News / Asia

    As Fiji Election Nears, Western Nations Look to Revive Influence

    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.
    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

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.