Military Coup in Fiji

On December 5, 2006, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama carried out a coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. President Josefa Iloilo seems to have facilitated the coup by signing a document dissolving the Fiji parliament. To prevent the sort of rioting seen during the May 2000 coup, roadblocks have been set up around the main towns to stop troublemakers from arriving from outlying villages. For now, Fiji is calm.

In a way, the 2006 coup is a continuation of the May 2000 coup led by George Speight, a failed businessman who wanted to establish a racist government favoring indigenous Fijians over the large Indo-Fijian minority. Bainimarama put down that coup, yet Speight elements managed to infiltrate the Qarase government, which adopted many of Speight's policies. Qarase's SDL party only won the rigged May 2006 elections with Speight backing. Despite coup threats stretching back several months, the Qarase government steadfastly refused to withdraw legislation such as the Qoliqoli Bill, which would have privatized Fiji's coastlines for the benefit of a few Fijian chiefs, and an indigenous claims tribunal, which would have allowed the same chiefs to lay claim to much more of Fiji's wealth. Qarase was also pressing doggedly ahead with an amnesty for the Speight coup perpetrators. The Speight coup itself was actually part of a larger struggle for control of Fiji's valuable mahogany forests, as outlined on page 27 of Moon Handbooks Fiji.

What Bainimarama has done is unquestionably illegal, but I don't believe he's in it for the money. I also don't think he's mentally unstable, as Qarase has suggested. After announcing last month that he planned to “clean up” Qarase's act, Bainimarama left on trips to the Middle East and New Zealand to demonstrate that he had the backing of the army. An attempt by Qarase to replace him in his absence failed, and I doubt if there will be a coup within a coup to remove Bainimarama from his post now, although that always could happen. In any case, it's unlikely that Sitiveni Rabuka, the architect of two coups in 1987, was directly involved in this one. At the moment, Rabuka is on trial for involvement in a November 2000 military mutiny in which Bainimarama was almost killed. I don't think anyone is pulling Bainimarama's strings.

From what I've read, support for the Qarase and Bainimarama camps is about evenly split within Fiji. It's inevitable that there will be a backlash against the army for what it has done, and how it handles it will be a test. The Fiji army is highly disciplined, but as it demonstrated clearly during the aftermath of the George Speight coup, it will have no hesitation in using force against anyone who challenges it directly.

Australia and New Zealand have announced sanctions against Fiji, and it's quite likely that Fiji will be suspended from the Commonwealth later this week. It's also probable that Bainimarama will try to turn to the Peoples Republic of China as an alternative. Yet in light of the anti-Chinese rioting in the Solomon Islands and Tonga recently, China may be wary of aligning itself with an illegal regime. The United Nations has said that it will terminate Fiji's role in international peacekeeping, the main source of income for Fiji's military. Fiji's tourism and sugar industries, dependent as they are on foreign money, could collapse.

Sadly, Fiji appears to be in for some very hard times. I expect a 20 percent devaluation of the Fiji dollar will be announced shortly to stop an outflow of capital. If you'll be visiting Fiji anytime soon, only change your money a couple of days at a time, not all at once. For now, Fiji is still quite safe to visit, and if it were me, I wouldn't hesitate to go, travel advisories or no travel advisories. But then again, I've gone to a lot of places many people would never think of visiting.

I recommend Fiji Live and Fiji Times Online for the latest updates on political events in Fiji. China Matters has some interesting comments on the role Fiji's ex-police commissioner, Andrew Hughes, who fled to Australia shortly before the Bainimarama coup. It's also possible to watch Fiji TV coverage on your computer after completing a free registration process.

Update: Here's a fresh report on how the coup is affecting tourists: Tourism operators feel the bite of coup

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