Graham Davis | May 01, 2009
IT'S the eve of Frank Bainimarama's 55th birthday and he's in a jovial mood as we stroll the manicured path to the officers' mess at Suva's Queen Elizabeth Barracks. Tomorrow at dawn, his troops will march to his home bearing cake and champagne, and the army band will play the local version of the traditional birthday song that always includes the extra stanza, "happy long life to you!" Not everyone in Fiji will be joining in.
The military commander turned prime minister has just shown me the bullet holes that riddle the timber panels of his office in an adjacent building that came under attack by rebel soldiers during the mutiny of 2000.
"We leave it unrepaired to remind us just how close we came to disaster. It was only because I was at lunch in the mess that I survived," Bainimarama says.
"When we realised we were under attack, my security detail rushed me through the back door and down the hill to safety. We were dodging bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Three loyal soldiers died that day, and we must never forget."
Bainimarama readily concedes that five captured rebels were beaten to death, but denies reports that one had his penis cut off, another his tongue ripped out. Any mention of extrajudicial killings is curtly dismissed. "These people came to kill us. What do you expect, a kiss on both cheeks?"
As we approach the mess, a uniformed non-commissioned officer springs to attention and salutes. The commander is in mufti: tailored Fijian sulu (a wrap skirt) topped with a green floral shirt. To my astonishment, he raises his right hand in a Nazi salute. "Heil Hitler!" he exclaims. "Isn't that what dictators are supposed to do?" His entourage explodes in mirth, the shrill Fijian kaila that's an infectious mix of cackle and laugh. Later, he repeats the joke with some goosesteps thrown in, skirt akimbo, brown legs flashing.
It dawns on me that Bainimarama is being ironic, making light of the ugly stereotype into which he feels he has been unfairly cast.
He dislikes the term dictator, he tells me, because he doesn't see himself as such, and is irritated when I persist with the description.
"I am not a dictator. I'm the prime minister of this country and there's a president. We may not have a constitution right now but we're bringing the law back by decrees. I can't go and dictate to a family what they have for lunch today. I wish I could, so I can join them for lunch but no, my word is not the word."
OK, what about "virtual dictator", the term used by Kevin Rudd? "No. The President (Josefa Iloilo) is head of state and commander-in-chief of the military, and he makes decisions for himself and for the Government. He tells me what to do. He has advisers and I'm one of them," Bainimarama insists. Mmmh.
Yes, it was the octogenarian high chief Iloilo who formally abrogated the 1997 constitution, dismissed the judiciary and reinstalled Bainimarama's regime when three Australian judges declared it illegal on appeal.
Most Fiji citizens believe that whatever Frank wants in the "new order" Iloilo declared, Frank gets.
Not so, says the commander, in comments indicating that the new order's five-year election plan may not have been his preferred option: "The President wants me to hold elections in five years and that will happen. But it's the shortest five years in Fiji's history because we need a lot longer than that to change the racial attitudes of our people and establish true democracy."
Bainimarama's immediate focus has been to stabilise the country in the wake of the dramatic events and head off civil unrest. The calm, even relaxed, air in Suva suggests he's succeeding, with no overt opposition and no armed troops on the streets as in other times of national crisis through the years.
A month-long state of emergency has muzzled Fiji's boisterous media and the regime has rounded up several people identified with indigenous extremism, including Iliesa Duvuloco, one of the main figures behind George Speight's 2000 coup. Bainimarama accuses him of distributing leaflets trying to incite an indigenous uprising against the military.
The emergency regulations are due to expire on May 10 but the military chief tells me they'll be extended. "We want this calm to continue for a while and we need media censorship to ensure that," he says.
That means the censors who've taken up residence in local newsrooms will continue to ban stories the regime regards as negative or likely to inflame.
Rather than publish government handouts, some outlets such as the venerable Fiji Times, sister paper of The Australian, have chosen to run no political coverage at all. "That's the way it should happen in Fiji, rugby back on the front page," crows Bainimarama. It's not only "inciteful" messages he worries about, but "irresponsible reporting. That's something we really don't need right now."
As Bainimarama tells it, he and the military are righteous crusaders for all Fiji citizens, as opposed to an agenda of indigenous supremacy masquerading as democracy practised by his opponents and unthinkingly supported by Australia and New Zealand.
"I've tried to explain to Australia and NZ the real story of what's happening here and no one seems to listen," he says. So Bainimarama is embarking on a new tack, seeking a three-way summit with the leaders of both countries to set the record straight and try to rebuild the shattered relationship.
"I would like to see Kevin Rudd and (NZ Prime Minister) John Key face to face immediately so I can explain things clearly about the changes we need to bring about."
Bainimarama says he's willing to give both leaders a "cast-iron guarantee" that elections will be held in 2014 but not before. He's hoping the regional heavyweights may be in a mood to compromise after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton undertook to listen to complaints from a Samoan congressman that Australia and NZ were being "nasty" about Fiji and that its position was more complex than they were portraying. The alternative to a summit, Bainimarama says, is to continue the diplomatic stand-off in which China and India have replaced Australia and NZ as Fiji's closest confidants and sources of aid.
The morning I visit the PM's office, I'm ushered briefly into back-to-back meetings between Bainimarama and Chinese ambassador Han Zhiqiang and Indian high commissioner Prabhakara Jha, both of whom clearly have warm personal relationships with the dictator. In stark contrast, Bainimarama tells me, neither Australian high commissioner James Batley nor his NZ counterpart have been prepared to meet him since the 2006 coup. However principled that may seem from Canberra and Wellington, it's rendering both countries increasingly irrelevant when it comes to influencing events in Fiji.
"We have a wonderful relationship with China and we're trying to build on that," Bainimarama enthuses. He's clearly grateful for a published seven-fold increase in Chinese aid in the year after his coup, evidently much more since and the prospect of more to come.
"Yes, the Chinese are giving us money," he says, without revealing how much except for a $US1 million ($1.37 million) donation to the Prime Minister's Office for Disaster Relief.
"They're very sympathetic and understand what's happening here, that we need to do things in our own way," he says.
China has embarked on several infrastructure projects, including a hydro-electric scheme on the main island, Viti Levu, that will employ 300 imported Chinese workers. Signs of an increased Chinese presence abound, from shops and bars to ships in port and Chinese trucks sporting Chinese lettering, plus the ubiquitous red star, plying Fiji's roads.
What riles Bainimarama is the perceived double standard of Australia and NZ shunning Fiji while not just engaging the dictatorship in China but actively promoting its interests in global forums. "With Fiji, they've approached just about everyone in the world to stay away and asked the UN to have us removed from peacekeeping operations. That will fail," Bainimarama insists.
The shift in Fiji's allegiances leaves many uneasy about what happens when local hearts and minds remain well disposed towards Australia and NZ but pockets begin to fill with yuan and rupees.
While Bainimarama's opponents applaud the tough regional stance against him, others wonder about the price Australia and NZ eventually may pay in strategic terms for a stance that's widely seen as flawed.
Will Bainimarama back down? Not with support from China and India, both with ample means to back their own strategic ambitions as emerging global powers.
What would an early election achieve? Well that's the problem: precisely the same dynamic that triggered the 2006 coup.
All sides concede that, without electoral reform, any poll in Fiji would produce certain victory for Bainimarama's chief political opponent, Laisenia Qarase. And there's the rub, for Bainimarama insists Qarase is finished because of his racist agenda and will return to power "over my dead body". The burly guards who constantly shadow the PM are there to ensure the latter part of the prophecy is not fulfilled.
Bainimarama has some important allies, not just the venerable President but several progeny of Fiji's old ruling elite - the Mara and Ganilau chief families - that took the country to independence from Britain in 1970.
Joining us for tea and pancakes at the barracks is someone lofty in physical stature and status, Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, Bainimarama's army chief of staff and the younger son of modern Fiji's founding father, Kamisese Mara. The country's newly appointed Vice-President Epeli Nailatikau - a former high commissioner and head of the military before being deposed by Sitiveni Rabuka in the 1987 coup - happens to be married to one of Mara's daughters, Adi Koila. She's a former senator who has particular cause to detest indigenous extremism, having been one of Speight's hostages in the 56-day siege of the parliament in 2000.
Bainimarama confirms that the new Vice-President was his first choice in 2000 to lead Fiji after the Speight coup but Nailatikau declined the role, so he turned to Qarase.
On such fateful choices can a nation's destiny depend.
Then, there's Defence Minister Epeli Ganilau, Bainimarama's predecessor as army commander who handpicked him for the post in 1999. He comes from another distinguished family, that of former governor-general and president Penaia Ganilau, and also married one of Mara's daughters, Adi Ateca.
Unlike many chiefs who were bitter rivals, the elder Mara and Ganilau forged a partnership in nation-building that served Fiji well in the years after independence and was notable for their strong personal friendships with people of other races.
But they came to be envied and resented by certain other chiefs, who were the hand in the glove of Speight's intention in the 2000 coup to rid Fiji of what he identified as the "Mara clique". Now that Nailatikau, Mara's son-in-law, is in line to succeed Iloilo as president, some believe the Mara clique is poised to make a comeback, though with Bainimarama in charge running a common agenda.
While no one can be certain of it - given the venal nature of Fijian politics - many will hope this signals a return to some of the more enlightened aspects of the elder Mara's rule.
Chief among these were a healthy economy, infrastructure development and above all the notion, largely abandoned by Mara's indigenous successors, that Fiji can succeed only with all races working together as one nation.
The point is that many of those around Bainimarama aren't the coup-making thugs that have brought Fiji to its knees in recent years (though some, of course, put Bainimarama in this category), but individuals of genuine achievement with some of Fiji's bluest blood coursing through their veins.
Unlike other chiefs who've aligned themselves with the indigenous cause, these individuals are also imbued with the vision of their fathers of a multiracial Fiji where indigenous values are respected but all races enjoy the same opportunities.
Mara's dream was to emulate the success of his friend Lee Kuan Yew in creating a smaller but equally thriving version of Singapore in the South Seas. Replete, of course, with the same respectful media and intolerance of anything or anyone posing a threat to national unity. As with Bainimarama now, this theory holds that in developing countries with nascent democratic structures, keeping the peace comes before freedom of expression.
Mara's vision was lost in the naked opportunism of the likes of Rabuka in the coups of 1987, Speight in 2000 and, arguably, Qarase in the months before Bainimarama says he had to draw a line under Qarase's own racist agenda.
Had Qarase got his way, Bainimarama maintains, his reconciliation bill would have seen Speight and his violent ilk again strutting the streets of Suva. And his coastal resources bill would have made non-indigenous Fiji citizens obliged to pay cash to their neighbours to use the seas. Another of Qarase's proposed bills put a question mark over the sanctity of freehold title.
Some opponents, notably in legal circles, argue that Bainimarama acted prematurely in 2006 because a power-sharing arrangement with the Opposition, forced on Qarase by the constitution, might have been a brake on the more extreme parts of his supremacist agenda. Dismissing this as naive, Bainimarama says his critics should focus more on Qarase's record and what that would have meant for Fiji's minorities, rather than support a process that would see Qarase restored.
He's also asking Canberra and Wellington to better understand his own motives, to go beyond the power-hungry stereotype and genuinely examine why he took the journey from hero, for locking up Speight in 2000, to regional pariah nine years on.
"My vision for Fiji is one that's free of racism. That's the biggest problem we've had in the last 20 years and it needs to be taken out," he explains. "It's the lies that are being fed to indigenous Fijians that are causing this, especially from our chiefs who are the dominating factor in our lives. And the politicians take advantage of that. We need to change direction in a dramatic way.
"We need to get rid of Qarase and everything associated with the 2000 coup and begin entirely on a new path."
That path is already evident in some of the faces in the corridors of power, overwhelmingly indigenous in recent years but now showing a modicum of diversity.
More Indo-Fijians are appearing in senior roles, notably high-profile attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum - the bete noir of legal purists - and recently appointed Reserve Bank governor Sada Reddy, who replaced an indigenous Fijian, Savenaca Narube.
Bainimarama says he'd be appointing a lot more were it not for Australian and NZ travel bans on members of the regime, which are deterring some of the best and brightest potential recruits with family connections abroad. He's also lifted the prohibition, under the abrogated constitution, on Fiji citizens holding dual citizenship, something he hopes will attract back many who've fled since 1987 and can return with their boltholes secured.
At 55, Bainimarama is part of the generation old enough to have grown up under reasonably enlightened British rule, with indigenous chiefs who commanded respect, and the promise of a bright future and independence as a beacon for other emerging Pacific nations.
Remarkably in republican Fiji, Bainimarama still sees himself as "a Queen's man" and works, in all his offices, under photographs of the distant sovereign and her consort, junked after the second coup 22 years ago.
"I'm still loyal to the Queen. Many people are in Fiji," he says. "One of the things I'd like to do is see her restored as our monarch, to be Queen of Fiji again."
As they say, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. But maybe that's what drives Bainimarama most of all; the notion, however quixotic, of a multiracial meritocracy belatedly fulfilling the great promise Fiji had in its early post-independence years, when a visiting pope John Paul II famously described it as a model for the developing world. Before the greed, the racism and the gun.
Graham Davis is a Fiji-born journalist and a principal in Grubstreet Media