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Fiji Heads Toward International Isolation as Democracy Fades

  • Phil Mercer

As Fiji's armed forces tighten their grip over the troubled South Pacific archipelago, there are warnings the country risks further international isolation and economic hardship. The Melanesian nation is in turmoil after a court ruled the military government illegal, prompting the president to abandon the constitution and dismiss the judiciary.

Harmony is a distant dream for Fiji's 800,000 people. In another turbulent period in a troubled country, the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has extended his control.

Judges outlaw military government

Senior judges last week declared his military administration, which came to power in a bloodless coup in 2006, illegal. The ruling prompted President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to fire the judiciary and scrap the constitution. The radical measures allowed the president to create what he calls a "new order", reinstating the military government with even greater authority.

Commodore Bainimarama was installed as interim prime minister for five years and elections could be even further away.

Disaster awaits Fiji

Professor Helen Ware from Australia's University of New England thinks Fiji is heading for disaster.

"Basically, the country's about to fall off a cliff. They're going to be in an impossible situation, they don't have a constitution, they don't have any form of legally constituted government nor any obvious way of getting themselves back onto the straight and narrow without having elections, which they are saying they are not going to do for the next five years," she said.

Commodore Bainimarama says the judges who ruled against him were biased and had deliberately set out to destabilize the country.

"It was interesting to all that watched the judgment that the judges could come up with a 52- page judgment in 24 hours. I asked around and most of the people who are familiar with that type of judgment said that it is obvious that they made that decision long before they got to Fiji," he said.

Army isn't worried

One of the three expatriate judges who ruled the military government was illegal says the army is not worried about making the nation a pariah.

Australian Ian Lloyd, a former member of the Fiji Court of Appeal, says the future looks bleak.

"We are very, very sad that these actions have occurred now. It beckons very badly for the people of Fiji because undoubtedly now Fiji will become, to some extent, a pariah state and foreign aid will be drained. Foreign governments will not want to be investing or donating moneys into Fiji. So, the people are looking at some hard times ahead," he said.

Military chief aims to root out corruption

The army commander, a former United Nations peacekeeper, has repeatedly resisted international calls to set a timetable for elections. He says that before democracy can be restored, he must cleanse a rotten political system and create a fairer, multi-racial society.

Back in 2006, Commodore Bainimarama sent his troops to depose what he described as a corrupt and racist government.

Now, his grip on Fiji is tightening. The country's newspapers and broadcasters are restricted.

No press freedom

Daryl Tarte from the Fiji Media Council says a free press has been crushed.

"It is a tragic incident as far as the media are concerned. The Bill of Rights no longer exists, of course, and that means that we no longer have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the media are all being censored," said Tarte.

Radio transmitters that broadcast international radio services have been switched off and access to Internet cafes in Fiji has been limited.

Fiji-born academic, professor Brij Lal from the Australian National University, says the military wants to muzzle the press and silence dissent.

"The interim administration is trying very, very hard - desperately hard - to control the flow of information, both locally as well as overseas," said Brij Lal.

Neighbors condemn anti-democratic trend

Australia and New Zealand have led international condemnation of the erosion of democracy in Fiji.

Canberra expects Fiji to be suspended from both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says events have made Fiji even more of a diplomatic outcast.

"What has occurred in recent days in Fiji is nothing more, nothing less than sham, an abrogation of democracy. Fiji is now effectively a military dictatorship," he said.

Turmoil isn't new for Fijians

Fiji has endured 20 years of political unrest. Two coups in 1987 were followed by a nationalist uprising in May 2000 before the military intervened late in 2006.

Political analysts say part of the problem is the tension between native Fijians, who make up about 55 percent of the population, and ethnic Indians, who were originally brought to work on colonial sugar plantations by the British in the 19th century.

Commodore Bainimarama has promised the people a "fresh start" in a country free of racial and provincial prejudice. Fijians, however, may no doubt wonder where his authoritarian style is taking them as their country becomes increasingly isolated.

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