There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence from around the world that coups d’état have a peculiar habit of turning into operas bouffes, sooner or later. The recent political events in Fiji have not been subject to frenzied coverage in the Australian media. But in a significant development, tantamount to averting another potential coup (or a ‘virtual internet coup’ per David Robie of Café Pacific), the third and fourth highest ranking officers in Fiji’s armed forces faced the serious charge of sedition involving an alleged plot to overthrow the Bainimarama regime, which had usurped power on 5 December 2006 by executing the country’s fourth coup, after Rabuka’s first let the mischievous coup genie out the bottle in May 1987.

The signs of simmering tensions within the military first emerged in February 2011 when a new Land Forces Commander was appointed and the former Land Forces Commander Brigadier-General Pita Driti and the former Commander of Third Infantry Regiment Lieutenant-Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara were granted indefinite leave because they were under suspicion of conspiring to overthrow the regime. In terms of a subsequent inquiry both were charged and they appeared in a Suva Magistrates court on 4 May 2011 but both were released on bail by the Magistrate, despite being warned by the State Prosecutor that they represented a flight risk. The former was scheduled to reappear in court on 1 June and the latter on 30 May. However, allegedly in a pre-arranged high level intervention with the full knowledge of Tongan Prime Minister and the King, George Tupou V, a Tongan naval vessel[1] Voea Savea, ostensibly in responding to a distress signal, picked up (or ‘extracted’) Tevita Mara when he came a cropper fishing inside Fiji waters – South of Ono-i-Lau Islands which is some 365 kilometers from Tonga. He was taken to Tongan capital, Nuku`alofa, where he remained ensconced as an honored guest of the royal household, which has kinship ties with the Mara family. Not surprisingly, this blatant invasion of and disregard for Fiji’s territorial sovereignty caused a veritable storm in Fiji’s political kava bowl, but they also raised a number of questions which do not make complete sense, if we accept the version of events as related by Tevita Mara and the Tongan authorities.

Why no such signal was picked by Fiji or NZ monitoring authorities? What was a Tongan naval ship doing inside Fiji territorial waters? It is all too convenient to say that it happened to be nearby for if it was a genuine rescue then why was Mara taken to Tonga instead of the nearest Fijian port? Why weren’t Fijian authorities notified? How do we explain Mara’s stay the day before his departure at the Nagigia Island Resort in Kadavu? The resort staff confirmed his overnight stay in Bure No. 8 to the FBC News, as did the chef who prepared meals for him. They confirmed that he arrived on 8 June between 7 and 8 pm, accompanied by a white man (later identified as Risto Harmat, an Estonian national living in Fiji who was charged on 27 May 2011 with one count of obstruction of justice and for, allegedly, assisting Tevita Mara escape from Fiji to Tonga).[2] On the morning of 9 June 2011 a resort worker, Apisai Bolatuku, allegedly took both men in a boat to their speed boat, which was anchored away from the resort. He confirmed the two men were seen fishing for about 2 to 3 hours before they left the area. On the same day between the hours of 11 am and 2 pm, a villager from Nabukelevu-i-ra, Sevuloni Busa, advised FBC News that he and nine other fishermen sighted and communicated with the Tongan naval ship near Kadavu. The two men were allegedly picked up by the Tongan ship, Voea Savea, late that afternoon. Other questions also arise: Could Australia and NZ have known about the unfolding events? Were they complicit in any way given their fractious relationship with the Bainimarama regime? Was the absconding arranged as part of a deeper or more sinister strategy to destabilize the regime?

Although there is no credible evidence, one thesis is that given the failure of the Australasian policy against the regime, by creating the incident and fomenting dissent it was in the interest of the regional powers to seize the opportunity in order to erode domestic support for the regime. The best way to achieve this is to make the ruling junta appear incompetent, conflict-ridden and lacking in control. The critical support from the Mara/Ganilau clan for the regime was already under strain after the resignation of Ratu Epeli Ganilau due to the regime’s rejection of demands by Fiji Water for tax concessions and the internal dissent following the appointment of Ratu Nailatikau as the President (both men are Tevita Mara’s brother-in-laws). The defection of Tevita Mara has serious implications for the Military Council that runs Fiji and its relationship with two powerful chiefly clans whose patronage gives legitimacy to the regime and provides a sense that it has acceptance within the establishment. By demonstrating disharmony at the upper echelon of the armed forces the detractors of the regime may well have intended to reinforce the perception that the regime’s hold on power was tenuous.

The plausibility of this theory is further enhanced after what appears to be an indirect Australasian intervention into the dispute between Tonga and Fiji. Fiji had lodged an application on 23 May 2011 with the Tongan authorities to extradite Mara to face existing charges plus he would have had new charges of absconding and violating bail conditions. With the protection of Tongan Royal household and sections of sympathetic media in Australia and NZ, he became emboldened to a point where some of his utterances became increasingly provocative and mocking of the regime and its key operatives – especially the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General. He appeared to flout Fiji’s ability to extradite him, given that its 1997 Constitution remains suspended and Mara questioned the legitimacy and power of an illegal regime to extradite him – ironically a regime he helped install in 2006 as a coup-plotter and a vigilante. He even suggested he was unlikely to get a fair trial in Fiji,[3] and thus, by undermining the independence and legitimacy of Fiji’s judiciary, his comments came perilously close to being in contempt of the courts.

From the safety of his Tongan hideout, he urged the regional powers to ‘use more force to bring this regime down’. He described Bainimarama as ‘morally and intellectually bankrupt’, a ‘coward’ and a ‘puppet’ of his Attorney-General, whom he blamed as ‘the sole architect (emphasis added) of the cruelties which have sadly become common in our daily life.’[4] However, this vitriol against his former colleagues lacks credibility because he comes across as someone seeking special privileges – one who thinks he is above the law and one who has suddenly realized the error of his ways. We have heard all of this from past coup-plotters and all variety of perpetrators of heinous crimes against the state, who have variously claimed to experience some form of an epiphany, and overnight were mysteriously transformed into libertarians and firm

believers in democratic traditions. His self-exoneration and the shifting of blame to others are particularly irritating so as to leave even the most cynical amongst us, flabbergasted. Of course, all coup-plotters in Fiji claim to be innocent people who break no laws; they morph into biblically-inspired Moses, or saviors of the indigenous Fijians and revered liberators of their ‘oppressed’ people. But their constant incapacity for self-introspection still leaves one dumbfounded, to say the least.

In a pre-emptive move and a remarkable piece of diplomatic sophistry, Mara was removed from the list of banned people associated with the regime, enabling him to enter Australia on 9 June, on a passport issued by Tonga. He was to launch an international campaign at a pro-democracy rally, on 11 June 2011, in Queanbeyan – near Canberra. Not to be outdone, against the advice of NZ activists for the ‘Coalition for Democracy in Fiji’, the NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully announced, on 13 June, that he would grant Mara an exemption from similar NZ travel ban, imposed on persons linked to the regime, so he could also visit NZ for two days. The special exemption on the pretext of accessing any sensitive information he may possess, hardly provides consistency or credibility to the much-needed Australian/NZ efforts at diplomatically engaging with Fiji. If it was a ‘bilateral issue’ between Fiji and Tonga, as claimed, then why would Australia and NZ even entertain the possibility of granting political asylum to a fugitive? He already had sought asylum in Tonga and had been granted protection and a Tongan passport.

Accordingly, it is disappointing that the two regional powers, yet again, failed to seize this opportunity to repair their strained relationship with Fiji. The attempted resurrection of this former confidante of Bainimarama, who was also implicated in the 2000 coup (as was his father in the first coup in 1987) and the efforts by Fiji Democracy Freedom Movement[5] to make him a rallying point, defy logic. Mara has been tarnished in helping wind back Fiji’s pre-coup democratic traditions; he is an anti-loyalist, a serial coup-conspirator and an agitator, a coup-plotter, a political opportunist, a fugitive and a bail absconder. He lacks credibility and his presumed dubious mana comes from his tainted family name – hardly the qualities one would seek in a symbolic figurehead for mounting genuine resistance against the Bainimarama regime.

Mara now wants to position himself as another reformed leading light ‘to return freedom to my people’ and ‘campaign for a quick return of democratic governance in Fiji.’[6] He holds the hope of achieving this with the support of the opponents of the regime by undertaking a tour of Australia, NZ, Pacific nations and visiting New York to lobby the UN. This sense of arrogant self-righteousness is both disturbing and risible, and the regional powers would be well advised to rethink the adverse consequences of their own disregard for the laws of Pacific island countries, whom they constantly hector and moralize to respect the democratic ethos of inter-state relations and the rule of law.

The restoration of democratic rule in Fiji and good governance will only come about if there is a thorough review of the suspended constitution, the reform of its anachronistic institutions, its bureaucracy, its electoral system and a debilitating landholding structure which suffocates economic development, and the gradual liberation of the indigenous masses. The regional powers can make a significant contribution to bringing about desperately-needed reforms. But this can only occur through constructive engagement with Fiji. Any attempt to replace the current regime with a more compliant one without undertaking critical reforms will not solve Fiji’s internal crisis nor will it provide long term stability and protect our regional interests.

Dr. Gopal Nair is an independent commentator and writer based in Sydney. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not in any way represent the views of the publisher(s). Sydney, 14 June 2011.

Notes:

[1] One of the 22 Pacific Patrol Boats built and gifted by Australia to 12 Pacific nations between 1987 and 1997 under Australia’s Defense Cooperation Program. Fiji and Tonga received three vessels each.

[2] Two New Zealanders under suspicion were interviewed and released. They were Tim McBride, a surfing instructor married to Adi Koila Ganilau, who is a niece of Tevita Mara, and the former head of Fiji Water Authority, Anthony Fullman, whose passport was confiscated (NZTV One News, 22 May 2011).

[3] Fiji’s Solicitor-General, Christopher Pryde, who is a former NZ lawyer from Christchurch, rejected Mara’s claims that he would not get a fair trial in Fiji. He stressed there was no government interference in judicial processes.

[4] Michael Field, Mutiny Fiji soldier rescued by Tonga, , viewed 6 June 2011. It is interesting that it took him four and half years to realize this but only after he was charged for a seditious crime.

[5] Headed by the former Acting Land Force Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka, and a vocal opponent of the Fiji regime. He migrated to Australia after he was dismissed by Bainimarama for insubordination.

[6] See SMH, 9 June 2011, Fiji threatens Canberra for granting visa, Tamara McLean, AAP South Pacific correspondent.