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Fiji benefits from Australian 'appeasement lobby'

Victor LalVICTOR LAL | The Strategist | Australian Strategic Policy Institute

AUSTRALIAN POLICY ON FIJI is shifting to appeasement in ways that will gladden the military regime and sadden Fijians.

What might be called the Bainimarama appeasement lobby—broadly speaking a group of academics and journalists who have never lived under the Fiji dictatorship—make valid points about Australia’s interests.

But they are necessarily made from the viewpoint of a comfortable and calm Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu or Auckland suburb without recourse to public opinion and conditions in Fiji.

Their position is well summed up by The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, in a recent column on the Australian foreign minister’s increasingly warm approach to the regime:

Carr was right on the substance and in the larger strategic picture. It would do the Fijian people no good at all to isolate Fiji, to send it into the arms of China, to destroy its economy, to further polarise and radicalise its society.

The government there has done a lot of undemocratic things and these deserve to be criticised, but on the international scale of human rights abuses it is at the absolute gentlest end of the spectrum.

This is the view that rights and freedoms can be partially abused—that Bainimarama has done some bad things but these are at ‘absolutely the gentlest end of the spectrum’.

He hasn’t killed many people. He has tortured only a few compared to other dictators. Further, the appeasers ask, what is the point of further dividing Fiji and driving it even closer to Beijing?

This view finds little support in Fiji itself. It ignores the fact that all of the above—and much more than that—are being implemented by a self-appointed regime estranged from its people and without mandate. Like the United States, the appeasement lobby, understandably perhaps, confuses ‘the Fijian people’ with the group of thugs that purports to govern them.

And while it would be unreasonable to expect them to have read or even glanced at the 7,000 submissions to the Ghai Commission which display the nearly total absence of public support for the illegal regime, they would benefit from a deeper understanding of conditions there before offering a view. Such an understanding will not be gained from occasional, carefully shepherded visits.

The Bainimarama regime, in fact, is not representative of anyone but the military leader and a handful of cronies. But they have the guns. So the notion that Australia is taking a hard-nosed pragmatic approach that will serve Australia’s national interest is deeply—probably fatally—flawed.

The presence of China in Fiji and the Pacific is seized on by the appeasement lobby to justify a softer line on Bainimarama. The argument, also seen in comments from the US State Department, goes that there needs to be a counterbalance to China’s growing presence in the islands region and that counterweight can only be provided by the United States.

China’s influence on Fiji in particular needs to be addressed by giving Bainimarama at least some of the international respectability he so badly craves in order to bring Fiji back into the Western camp.

In fact, the truth is almost diametrically opposite to that reading. The United States, not for the first time in the Pacific, has misinterpreted the situation by assuming that governments reflect public opinion.

Thus, there is neither understanding nor even knowledge of the anger that exists in Suva, Apia, Post Moresby and Lae (to name only a few) at the rapidly expanding Chinese presence in both the licit and illicit business sectors normally thought to be the preserve of the local populations.

The region has seen what can happen if this is not addressed—and chumming up to Bainimarama will, if anything, encourage it.

Regional political leaders, too, cheer on the US in its thinking at every opportunity, for they would like nothing better than an aid war between America and China. Indeed, many of them were ‘playing the Russia card’ in the Cold War years when most of the junior American planners responsible for the Pacific were still in school.

So to fear, as the appeasers do, that any further isolation would drive Fiji into the arms of China is to state what has happened as opposed to what could happen. And this had nothing whatsoever to do with Australian policy.

But, again, the people of Fiji—who still hold Australia in very high regard and still look there for understanding and support—are deeply resentful of China’s activities. They fear the (unknown) level of debt to China. They detest China’s use of its own labour and materials on projects that have not always delivered what they promised. And they object to China’s treatment of local labour on the few occasions when it is employed.

They are very worried and increasingly resentful about the Chinese presence and cannot understand why, in their view at least, Australia is now sucking up to a regime that encourages China. They feel abandoned by Australia and are deeply perplexed by this.

Victor Lal is an Oxford-based academic researcher and is a former Fiji journalist and human rights activist. He is the author of ‘Fiji: Coups in Paradise-Race, Politics and Military Intervention’


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David Kitchnoge

Very interesting viewpoints indeed.

I don't know where the truth is in respect of the Fijian situation. But one thing is for sure: that someone is telling a lot of lies to themselves first and then to us.

We in PNG now have a very good Commerce and Trade Minister who is working hard to sow the seeds of Chinese resistance.

Hon Richard Maru is fighting hard to empower ordinary PNGans to venture into small businesses and to reclaim lost territory.

What that means to US and its allies, including Australia, is that Chinese scare mongering won't cut it any longer with us.

There's better be another strategy than China.

Jito Vanualailai

In the history of any developed country, harmony followed a period of self-searching; a period of trying to understand one's self, one's soul, one's identity.

When the British left us on our own in 1970, the period of growing up was suddenly thrust upon us. We looked around at the new world and tried to understand the environment.

Indigenous Fijians saw Indo-Fijians in a new light and vice-versa, in the quest for leadership left vacant by the British.

Different racial groups - Part-Europeans, Rotumans, i-Kiribati, Solomon Islanders and other Pacific islanders who were brought in by the British for one reason or another were also trying hard to find where they could fit in the racial cauldron.

The political setup made things worse. In several seats, Fijians could only vote for Fijians; Indians for Indians; Generals for Generals - these are the names given to non-Fijians and non-Indians!

The setup promoted racial and ethnic divisions. Fijian chiefs liked to maintain their power by relying on the submissive and passive nature of their people. The pastors preached racial supremacy at the pulpit.

And thus we Fijians lived in such an nasty undemocratic environment since 1970. The nasty environment manifested itself in the 1959 racial riot and in the first coup in 1987. Yes, we had trouble even before Rabuka knew he was a strongman. We know the rest of the story.

Under the Bainimarama regime, for the first time ever we Fijians who live in Fiji have the opportunity to get rid of this undemocratic constraining environment. For the first time ever, we will cast our vote in 2014 not on racial grounds but on knowing who can do the work.

We have seen the many improvements that the Bainimarama regime has brought - from bridges built in the rural areas, to bridges being fixed in the urban areas, to scholarships provided to as many Fijians as possible.

And by the way, the word "Fijian" now means each and every Fiji Islander, and not the i-Taukei only. Schools with vernacular names have been changed; and political party with vernacular names have been removed.

Pot holes are being fixed, and roads coal tar-sealed. Small things, like improved bus ticketing, that matter to us in our daily lives are being looked into.

At this point in time, these and our daily bread are more important to us than our political rights which had destroyed Fiji in the past!

We are trying to build a better world for us, and this is the only opportunity when we can do that. We prefer to do it the Bainimarawa way than mimicking the bloody revolutions being witnessed in other countries.

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