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Fiji Faces Long Road Back to Democracy After Army Coup


Fiji's new caretaker prime minister has warned that elections following this week's military coup might not take place for another two years. Jona Senilagakali, the army physician picked by the military Wednesday to head the government, says the takeover was illegal, but necessary. Phil Mercer reports from the Fijian capital, Suva.

Caretaker Prime Minister Jona Senilagakali says the military government will bring "joy and peace" to the people of Fiji. How soon that might happen is not clear.

The army, which took power over a several-day period last week and this, has promised to restore democracy. But Mr. Senilagakali told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Thursday that elections could be up to two years away.

"Well, we have now a military government, we will meet every morning now and then we'll form a cabinet, and then, hopefully, in 12 months or two years, we'll be able to have a general election," he said.

Mr. Senilagakali, who is also a lay preacher, says he was ordered by the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, to accept his new position. But he says he feels he is doing the work of a "divine authority," helping to clean up what he calls the "mess" of corruption in the ousted government.

Fiji is a deeply religious country, and prominent church groups have criticized the armed take-over. So too have Fiji's influential tribal leaders, the Great Council of Chiefs.

Human rights campaigner Tapou Vera voiced the criticism felt by some ordinary Fijians.

Vera said "There's a lot of us who are opposed to what the military has done and what it continues to do. No one is above the law here. This is a military that has gone out of control. It's no longer a professional institution. It's alienated from society. I'm not frightened because there are many people and many organizations in the country who feel the same."

The Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies, is expected to suspend Fiji's membership when officials meet in London on Friday.

New Zealand and Australia have already imposed sanctions on Fiji, and the United States has suspended aid. Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the overthrow of democracy was "brutal" and "unlawful."

Mr. Senilagakali's reply to Mr. Howard was blunt.

"My advice to the Australians: leave Fiji alone, let us deal with our internal affairs and respect our right as a sovereign nation of the United Nations," he said.

The military leadership has said a negative reaction from the international community was to be expected, and has urged foreign governments to be "patient."

The army says it seized power because the ousted government was corrupt and had been far too lenient on those involved in a nationalist uprising six years ago.

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