7 Dec 2006

Opposition to Fiji military coup increasing

5:45 pm on 7 December 2006

Commodore Frank Bainimarama's Fiji coup seems to be making slow progress.

The Great Council of Chiefs refuses to recognise the military takeover, church groups have come out in opposition, and a series of ministers insist that they will not resign.

Some are even discussing how Commander Bainimarama might be offered a way out of the present situation.

James Thomson reports.

Fiji's highest traditional authority, the Great Council of Chiefs, dealt a blow to the coup by refusing to recognize the military's takover of power.

The Council's chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini says it only recognises Ratu Josefa Iloilo as the president, and Laisenia Qarase as the legitimate prime minister.

There's concern that the new regime may remove Ratu Josefa after Government House issued a statement which failed to approve the military take-over.

Yesterday, the military removed the Vice President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, from his office and then from his residence.

The head of the Council of Chiefs, Ratu Ovini Bokini, told Radio Legend that this 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."

Speaking from Wellington, New Zealand's Prime Minister backed the Chiefs' stand.

Helen Clark repeated her appeal to the Fijian military to persuade their commander to step down..

She suggested the mounting pressure on Commodore Bainimirama's coup is having an effect.

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 Bainimirama and tell him his job is finished?

At the same time, the leader of the Fijian Anglican church, Archbishop Jabez Bryce, has come out against the coup, saying there is support for the rule of law and for democracy.

And Fiji's judiciary says the country's courts will remain open despite the military coup.

In a statement, the chief Justice, Daniel Fatiaki, said Fiji's judges will stand by their oaths to uphold the constitution.

A courts official, acting Chief Registrar Emosi (ee-moy-see) Koroi, set out the judges' position.

The position of the judiciary remains as usual, and that is just to uphold the rule of law. At the moment our stand is that the courts are open and will always remain open, unless and until the constitution goes down. If the constitution goes, then there's no courts.

He says that so far there has been no attempt by the military to hinder the working of the courts, which are continuing to hear cases - including the ongoing trial of former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka.

Laisenia Qarase's cabinet, dismissed two days ago by the regime, is refusing to resign.

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

The Labour Party minister, Krishna Datt, also says he won't resign and is still in office, despite coup-leader Frank Bainimarama's announcement on Tuesday that all ministers had been sacked.

I was sworn in by the President and and I have to wait till I hear from the President. And so long as he is there - and from what I can gather the president is very much there - and the Prime Minister Qaarase is still asserting that he is the prime minister, [and] the Council of Chiefs obviously recognises both the institutions and the individuals involved... I see no reason to to give up!

Mr Datt is calling on Australia and New Zealand to initiate new talks to end the coup in Fiji.

He thinks Commodore Bainimarama has no support, but needs to be offered a way out if the the current crisis is to be resolved.

He says if Pacific Forum countries become engaged, the commander might back down.

There's still possibilities for a peaceful solution. I think people need to talk first, need to be willing to engage themeselves in discussions.

And this is where the authorities outside, the Forum leaders, the Australian leaders, the New Zealand leaders could initiate that kind of discussion. You cannot just hold one discussion forum and give up.

An expert on Fijian politics says the relatively non-violent nature of coups there might offer Commodore Bainimarama some consolation if the coup fails.

Jon Fraenkel, who's an associate professor of governance at the University of the South Pacific University in Suva, suggests that's just as well - given the military's remarkable naivety about how to run a government.

Fortunately, Fiji's coups don't tend to involve enomous loss of life and that gives them their peculiar character and their uncertainty and their lack of complete determination, in the sense that in many other parts of the world noone would mount a coup unless thay already had in place a plausible interim administration. So they're not events that are life and death situations. In that sense the commander can step down without risk of loss of life.

But Jon Fraenkel warns that the coup is unlikely to be resolved by army officers, given that the Commander has had plenty of time at the head of the military to install loyal officers.

In the meantime, he says, Fiji will suffer severe economic effects as the coup damages tourism and other commercial activity.