Fijians hope that post-election, Bainimarama will deliver better relations within the Pacific, including with Australia. By Claire Stewart.

Australia renewing relations with democratic Fiji

Community co-ordinator Wakeleo Cakacaka in his tin shack in the Nanuku slums, Suva.
Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

There is something to the image of a warrior class quietly and systematically mobilising across the lush mountains of Fiji’s interior, brandishing traditional weapons; railing against a newly elected government; strategising for a takeover of the country’s capital. 

It would be an impressive display of the power of old Fiji. But sitting in the warm morning sun among the squatters’ houses on the Suva waterfront, it feels more like fantastical talk from local opposition supporters. They are disillusioned by how easily military leader Frank Bainimarama has been returned to power in the first “democratic” vote since his 2006 coup, but few are surprised at the outcome.

When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called for a “normalisation” of relations in March, and expressed her pleasure at the prospect of working with a post-election Fiji, the implication was clear: Australia would undertake a diplomatic about-face, extending all courtesies to a man previously deemed an illegal regime leader in the hope of smoothing regional tensions and reasserting some form of control over the Pacific’s biggest island player – all in time to avoid China filling the gap left after Bainimarama decided he wouldn’t be pushed around by his traditional allies. 

The alternatives are unattractive or ineffectual. Trade sanctions against Fiji remain out of the question because of the damage they would do to the economy – and private sector interests. Expulsion from regional organisations hasn’t curbed Bainimarama’s determination to unilaterally exercise power, and an uprising from an unarmed citizenry could be quickly shut down. It seems everyone accepts it’s easier to legitimise a dictator than ditch one.

“Most people have been, ‘Whatever, we’re going to elections, we don’t care if Frank wins, just get us there’,” Fijian lawyer Richard Naidu says. “That’s a very short-term view of life. It’s very hard to tell whether that has directly affected investment.”

Arrested in 2007 for speaking out against the legality of the coup, Naidu says Australia’s diplomats go into “paroxysms of panic whenever you mention China” as a new power in the Pacific.

“The Australians worry particularly that because they’re not here, the Chinese are getting a foothold. Aside from the fact they are going to be here anyway, yes, alright, you’re not engaging as much as the Chinese do. But in the long run it doesn’t make any difference. All the soft power in Fiji, particularly among the Fiji elite, is with Australia and New Zealand.”

He expects the “normalisation” of relations to proceed at pace now the election is over. Backroom defence talks have already been under way for at least a month and negotiations over seasonal worker programs are proceeding.

“Sooner or later, pragmatically, you have to draw a line and say look, just get on with it,” Naidu says. “Were they expecting they would apply pressure and Fiji would cave? Probably they were, through the Pacific Islands Forum.

“When Frank basically said ‘up yours’ to everybody, I think the Australians and New Zealanders were a bit taken aback.”

A friend of Bainimarama’s – an opposition supporter speaking off the record lest the throwaway quip “don’t say that, you’ll be shot” comes true – says the military leader was genuinely surprised Australia didn’t fall back into a supporting relationship sooner, “even after one or two years”.

“You had been on good terms with SDL,” the friend says, of a precursor to the current opposition party SODELPA, which won 15 of the 50 seats in Fiji’s new single constituency parliament. “After the coup, that was taken away and the trade sanctions, well, Frank was very resentful of that”.

Documents released by WikiLeaks in 2011 show that Australia wanted to take a harder line against Fiji in 2007 but was curtailed by pressure from New Zealand and the United States. The former flatly refused to institute trade sanctions, while the latter refused to entertain banning Fijian UN peacekeepers because of their value supporting the US in Iraq.

Adding insult to injury, Fiji was expelled from the powerful Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 after it reneged on a promise to hold elections within the year. Western members of Bainimarama’s team were overheard last week privately conceding that had there been a 2009 election, SODELPA could well have won it.

Bainimarama responded to the expulsion from the Pacific Islands Forum by founding a rival – what Fiji now calls “complementary” – international body, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, and declaring he wouldn’t return to the established forum while Australia and New Zealand remain a part of it.

“By nature, he is a good person,” Bainimarama’s friend says, “but he gets upset.”

Fijians think an attempted assassination in 2007 changed him, the source says. Once “not militaristic, [but] a gentleman with a good sense of humour”, Bainimarama cultivated a defensive attitude, aggressive towards challenge.

“He unconsciously turned into what he was fighting against. He has a very strong ego – always had.”

That ego is what worries diplomats and members of the newly minted opposition parties. The Australian government says the elections represent a turning point for democracy, a widely held view among Fijians. But no one expects it is likely to have transformed Bainimarama’s leadership style.

When SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa is asked if a tiger can ever really change its stripes, she laughs, a fissure of humour in her otherwise reserved demeanour since polling revealed what the opposition alleges is widespread electoral fraud.

“We know there are going to be roadblocks, we just have to live in hope,” she says. “I suppose that at the end of the day, some of them in there, as part of government, their conscience will prick them. We all have families, we all know we should be looking at the future of the country.

“We know the tiger is there barking already… but it’s all that we can hope for, that they will respect the parliamentary procedures.”

The first test may well be when Australia can get a new high commissioner into the country. Glenn Miles, the acting commissioner, is due to leave within weeks. He has been standing in since 2012, after a last-minute decision by the Fijian government to refuse the designated incoming commissioner a visa, despite the two countries having agreed the issue earlier.

The head of the school of government, development and international affairs at the University of the South Pacific, Vijay Naidu, says the challenge now is how Australia relates to a government that has been elected but that has “all these precedents, the result of which has meant that many of the foundations and pillars of democracy have been seriously compromised and undermined”.

“The question is, will the government, with the mandate of the people, continue to undermine these pillars? If there is an overly enthusiastic embracing by Australia, it may lead to problems further down the road,” Naidu says.

A softly softly approach should help, he says, but ultimately even if there is an element of capitulation, it’s likely to be welcomed by other regional players who have been feeling the secondary impact of tensions between Fiji and Australia. Many in the region think Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, have been too dominating.

Wakeleo Cakacaka, a community co-ordinator and long-time resident of the Nanuku slums by the mangrove swamps on Suva’s eastern waterfront, is building a solar power scheme. Fourteen systems will bring electricity to some of the 1300 people who currently live sardined on Crown land with no water, sanitation or power.

AusAid is helping with the project, Cakacaka proudly declares. Most of the residents in settlements such as Nanuku are ideologically aligned with SODELPA, but freebies promised by Bainimarama’s government enticed many to swing on the day. Kepa identifies it as a failing of SODELPA’s campaign and vows it won’t happen next time.

Irrespective of the outcome, now there’s been an election, Cakacaka says it is a welcome development for Fijians to have Australia seeking to restore good relations because of the anticipated increase in aid that will provide.

On a quiet island about 40 minutes offshore, The Archies’ 1960s hit “Sugar, Sugar” plays with a superimposed backing of bongo drums and a hint of the Bollywood show tune about it. Out here it’s about keeping the Australians happy. Having Bainimarama back in is good for business. The new democracy means greater stability to encourage investment into the country; hotel chains and resorts can finally begin the upgrades they’ve had on hold, safe in the knowledge the dictator is back in international favour. Even if it is only on the surface. 

Kepa is pragmatic about the situation. Accepting illegal regime changes is part of Fiji’s history, she says.

“The people who have carried out coups… somewhere along the line they are legitimised and then they become leaders of the country. We had tried to put an end to it this time, but it was not to be.”

She says that irrespective of the political situation, tourists, particularly Australians, will continue to return, as they have since the 1960s.

“They just love Fiji,” she says. “This is the Fiji that tourists see. Unfortunately our people don’t see that beautiful country. That [is the] country we would like to be returned, so that our people too can enjoy it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Suva or later".

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Claire Stewart is a Sydney-based correspondent working across the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Pacific.