28 Sep 2014

Fiji after military rule

From Insight, 8:12 am on 28 September 2014

In just over a week, Fiji’s parliament will sit for the first time since the military takeover in 2006.

Insight has been investigating what legacy nearly a decade of military rule has left behind and what challenges lie ahead.

Fiji's Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, sitts among soliders at thanksgiving service for release of UN peacekeepers.

Fiji's Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, at thanksgiving service for release of UN peacekeepers. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Listen to Insight - Fiji - Life After Military Rule

The Pacific nation's new parliament will be dominated by ruling party, Fiji First, which broadly represents the former regime of the now elected Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama.

Fiji First will occupy 32 of the 50 parliamentary seats, with 15 being held by the largely indigenous Fijian-backed, Sodelpa party. The last three will be held by the National Federation Party.

But the military legacy of the past eight years has flowed into the new democratic body. Nearly a quarter of all MPs were formerly in the military and the new Cabinet includes seven retired officers.

During the official events of the last week, the Prime Minister has told supporters that his government will run a sound and transparent administration.

But those hoping for change in direction and greater accountability with the sitting of parliament may be somewhat disheartened by Mr Bainimarama's response to questions about whether he was ready to work with the opposition:

“We're going to go in and talk about moving Fiji forward, with regards to our economy, bringing in investors - are they ready for that? We're going to build on our infrastructure ... all it takes is a lot of discipline, but there's really no big deal. You're going to meet up with the same group of liars I met during the campaign trail."

Pluses and Minuses

The former military regime was severely criticised by the international community over issues such as human rights abuses, lack of accountability and restrictions placed on the media.

But in the later years, it also worked on investment and development to counter the slump that followed the military takeover in 2006, made worse by the global financial crisis.

Tevita and young grandchildren in a room with a couple of mattresses on floor and clothes hanging on walls in their home in a squatter settlement in Suva

Tevita and grandchildren in their home in a squatter settlement in Suva Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

A very basic corrugated iron shack  in one of Suva's squatter settlements

A home in one of Suva's squatter settlements. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Father Kevin Barr works as a consultant for the People’s Community Network, a group that helps those living in squatter settlements. He acknowledges the popularity of some of the former regime's work, including free bus fares and school fees for the lowest earners and the increased of focus on education in the rural areas and on roads.

But Father Barr thinks the number of people struggling to make ends meet is worrying.

Father Kevin Barr an advocate for those in the Suva's squatter settlements in his office.

Father Kevin Barr, an advocate for those in Suva's squatter settlements. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

“It is not only those below the poverty line, but those just above it. If you take those into account  you’ve probably got two thirds of your population ... and for anyone just above the poverty line if something happens - death of a breadwinner or lack of employment ... down they go into poverty.”

Measures introduced during the past eight years, such as increase Value Added Tax and a devaluing of the dollar, have all hit those at the bottom of society hardest as the cost of food and basic supplies increase.

Businesses have been better supported with reductions in the company and top rates of tax. The  chief executive of  the Fiji Commerce and Employer Federation, Nisbett Hazleman, says investment has been growing and there are now about NZ$65 million in projects that had been waiting for the outcome of the elections that are now ready to start.

But even Mr Hazelman is calling for union suppression to be reduced so that they can play a role in the overall employment landscape and be a voice for those struggling to get by. He is looking forward to an environment where a parliamentary opposition can impose checks and balances on the government’s decision-making process.

Activists who have long spoken out about human rights abuse and the infringement of personal freedoms hope those check and balance might extend to reintroducing a human rights. But one of two independents who stood unsuccessfully in the election, Roshika Deo, fears the status quo will largely prevail. Any changes, she says, would require a range of decrees brought in under the military regime to be abandoned; a move unlikely by essentially the same administration that brought them in the first place.

Pro democracy banner in Suva

Pro democracy banner in Suva Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Fiji’s former Vice President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, who was also forced out of office in 2006 and is now the Chief Justice of Nauru, is a definite advocate of greater transparency and an appropriate system of government rather than the “arbitrary” regime that has been in power. He applauds the development work that has been done, but at the same time is worried by how much country may be in debt and the increased role and influence of China.  But his greatest wish post-election is for Fiji to move past the coup culture.

“I hope ... it learns to deal with issues and challenges not by ways of coups but by way of negotiations, by way of debate, by way of having elections that everyone accepts and moves on from there.”  

International Response

Young boy at home in Suva squatter camp

Young boy at home in Suva squatter camp Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Although such fears persist, the international community has signalled its acceptance of the vote for a democratically elected government. The Pacific Islands Forum, which excluded Fiji after the coup, described the election as marking a critical turning point for the nation and a ministerial contact group will now assess the situation with an eye to bring Fiji back into the fold.

Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, has made similarly supportive comments about the poll. The European Union's delegate to the Pacific says a return to full aid support for Fiji should happen within a few months following the elections.

Fiji's refurbished parliament, a stone building with clock tower at entrance

Fiji's refurbished parliament, Suva Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

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