13 Jul 2012

Skepticism as Fiji consultation process begins

3:40 pm on 13 July 2012

The body set up in Fiji to gauge views on the country's new constitution paving the way for elections promised for 2014, met for the first time in Suva this week, but many groups say the current environment won't allow people to express their ideas.

They question how the Constitution Consultation Commission set to travel throughout the country to hear public views, will in fact hear them, when permits are required to hold gatherings and the police will have a presence.

Bridget Tunnicliffe reports:

15 members and supporters of the Fiji Labour Party were arrested late at night by Police this week for allegedly holding a political meeting without a permit but have been released without charge.

The Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry says they were in a private residence, just having a discussion.

He questions how the country can progress towards elections when people can't meet and speak their minds.

"This is nothing but intimidation and they're going to silence all critics I suppose they perceive as their opposition. But it just shows that Fiji is getting to be a police state and there is no freedom of association and expression."

The Paramount Chief of Rewa province says her people's ability to contribute to the new constitution will be severely limited by their inability to meet.

Last year the interim government suspended the Rewa provincial council meetings after Ro Teimumu Kepa, who holds the Roko Tui Dreketi title, delivered a speech reiterating the council did not support the Bainimarama regime.

Ro Teimumu says they will apply for a permit for a meeting through the Public Order Amendment Decree, but says there's no guarantees they'll be issued one and says people will still be nervous.

People are still very worried, you know you might call meetings but they will always ask you 'do you have a permit?' and sometimes we do not know whether we are going to have a permit up until the last day and whether we have a police presence there because when they see the police they fear that whatever they say might be reported and something might happen.

Ro Teimumu says the council has asked for the Public Order Amendment Decree to be relaxed or dropped.

The head of the Citizen Constitutional Forum, Reverend Akuila Yabaki, says it's also urging the interim government to drop the Decree, so people can fully participate in the constitutional process.

But Rev Yabaki says he's optimistic that the interests of the people will be at the heart of the five-member Commission.

And I've had conversations with them in the last few days again. I'm sure they will be committed to see that the process is full and proper, proper participation. I think individually they are people who have great interest to move Fiji in that direction. I'm sure their hearts are in the right place.

Rev Yabaki says in the long-term there needs to be a reconciliation process where victims of the regime can speak openly, so now is the time to lay that foundation.

There are victims who are still around and there needs to be a space where the reconciliation process can take place and only then can you have an authentic voice. We do have unfinished business of the past and it's about listening where people can speak their hearts and mind.

Attempts to get comment from the Constitution Commission have been unsuccessful.