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Australia Urged to Rethink Fiji Ties

Fiji coup leader and self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, (File)
Fiji coup leader and self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, (File)

A leading Australian policy think tank says the government in Canberra has adopted the wrong approach to persuading Fiji’s military rulers to return to democracy. Fiji’s army seized power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, and senior officers have ignored repeated international demands to hold elections.

Australia has taken a hard line against Fiji’s military government since troops seized power in the South Pacific country and crippled the country’s democratic institutions.

Canberra, along with New Zealand, has imposed limited sanctions but despite widespread international condemnation, including suspension from the region’s main political bloc, the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji’s army leadership has steadfastly refused to return the country to democracy.

The Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent think tank, has criticized Australia’s stance and believes its needs to find other ways to engage Fiji, which is a political and economic hub of the South Pacific.

Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward Jones says Australia needs to abandon its uncompromising stance towards its errant neighbor

“I think Australia needs to reach out to some of the countries that Fiji is indeed reaching out to who have something to offer Fiji in this transition to democracy,” said Jones.

Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama has hinted that elections could be held in 2014. The commodore says he was forced to oust what he calls a “corrupt and racist” democratic government in 2006.

Fiji’s military strongman has justified his actions by saying he is on a mission to cleanse his country of dishonesty and bigotry towards its ethnic Indian minority. He has abandoned the constitution, sacked the judiciary and muzzled the media. The commodore’s opponents believe that he is behaving like a dictator who has no intention of giving up power.

The Lowy institute's Jenny Hayward Jones urges Canberra to seek help from non-traditional partners such as Indonesia, India and Malaysia to put pressure on Fiji to hold elections within four years.

“A new approach which acknowledges that timetable, 2014, and brings together a number of other partners. Now Fiji has rejected Australia before. It's rejected the [Pacific Islands] Forum but some of the countries its courting such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, even Papua New Guinea, could all bring something to the table here and I don't think we have really trialed that,” Jones stated.

The Fijian archipelago comprises more than 330 tropical islands about two-thirds of the way from New Zealand to Hawaii. It is home to about 880,000 people. Most have Melanesian heritage, while about a third of the population are descendants of Indian laborers brought to work on colonial sugar plantations by the British in the 19th century.