On May 2, Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)—the first time ever for a member state. The PIF comprises leaders of 16 Pacific countries dominated by Australia and New Zealand.
The Australian government used its political and economic muscle to pressure the PIF to give Fiji an ultimatum to hold elections in 2009 or face expulsion. The leader of the Fiji Interim Government, Commodore Frank Bainimarama responded by announcing that general elections would not be held until 2014.
Kevin Rudd blustered that Fiji was now “virtually a military dictatorship.” But his real concerns are not about “restoring democracy”.
They are about maintaining Australia’s economic interests in Fiji and its imperial role in the Pacific.
Since Bainimarama’s 2006 coup deposed the pro-Australia and racially based government of Qarase, the Australian government has been concerned that Fiji is slipping out its sphere of influence.
The military coup by Commadore Frank Bainimarama in December 2006 was distinct from Fiji’s previous three coups because it was bloodless and it was not lead by Fijians in a racist direction against Indians, who make up 40 per cent of the population.
But Bainimarama’s top-down attempt at restructuring Fiji’s racial divide has run into a number of barriers—the hostility of Australian and New Zealand governments, the world financial crisis, a fall in tourism to the country and major flooding in January.
Bainimarama’s coup, the fourth in 20 years, was organised to modernise the economy and seek an accommodation between Indian and Fijian elites. The previous coups against the Labour Party and in favour of the Fijian chiefs severely divided Fijian society. Chiefs tried to dominate the economy, driving Fijian Indians and investment out of the country.
Bainimarama is an Indigenous Fijian who defends Indian rights. He is explicitly opposed the racism of the previous coups and the previous constitution.
But racism cannot be fought from the top down. The Fijian Labour Party was initially part of the interim government but withdrew in 2008.
Tensions grew with Bainimarama as he tried to balance between running the economy, maintaining military rule and the needs of Fiji’s workers, both Indian and Fijian.
Australia’s cry to “restore democracy” is hypocrisy. Fiji’s former constitution was a racial gerrymander in favour of Fiji’s chiefs. The electoral system saw ethnically-based electorates for “Fijians” and “Indians”, but Australia had no problem with that as long as the chiefs protected Australian interests.
Bainimarama’s coup however is changing the dynamic of both domestic and international politics in the region. Fiji is fast becoming a flashpoint for imperialist rivalry in the Pacific.
China, the rising Pacific star, has replaced Australia as Fiji’s major aid donor, much to the consternation of the Australian government and think tanks such as the Lowy Institute.
In July 2007, Fiji’s then Interim Finance Minister (and leader of the Labour Party) Mahendra Chaudhry outlined his country’s “Look North” foreign policy, “Fiji has friends in China, it has friends in Korea, it has friends in…other Asian countries. We’re no longer relying on Australia and New Zealand. And…the United States was not doing much for Fiji anyway.”
Chinese aid has increased sevenfold since 2006 from $US 23 million to $US160 million in 2007. Australia’s aid in 2008-09 is $A27 million.
Rudd Labor’s approach is a carbon copy of Howard’s. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute put it in 2003, “concern for the stability and security of the islands that surround our continent was the earliest—and has proved the most enduring—of Australia’s national security concerns.”
But the real hope in Fiji lies with the moves through the unions and the Labour Party to unite the Fijian and Indian working class. In recent months, Bainimarama has flirted with the idea of privatising sections of Fiji’s airports and wharves.
The Labour Party protested loudly when the Interim Government deferred a 20 per cent wage rise for low paid workers, leaving the wage rates of women garment workers and security guards 50 per cent below the poverty line. And the military has, at times, intimidated and harassed what it sees as troublesome union meetings.
While the Labour Party wants electoral reform to remove the racial gerrymander, it doesn’t think Fiji should wait another five years for elections. Real racial unity will be forged in the fight for class interests across the racial divide.
By Tom Orsag