When I first sighted Kathy Marks’s weighty article titled “Bula bully?” (see Good Weekend Section of the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 2014), I was quite excited. Interspersed with no less than six large snapshots, at a cursory glance, it seemed to convey a balanced view of the events leading to the elections on 17 September, and the challenges faced by Fiji as it makes yet another transition to democratic governance.
For the uninitiated, Kathy has written some illuminating pieces on Fiji since 1987. But on closer examination, this analysis seems to fall victim to its own hubris and reinforces the overworked refrain that foreign commentators, despite their best intentions, often fail to appreciate not only the historical context which sowed the seeds of discord in Fiji, but, more so, the subtle nuances of a conflicted, multi-ethnic society. The readers can make their own minds about the timing, but the contents leave much to be desired. There is not a great deal in the piece that we haven’t heard, but her perceptions bring to mind the all-too-familiar observations of external observers, seemingly unable to reconcile with the fact that there is genuine desire amongst all Fiji people to find internal solutions to their complex problems. A necessary first step is to put an end to a culture of coups. How many times have they tasted brief interludes of euphoria, only to their hopes dashed? Kathy is an award-winning journalist with more than a fleeting acquaintance with the problems faced by many Pacific island countries. So, what was the motivation for the hatchet job?
Why the name-calling, hectoring tone and condescending attitudes towards the incumbent leadership and their home-grown solutions (albeit far from perfect)? Is she disseminating useful ideas that can help heal the psychic wounds of the past and aid in establishing much-needed rapprochement or is she responding to the lack of press freedom and associated outrage for its own sake, rather than for the sake of seeking truth? And, how do her observations assist the people of Fiji in overcoming the debilitating upheavals they have hitherto experienced?
These questions arise, not because of some perverse desire to attack her insights but, rather, to stress the obvious point that Fiji finds itself, yet again, at a crossroads and state and non-state actors including commentators, overly fixated on press freedom and human rights, also have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to help return the country to democratic rule, and restore the kind of normalcy that the ‘civilized’ Western world keep telling us it is so keen to see in Fiji. Criticisms are fine, but it would be so much better to have alternative solutions as well. After all, there was no apparent restriction on her ability to move freely, talk to anyone she wished to and report on whatever she had witnessed. In using the tropes of her language as in ‘this superficially enchanting country’ which is ‘already an international pariah’, at a crucial time for healing and constructive engagement, it is somehow acceptable to refer to the interim Prime Minister as a ‘military dictator’, ‘the dictator’, ‘mercurial leader’ and an ‘affable showman’; an easy target heading ‘a regime accused of trampling human rights and brutalising its citizens’. It is also unfortunate that one finds a degree of mockery in her observations on some aspects of iTaukei customs, but by producing compelling evidence in relation to six cases of abuse of power she redeems herself.
They highlight aspects of the regime’s underbelly that it may not want us to fully scrutinize. Despite that, by speculating on rumours, likely corrupt practices and cronyism she opens a can of worms, especially when there is insufficient compelling evidence to back such claims. Also, one has to wonder, if any foreign journalist would ask ever Australian or NZ Prime Ministers to reveal their salaries. Sure, it is spurious to suggest other coup leaders were equally repressive and trampled on human rights, and the Attorney General’s tu quoque argument (“you do it too”) of what happens in Australia or elsewhere is, at best, a farcical defense of the indefensible. But all coups are equally bad, and once you accept any dictatorship (China, Thailand, Cuba, Myanmar, and North Korea, to name a few) you lose moral
high ground if you apply differing standards of acceptable conduct, bearing in mind that western economic priorities mostly determine the complexion of inter-state relations. To state the obvious, it is easier to bully smaller nations into submission; powerful nations have far more leverage to thumb their noses. The gentle treatment of ‘the charismatic colonel’ who destroyed Fiji’s future, a genuine fox who still claims to be guarding the henhouse, is also perplexing but not entirely surprising – given the way he was feted after the first two coups. He has already predicted a 50:50 chance of another coup and wants to contest the election ‘to correct’ the coup culture. He has a penchant for knowing when coups happen and seems to be always in the thick of things. We could have also done without the sage advice from two past, failed and equally tainted leaders, still at each other’s throat, and peddling discredited policies unlikely to solve the fundamental problems besetting a wounded nation. Perhaps, Bainimarama’s ‘stratospheric popularity’ has something to do with his more inclusive policies and the direction of country’s development. The final chapter on how he will be judged by history cannot be written as yet, but the people of Fiji can do with fewer criticisms and more constructive ideas for their ongoing efforts to restore democracy. It will only take hold if Fiji’s colonially-inspired dysfunctional institutions are reformed, the RFMF are returned to barracks and the Churches stick to promoting their religion rather than vigilantism amongst the malcontents. In an ominous sign, the head of RFMF has warned the military would not tolerate amendment of 2013 constitution.
The key stakeholders recognise fuller implications of this and it is about time media also did. It will be the role of international observers to decide if the September election turns out to be free and fair. Instead of objectively reporting on events as they occur, media now think their role is to speculate, endlessly analyse and predict what may or may not happen. In the western press, a debate within the broader debate on the question of Fiji has been taking place since 1987, but you could argue it goes a lot further back if you were intimately familiar with its colonial past. The more subterranean and coded message is that so long as its leadership can kowtow to the western sphere of influence and maintain the status quo, they would be rewarded and their indiscretions could be overlooked without proper regard to the damage done to Fiji’s national interests. Fiji became a ‘pariah’ because the current regime, for the first time, stood up to external forces and sought to chart a more independent course. The sanctions didn’t really work and the change in Australasian, European and US policies occurred due to their diminishing but increasing Chinese influence (and aid) in the region – not because of human right concerns or what might be necessarily in Fiji’s best interests. It is for all ‘Fijians’ to decide the policies that best suit their country.
The conversations of so-called western democracies are presumed to take place in the media (now concentrated in the hands of a few and anything but free). In reality, their oligarchs and the rich elites maintain a stranglehold on all policy outcomes. The western world’s continuing indifference towards ‘others’ in the Pacific is based on their latent fear of the little known, poorly known or the unknown, and the broader arrogant assumption that they will somehow manage with ‘a fig leaf of democracy’. We can’t allow westerners to be inconvenienced, their privileges diminished or their tender gaze hurt. As Fiji makes this difficult transition it cannot afford further breakdown in law and order. It would be tragic to see home-grown version of ISIS or Boko Haram rearing its ugly head in Fiji. Violence and abuses of human rights should never be tolerated. They happened in Fiji and it is no excuse for anyone to say they also happen in many advanced democracies; but RFMF has maintained law and order, without which no progress is possible. We are familiar with how objectively western media covered the past four coups and the superficially ‘free western press’, left to their devices, seldom rise above the confines of their self-delusion. Left alone, “Fijians’ will eventually solve their own problems without the unsolicited help from outsiders.
Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney-based writer and commentator. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not in any way represent the views of the publisher(s). Sydney, June 2014.