06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup

  1. 01. Fiji…Again?
  2. 02. Fun & Games
  3. 03. Growing Indigenation
  4. 04. Coup de Grâce?
  5. 05. Friends Go Away
  6. 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
  7. 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
  8. 08. Walk Like A Man
  9. 09. Extreme Retirement
  10. 10. Get a Grip
  11. 11. Dangerous Cargo
  12. 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
  13. 13. Fit for Purpose
  14. 14. Emotion Sickness
  15. 15. New Fiji’s Eve
  16. 16. One Helluva Christmas
  17. 17. Enough is Enough

Despite my inclinations to the contrary, I awoke in Suva.

Now what? My instinct was to run, and if possible, to run in an away-wardly direction. Then I recalled I had been denied a tour of Fiji’s Parliament back in 1999, when the tour setter-upperer at the now-defunct Crusoe’s Retreat had made a token, at best, attempt to arrange such a tour for us. Now, here I was, in Suva, the very seat of power and influence. My perverse interest in touring this country’s contrarian democracy could be addressed through mere identification and ambulation (that is, I had to find out where Parliament was, and walk there).

It was Sunday 14 October 2012 in the stark but spacious and comfortable temporary quarters of our friends Clara McGill and Aydell Thyme.

“Where’s Parliament?” I enquired of Aydell. Mr. Thyme took his time considering my question, peering over his drooping spectacles with a sideways glance, determining at long last he had no idea what I was asking.

“Do you mean the Great Council of Chiefs? That’s gone. You’re aware there was, um, a coup some years back?”

I was aware.

Rear Admiral (Rtd) Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, CF, MSD, OStJ, Fijian Navy, was almost six years into his second coup. Having served as Commander of the Fijian Military Forces since 1999, he liked to be called “The Commodore” because, well, who likes to be called Rear Admiral? (See my previous posting, 05. Friends Go Away, in which I refer to The Commodore as “Bahnee”).

When George Speight took parliament hostage in 2000, The Commodore found George’s approach highly inappropriate. The facts are confused and uncertain, but for story-telling purposes, The Commodore stepped in, allowing an innocuous and incompetent but impressivelyIMG_3479 corrupt government to be elected by the people it chose to allow to vote. They ruled with malice towards none who would line their pockets from 2000 and 2006. In December of 2006, The Commodore had had enough (again), this time stepping in as Prime Minister himself.

As a result, when we headed out for a trot on this oppressively humid Suva morning, there was no active Parliament to jog past, nor even an active Great Council of Chiefs, as history had passed first. Aydell provided a route that traversed the perimeter of the former parliamentary compound where furious George had held court at gunpoint. It appeared abandoned and unguarded, albeit well-fortified. The faux-thatched apex of its massive pyramid roof loomed lonely and peaked in the distance.

From there, we enjoyed a long downward slope, a feature common to both Fiji’s geography and politics. Sidewalks are something of a IMG_3495novelty in Fiji, so we were dodging school-bound children and their buses, the buses more difficult and important to dodge. Every child and driver shouted “Bula!” with genuine enthusiasm, although the cry of “Bula” (literally translated as “Life”) coming from a bus that brushes past you might be taken as more of a warning than a greeting.

The sea came into view over a soccer pitch where a dozen players from the Fiji Corrections Service practiced. The route brought us OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAback into central Suva along a seawall. On one side was a road and a footpath with a well-manicured nature strip being tended by several municipal workers meticulously sweeping up every scrap of litter and trimming every disorderly growth of flora. On the other side were the mud flats, underwater at high tide, but at the moment the mud reached to the distant coral reef, inundated only with rubbish and debris. A depressingly large amount of the rubbish hailed from McDonald’s, an enduring symbol of America’s waning influence in Fiji.

After The Commodore’s 2006 coup, the USA the UK governments (amongst others, including Australia’s) distanced themselves from Fiji, imposing sanctions to encourage a return to democratic rule. This was rather ironic considering the Brits ran the place as an imperial colony for just shy of a hundred years (1874 to 1970), having been invited to do so in the first place by a Fijian king who feared an impending American military invasion. The first and perhaps second coup of 1987 deposed Queen Elizabeth II, although her mug still is on the money, oddly enough.

As our foreshore jog continued, the new Chinese Embassy presented itself, with a massive expansion project underway. The Chinese government, by contrast, has been less concerned by the finer points of democracy, taking advantage of the situation. The increased Chinese presence and influence in Fiji is obvious, with their massive sea-going vessels of uncertain functionality, possibly military, presenting themselves regularly in port. Huge investments have followed, in roads and other infrastructure, run by Chinese companies using Chinese technology. The Chinese Embassy is merely the tip of the iceberg.

IMG_3385One needn’t spend a lot of time staring at a map of the Pacific to discern Fiji’s strategic importance to the region. It seems pretty certain that western powers will never again exert an economic or military monopoly such as they’ve enjoyed for the past century. That is probably a good thing.

Next on our trotting tour of the shuttered halls of once semi-democratic institutions was the former Great Council of Chiefs. It was a surprisingly common looking complex. It could easily be converted into a strip mall of Floridian calibre, with storefront churches abutting two-dollar shops competing for the life savings and small change of their respective gullibOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAle flocks.

The Government House compound followed, abuzz with guards in garb both ceremonial and fatigued. Inside was The Commodore, perhaps revising the constitution once again.

The most problematic constitutional issue for Fiji has been the status of the Indians, many descendant of those that the Brits imported generations ago for labour. The native Fijians (or Itaukei) had a pretty good thing going, as nature provided plentiful food and water that could be had almost effortlessly, as well as a generally agreeable climate, cyclones only occasionally wreaking havoc. As you might expect, they were not thrilled with the suggestion that they should toil in the sugar cane fields and factories.

Few peoples understand such disinterest in actual labour better than the Brits. They brought in the Indians, and plenty of them, some of whom would have found such toil a significant improvement on their previous life. This worked out just fine until the Indo-Fijians were unceremoniously abandoned by the Brits under the guise of granting Fiji independence in 1970. Since then the industrious Indo-Fijians have run afoul of Itaukei (native Fijian) tradition by increasingly running things.

This is the genesis of the ongoing constitutional kerfuffle: The Itaukei have maintained a majority and control of things, not least by inspiring Indo-Fijians to flee with anti-democratic changes in government, including periodic coups. Yet, there are enough Itaukei who will vote with the Indo-Fijian parties to swing the majority the other way, presumably because they want to get stuff done.

When it comes to getting stuff done, though, most Fijians give The Commodore high marks. Since 2006 the roads have improved markedly, corruption decreased substantially, and a host of other improvements have most Fijians praising his efforts. It is praise for an apparently benevolent dictator, but a dictator nevertheless. Even so, there can be little doubt that government has performed better under his iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove than it did under the open-pockets-in-a-kava-induced-coma government that faffed about before him.

In 2012, The Commodore had commenced a constitutional consultative process, with the singular requirement that the resulting constitution would provide for “one person, one vote, one value”. Predictably this resulted in all sorts of issue-dodging tactics being proposed, one of the more popular being to declare Fiji a “Christian nation” – with obvious negative implications for the rights of the Indo-Fijians.

As we jogged past Government House, inside was a pro-democratic dictator battling his active and influential anti-democratic people. Democracy may or may not be the best form of government, or as Winston Churchill said “…democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried …” There is but one certainty: Democracy is not easy.

We turned the corner to head up the hill back towards our Duncan Road abode. On our left was the final tourist sight of our saunter, Albert Park, once the hub of colonial life in Fiji, and now a cricket IMG_3501oval with various other dreary sports facilities. In 1928 it was cleared of its palm trees in a hurry when Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (after whom Sydney’s airport is named) sent word ahead that he’d need a place to land. On that historic inaugural trans-Pacific passage, his was the first aeroplane ever to land on Fiji.

IMG_3531Across Albert Park stood the handsome art deco buildings of the Fijian courts. Originally built in the 1930’s as Fiji’s Government Buildings, they also served as Fiji’s first parliament prior to the 1987 coup.

For a short run, there was a lot of recouping to be done.


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