Handle with care-The Pacific forecast for the year is not promising

NZ Listener January 13-19 2007 Vol 207 No 3479

by David Robie

Fiji’s fourth coup in two decades came barely three weeks after pro-democracy protest spilled into riots in Tonga. The spotlight has fallen once more on the fragility of Pacific democracy and the forecast for 2007 isn’t terribly promising.

Growing poverty, unemployment, lacklustre political leaders, failure of Western democratic institutional models and flawed Australian, New Zealand and European aid policies all signal the need for fundamental changes.

Even New Zealand’s “smart” sanctions in protest against Fiji’s military regime are seen as not so smart by many non-government organisations and church leaders. Catholic Archbishop Petero Mataca says they will unfairly punish ordinary Fiji Islanders, especially the poor.

Australian-led “interventionist” policies in the region have been especially dismal, fuelling problems rather than solving them from East Timor to Fiji.

In the West Pacific Melanesian sub-region over the past 25 years, we have seen not only Fiji’s four coups but also ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands; pro-independence ructions in New Caledonia; paramilitary revolts in Vanuatu; secessionist rebellion and civil war in Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville province; and tribal warfare in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

And although Tonga is in Polynesia, the issues of political reform and poverty have a resonance with problems in Melanesia. In French Polynesia, pro-independence Tahitian President Oscar Temaru has just been ousted from office by a narrow parliamentary no-confidence vote and the territory’s future is uncertain.

Last year, a University of Canterbury survey of violent conflict in Melanesia by Associate Professor John Henderson chronicled 10 political assassinations since 1981. The political murders included New Caledonian independence leader Pierre Declercq in 1981; Kanak independence leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yéiwene Yéiwene (1989); Bougainville Premier Theodore Miriung (1996); Samoan cabinet minister and anti-corruption campaigner Luagalau Leva’ula Kamu (1999); and West Papuan pro-independence leader chief Theys Eluay (2001).

Fiji’s current military strongman Commodore Frank Bainimarama narrowly escaped becoming assassination victim No 11. He made a dramatic dash through a cassava patch in a gully behind Suva’s Queen Elizabeth Barracks when elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit rebels mutinied in November 2000.

A major factor in last month’s coup, making it very different from the previous three, was Bainimarama’s anger over deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s insistence on treating the George Speight coup ringleaders with kid gloves – welcoming some of the convicted coup henchmen into Cabinet and Parliament.

The “father” of Fiji’s coups, Sitiveni Rabuka, who as lieutenant-colonel staged two in 1987, was striving to reassert indigenous supremacy. The first coup was in retaliation for the election victory of Dr Timoci Bavadra, an indigenous Fijian Prime Minister and his largely Indo-Fijian-supported Fiji Labour Party.

Bainimarama’s coup, however – carried out by the military, which is 98 percent indigenous Fijian – is claimed to be on behalf of a multiracial Fiji.

Fiji’s Indo-Fijian population, mostly descendants of indentured labourers imported by British colonial authorities in the 19th century to work sugar plantations, has shrunk dramatically over the past two decades. A majority at the time of Rabuka’s coups, Indo-Fijians now comprise 38 percent of the 840,000 population; indigenous Fijians are 54 percent.

Though there has been no external intervention in Fiji, the Australian-led deployment of troops in the Solomon Islands in July 2003 and again this year in the wake of rioting in the capital Honiara set new precedents for intervention in Pacific Island nations.

Although New Zealand often argues from a “Pacific” perspective that sees the region as less threatening, Australia views it as a “potentially dangerous neighbourhood”. Critics see Australian Prime Minister John Howard as having been too eager to become President George Bush’s “deputy sheriff” in the South Pacific and have tended to regard Australian talk of the sub-region as an “arc of instability” as war-on-terror hype. Now they wonder whether it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Civil society advocates regard free-market globalisation under the domination of New Zealand and Australia as a problem for the region. Some believe free trade will devastate Pacific economies already suffering from unequal trading relations with Australia, New Zealand and Europe. China, Taiwan and other Asian nations are exploiting this vulnerability.

Father Kevin Barr of the Suva-based Ecumenical Centre for Research and Advocacy (ECREA) is critical of the “good governance” catchcry, arguing that it is selectively applied in support of neo-liberal economic policies. Interventionist “reforms” in the region often undermine multi-ethnic developments in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

The 35 percent of Fiji people living below the poverty line, for example, are disadvantaged. The Qarase government had planned to increase an unpopular VAT tax from 10 to 15 percent in a country with no minimum wage and no real system of social welfare.

“Rather than listening to the people of Pacific countries and assisting them to find models that would suit their own needs, international financial institutions and bilateral donors such as Australia seek to impose their own structures and policies for development,” Barr says. “It is in effect arrogant domination.”

For academics such as the University of the South Pacific’s Dr Steven Ratuva, a senior fellow in governance at the Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance and a keen observer of the Fiji military for many years, critical security realignment is needed.

“In a normal parliamentary democracy,” he says, “the line of demarcation between the civil state and the military is very clear. The military as an arm of the state is ultimately responsible to civilian rule. Unfortunately, our history has denied us the luxury of this clear distinction. The coups of 1987 and 2000 destroyed this line in a violent way and our attempts to redraw them have been particularly difficult. This has made our democracy even more fragile and unstable.”

Ratuva believes the failure of successive Fiji governments to develop the national security sector has been a fatal flaw. He advocates the establishment of a security think-tank where police, military and security experts could advise Cabinet with research-based analysis – including the implications of proposed legislation.

Had the Qarase government gleaned and heeded independent advice on the security risks of persevering with three controversial and unpopular bills, Bainimarama’s coup might have been avoided.

An Australian analyst believes the “bloated” military in Fiji and Papua New Guinea should be pruned. Anthony Bergin, research director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, argues that establishing a “Melanesian Legion” within the Australian Defence Force would help solve recruitment policies. It would also “promote democracy” in the Pacific.

He told Radio New Zealand International: “I’m suggesting that we would essentially buy units from Papua New Guinea and Fiji rather than just put out a call for individuals to join our military.”

Another indigenous unit already exists – Norforce, in Australia’s Top End, comprises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander troops.

The major conflict in the region has been West Papua, often billed the “forgotten war” with more than 100,000 deaths. Now, through a new security treaty with Indonesia, Australia is more overtly becoming involved in repression of pro-independence activists.

Besides conventional strategic issues, many other problems challenge the region’s security, such as the pillaging of rainforests in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands by rapacious Chinese and Malaysian logging interests, illegal fishing, environmental crises and public health headaches.

Papua New Guinea is “sitting on a devastating time bomb” over HIV/AIDS, according to Health Minister Melchior Pep. The World Health Organisation estimates that HIV infections in PNG could reach one million people by 2015. An estimated two percent of the population – 100,000 people – is already HIV-positive. And the predictions for neighbouring West Papua are even worse.

David Robie, an associate professor in AUT University’s School of Communication Studies, lived in Fiji and Papua New Guinea for 10 years and has reported on the Pacific for more than 25 years.


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