News / Asia

As Fiji Election Nears, Western Nations Look to Revive Influence

An election poster for Voreqe
An election poster for Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama can be seen in the rear window of a taxi as a man gestures from the doorway of a local gymnasium in the Fiji capital of Suva, Aug. 26, 2014.
Reuters

Voters in Fiji's election this month are keen to end a dictatorship that has ruled the South Pacific island nation since a military coup in 2006, but sprucing up its human rights situation, and ties with Western neighbors, will take time.

Change could be slow because Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, the army chief who seized power to become prime minister, looks set to retain a dominant role, with polls giving his Fiji First Party a strong lead in the run-up to the Sept. 17 election.

The much-delayed vote is being closely watched by neighbors Australia and New Zealand, the region's economic and diplomatic powerhouses. They and their Western allies are eager to welcome Fiji back to the fold after eight years of diplomatic, military and travel sanctions that appear to have achieved little.

Far from being frozen out, Fiji has lifted its global profile, setting up an alternative forum for Pacific island issues, heading the G77 group of developing states in 2013 and contributing peacekeepers to the United Nations. Dozens of its soldiers are being held by Islamists on the Golan Heights.

Fiji has also forged stronger ties with new partners, in particular China, which is establishing an ever greater presence across the Pacific.

“Fiji has certainly made it clear they can work without us internationally,” said Jenny Hayward-Jones, a regional expert at Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute. “We need to get Fiji back in the tent because it is not being a very cooperative regional partner and that's what really matters.”

Fiji's 300-plus islands sit near the center of a vast swath of the South Pacific that is home to only about 10 million people, but is crisscrossed by vital shipping lanes and controls huge maritime and mineral resources.

Its importance is recognized by the United States, which aims to shore up what many see as the West's sliding prestige in the region, as part of President Barack Obama's “pivot” to Asia.

“Our commitment to the people of Fiji has never wavered, and subsequent to credible elections, we look forward to working with those elected to create closer ties between our two nations,” a U.S. embassy spokesman told Reuters.

China's rise

A hospital ship moored in the harbor of Suva, the capital, ringed by coral reefs and jutting mountains, is a symbol of China's more prominent role. The vessel, the Peace Ark, offers free health care as it sails through the South Pacific, where hospitals often struggle to supply even basic services.

China is building ports, roads and other projects around the region, and runs a bauxite mine in Fiji.

Bainimarama calls China a true friend, while playing down the importance of Australia and New Zealand.

But few Fijians share that view.

Many people are wary of Chinese projects funded by loans, employing mostly Chinese workers and using Chinese equipment, said Sainiana Radrodro of the SODELPA opposition party.

“While we appreciate that we have a strong diplomatic relationship with China, we just do not think it should come at the expense of a lot of debt that our people will be paying off for many, many years down the line,” she told Reuters.

Some Fijians also think the West is being too hasty to rekindle relations with a regime still tarred by the coup.

At the root of much of political conflict in Fiji is rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and the ethnic Indian descendants of workers brought by the British to work sugarcane fields. Animosity came to a head in 2000 when indigenous Fijians overthrew the first Indo-Fijian prime minister.

FILE- Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama comments on how the country's constitution enshrines principles including an independent judiciary, a secular state, and a range of civil, political, and socio-economic rights, during a speech in Suva, Sept. 6, 2013.FILE- Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama comments on how the country's constitution enshrines principles including an independent judiciary, a secular state, and a range of civil, political, and socio-economic rights, during a speech in Suva, Sept. 6, 2013.
x
FILE- Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama comments on how the country's constitution enshrines principles including an independent judiciary, a secular state, and a range of civil, political, and socio-economic rights, during a speech in Suva, Sept. 6, 2013.
FILE- Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama comments on how the country's constitution enshrines principles including an independent judiciary, a secular state, and a range of civil, political, and socio-economic rights, during a speech in Suva, Sept. 6, 2013.

A new constitution introduced by Bainimarama, while criticized by some for its curbs on freedoms, has been welcomed by many ethnic Indians for giving them equal rights with indigenous Fijians.

“What has happened in Fiji are big changes, big improvements,” said Rupeni Turagakula, a burly 43-year-old taxi driver, adding that relations between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians had improved, along with the economy.

In March, Fiji returned to the fold of the Commonwealth grouping of mostly former British colonies, after a suspension of almost five years over a delay in restoring democracy.

In a report last month on Bainimarama's government, Amnesty International listed what it called serious human rights abuses over the past eight years, including attacks on journalists and unionists and curbs on speech.

Accusations of brutality are common in Fiji, where security forces function in a culture of impunity, says human rights advocate Virisila Buadromo.

“It just reinforces in the public's mind that no one is safe,” said Buadromo, a leader of a women's rights movement. “That we have to be very careful about what we say, because we could end up getting taken in by the military or the police.”

But there are signs of improvement.

Fiji's economy is forecast to grow at 3.8 percent in 2014, exceeding its historical average, while new roads and water supply to villages have helped lift Bainimarama's support in the polls to around 60 percent.

Fears of more instability, or even another coup, may worry some, but not everyone is fretting over the election result.

Stefan Pichler, managing director of national carrier Fiji Airways and chairman of Tourism Fiji, said previous coups had only a fleeting impact on the tourism industry, the country's biggest employer and earner of foreign exchange.

“Governments come and go, that's the reality,” he told Reuters. “You're talking about politicians, who make noise, versus people who look for holidays. That's two different planets.”   

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs