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

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora