won the May 2006 elections, which Mahendra Chaudhry claimed were rigged, and several Speight henchmen now serve as cabinet ministers in Qarase's government.

The Qarase government wants to grant an amnesty to everyone involved in the May 2000 coup through a Reconciliation and Unity Bill, and one of Bainimarama's key demands is that this bill be dropped. Bainimarama also wants the scapping of legislation intended to privatize Fiji's coastlines and set up an indigenous claims tribunal, both of which would greatly benefit a few Fijian chiefs. Issues such as these were central to the political program of George Speight, and it appears that Speight elements are now setting the agenda of the Qarase government, even though Speight himself is currently serving a life sentence for treason on a tiny prison island just off Suva. All of this must be very distressing to Bainimarama who was almost killed during a mutiny by pro-Speight soldiers in November 2000. Thus far, Qarase has only offered to review the controversial legislation, but not to withdraw it, as Bainimarama wants.

If the army does carry out a coup against the Qarase government, Australia has threatened to invoke the Biketawa Declaration, an agreement among the 16 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum to allow military interventions if the peace and stability of any of them is threatened. Australia has a very profitable neo-colonial relationship with Fiji, running huge trade surpluses with the country year after year. Many of Fiji's largest banks, resorts, and other businesses are owned by Australian companies. The Qarase government has aligned itself closely with Australia, and a military coup might result in Fiji tilting toward the Peoples Republic of China.

How does all of this affect tourists? In my opinion, the alarmist travel advisories issued by the Australian and other governments can be disregarded. They warn against travel to all of Fiji, when the trouble is likely to be restricted to limited areas around the capital Suva, if there is a coup at all. What we're witnessing is a power struggle inside the Fijian elite, and as during all three previous coups, tourists are not directly involved. Nadi, the Coral Coast, and the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands, where the vast majority of tourists go, weren't affected during the 1987 and 2000 coups.

Fiji Live posts the latest news updates as they come in.

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