7 Dec 2006

Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs maintains Ratu Iloilo is still legal president

12:45 pm on 7 December 2006

Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs, the GCC, maintains that Ratu Josefa Iloilo is still the legal president and head of state of Fiji.

This comes a day after the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, made himself acting president and unsuccessfully sought the resignation of the prime minister.

Commodore Bainimarama then announced that he had dissolved parliament and made new appointments.

Soldiers also removed the vice president, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, from his office and his official residence yesterday.

The head of the Council of Chiefs, Ratu Ovini Bokini, said that the removal was illegal.

"Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi is a fine Chief and highly respected member of the legal profession, a former High Court Judge who is legally and unanimously appointed by the Chiefs. Ratu Joni's removal from office is illegal and unconstitutional and disrespectful."

Ratu Ovini Bokini says there is concern that the military may also attempt to remove the president, Ratu Josefa Iloilo from his residence after Government House issued a statement which failed to approve the military take-over.

Ratu Ovini also says the GCC has called on all soldiers to "lay their arms down, return to barracks" and carry out their normal duties.

And, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Helen Clark, has again called on Fijian military officers to ask the commander, coup leader Frank Bainimirama, to step down.

She says the statements of opposition to Commodore Bainimirama's coup are telling.

He would have to be completely deaf not to hear the message. And I think there's an increasing level of hysteria in the tone of his voice. He knows people aren't playing ball. The Great Council of Chiefs won't play his game. And I thought the news about chiefs calling on members of the military from their districts to go home and desert him was very, very telling. Our message to the Fiji military is: remember your oath of allegiance. Will people within the force stand up to Commander Bainimarama and tell him his job is finished?

New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark.

But, Commodore Bainimarama warned that the military was prepared to use force against its opponents.

The military is trying to keep life as normal as possible and we will continue to try and keep it so. But should we be pushed to use force let me say: we shall do so very quickly. I regret that the military will suppress very quickly any uprising against us.

However, when soldiers forced the closure of the Senate yesterday, one Senator Adi Koila Nailatikau, expressed some sympathy for the military commander.

Adi Koila is the wife of Sir Epeli Nailatikau, who was the military commander when Sitiveni Rabuka staged a coup in 1987.

She is also the daughter of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who was the president sidelined in the Speight coup in 2000.

Adi Koila says the commander's concerns over controversial legislation has been falling on deaf ears.

I am sorry that this has happened... but it's not only the commander, but the public: there's been public outcries over the three bills. And this hasn't happened over the last two weeks, this has been happening throughout the year. This has been a peaceful transition.

She says the present coup cannot be compared to the 2000 coup, which was far worse.

In the latest developments, the military commander has also imposed a gagging order on the deposed prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, as he continues to claim he is the legitimate P.M.

Censorship is in place and comments that are deemed to incite resistance to the armed takeover are banned.

Radio New Zealand International's news editor, Walter Zweifel, reports from Suva.

The self-styled head of state, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has warned the prime minister he deposed this week not to make any comment to the media. Mr Qarase refused to resign and has maintained that he is the legitimate prime minister. Speaking in a Fijian language broadcast, Commodore Bainimarama has warned Mr Qarase that any breach of this instruction would see the military retaliate against the chief executive of the prime minister's office, Jioji Kotobalavu. Commodore Bainimarama says if he is defied the military will move Mr Kotobalavu from his current military custody to Nukulau island where George Speight is serving a life sentence for his role in the 2000 coup. The Commodore says there is no point in debating legalities and says Qarase and his cronies won't come back.

Meanwhile, cabinet ministers in Fiji's Qarase government are refusing to resign despite pressure from the military.

The Labour Party minister, Krishna Datt, says Mr Qarase is still the prime minister and they will wait for common sense to prevail.

Another Labour Party minister, Udit Narayan, is asking who the military commander is to ask him to resign.

Mr Narayan says he was appointed by President Iloilo and elected by the people, not by the military.

The minister for public utilities, Robin Irwin, says since the military takeover is illegal and unconstitutional, he will not resign while Ratu Meli Saukuru, the multi-ethnic affairs minister, says he will only resign if asked by President Iloilo or Mr Qarase.

The minister of state for housing, Adi Asenaca Caucau, says the people put her in office in a landslide victory, not the army, Mr Qarase is still her boss and she does no support any illegal takeover.

Adi Asenaca says she is still exercising her ministerial duties from an undisclosed destination.

There has also been swift international condemnation of the coup.

A United Nations judge, Geoffrey Robertson, has described it as "blatantly illegal" and called for Fijian soldiers to be barred from UN peacekeeping operations.

Mr Robertson, who successfully argued the case which declared the post-2000 coup interim government illegal, is backing the deposed prime minister, Laisenia Qarase.

He says Fijian soldiers can no longer be trusted to uphold democracy and the rule of law.

Overseas peacekeeping duties are an important source of income for the Fijian armed forces.

The African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries have also condemned the coup.

The ACP representatives, meeting ahead of a summit this week in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, made a

statement reminding Fiji of its commitments to democracy, and that there are peaceful ways to resolve differences.

A representative of Fiji briefed the ministers on the situation in the country.

The international rating agencies, Standard and Poors, and Moodys have put Fiji on negative credit watch as a result.

A Moodys' analyst, Steven Hess, says the agency is watching events in Fiji, and its population of more than 900-thousand makes it a significant regional economy.

He says the drop-off in tourism following the coup will add to Fiji's existing problems, such as the declining sugar and garment industries.

Meanwhile, the global bank Citicorp, says the continuing unrest means the next time Fiji's government goes to the market for money, the interest rates will be much higher.

Samoa's Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, says the Samoan government will not recognize any new government in Fiji that has not been set up with the legal processes under Fiji's Constitution.

Tuilaepa says the unconstitutional removal of the elected government is cause for grave concern.

Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, has expressed his deep regret.

Sir Michael says all legitimate governments in the region could not condone the actions of Fiji's military chief and he says the overthrow by the military of an elected government, whose mandate to govern and legislate is drawn from the people, must be condemned wherever and whenever it occurs.