6 Dec 2013

Seven years since Fiji's last coup

5:47 pm on 6 December 2013

Seven years have passed since the Fiji military seized power in a coup that ousted the government led by Laisenia Qarase.

The regime's first interim prime minister, Joni Senilagakali, admitted the take-over in December 2006 was illegal but he said it was to clean up the mess of the much bigger illegal activity of the previous government.

Brij Lal, who co-authored Fiji's 1997 constitution, is an Australia-based historian who was deported from Fiji in 2009.

Mary Baines asked Professor Lal how successful the military has been in rooting out corruption, which was a reason given to justify the coup.

BRIJ LAL: There's no question in my mind that there was a lot of corruption in Fiji. It was becoming a way of life. But I don't think he believes that. I don't think anyone in Fiji believes that corruption has been checked. If you look at the situation objectively the same sort of things that happened in the previous governments have been happening under this government - mismanagement, abuse of office, politics of patronage... How many people have been prosecuted for massive abuse of confidence of trust of the people? Very few. It has been able to consolidate its power, its position through a number of means - decrees, which have silenced opposition and criticism, through media censorship and through human rights violations. There is no effective opposition in the country for a variety of reasons. And the most important thing, of course, is the determination of the regime to remain in power. I think elections will take place. Of that I really don't have much doubt. The real question in my mind is what kind of elections? Will they be free and fair? Now, the Commodore has said that he will form a political party. When and how we are uncertain about at this stage. The question, really, in my mind is if in a free and fair election, if his party, when it is formed, loses the election, will the military then simply hand over power to a newly elected government and retreat to the barracks or will it say that people have made the wrong choice, our mission is not complete and we will simply go on? The military's own record is not one that gives confidence, but we'll just have to wait and see.

MARY BAINES: What sort of influence do you foresee the regime will retain after the election, regardless of whether they're elected in or not?

BRIJ LAL: This is the question. The truth is that soldiers, once out of the barracks, do not easily return to their customary role. They've tasted power, they have found a new sense of identity and purpose. It would be very difficult for them to relinquish power. The way the constitution is drafted, the one that is in existence at the moment, it places executive power in the hands of the prime minister and the attorney general. It really strips the parliament of its very important functions. For example, the position of the leader of the opposition is really a very minor one. So I think what you'll have is a kind of facade of democracy.

MB: Seven years on, how well accepted is the regime by the people?

BL: It's very difficult, really, to know what is happening in the country, what people think. Because people are afraid to express their opinions. The true test will come in a free and fair election promise for next year to see precisely what people think.