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Diplomatic winter ends but apprehension remains

Although the lifting of the long unwanted travel ban has somewhat opened a window of understanding between New Zealand and Fiji, both sides are still to address the larger issue of restoration of full diplomatic ties and appropriate engagement in economic and social cooperation.

The visit of New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully to the Fijian capital last month following his Government’s decision to the end the travel ban was a step forward in normalising relations but Fiji is not expected to make any hasty decisions.

In fact, Fijian Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola has made it clear that his country will call the shots and cannot be pressurised by Australia and New Zealand.

Routine statements

The press statements made after Mr McCully’s first visit to Fiji this year was more anti-septic than substantial and it contained no more than ‘an expression of interest’ in normalising bilateral relations.

A statement issued in Suva said that the bilateral talks between the two foreign ministers signalled a new chapter in the Fiji-New Zealand relations as the two countries seek to chart the way forward with goodwill and positive cooperation.

“Minister McCully expressed the New Zealand Government’s readiness to work closely with Fiji on areas of mutual cooperation and to provide assistance in areas of need. He assured Mr Kubuabola that they will relook at New Zealand’s current development assistance programme for Fiji to enable greater cooperation between the two governments and their respective public institutions,” the communique said.

Mindless coups

It was unfortunate that Australia and New Zealand (as did UK, US and Canada) failed to see the ‘real reasons’ for the military coup Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama that overthrew the Laisenia Qarase Government by Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama on December 6, 2006.

The New Zealand Government and most politicians decry the way in which Qarase was dismissed, saying that a democratic government should be replaced by another democratically elected government. They say that there is no room for a prolonged interim government in a democracy.

That indeed is the most desirable way of restoring political normalcy in a country that values democratic traditions. People have the right to vote in and vote out a government at the time of elections.

But political normalcy is a foreign term for Fiji. Three mindless coups, two in 1987 and one in 2000 drained Fiji of human and financial capital. Thousands of Indo-Fijians, who love their country with passion, sought refuge in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, US and UK and have settled well. Their presence and contributions are sorely missed in Fiji.

Through shakeup

It is easy to argue seated in a comfortable chair or under the privilege of Parliament House that no dictatorship is good and that no military can overthrow a democratically elected government. But given the circumstances, most Indo-Fijians argue that Qarase had to go and that Bainimarama had to step in to give the country and its political and judicial systems a thorough shakeup and set things right.

Antagonists and moderates complain that Mr Bainimarama has taken too long to complete his brand of democratic reforms and that the military had virtually taken over the reins of the Government with top army people in high civilian posts.

Supporters of the interim Prime Minister say that the presence of military personnel in the top echelons of the government was essential since the establishment was rampant with corruption and that this cancer needed military treatment.

Careful détente

Mr Bainimarama, it would seem, has kept his word of conducting a general election in 2014 and the set date (September 17) would determine the future course that Fiji would take to stabilise itself and resume its leadership role in the South Pacific.

New Zealand and Australia have learnt, rather late, that military rule or democratic framework, the importance of Fiji in their political and economic equation cannot be underestimated or overemphasised. They have also realised to their dismay that other more powerful players have entered the field and are wooing the South Pacific nation with their assurances of grants, aids and loans for infrastructure development and improvement of education and health programmes.

Mr McCully has already made some overt moves. As well as promising expanded scholarship opportunities to Fijians, he has also offered that he would use his current position as the Deputy Chair of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to reverse the earlier decision of excluding Fiji from the Commonwealth Games scheduled to be held in Glasgow from July 23, 2014.

A new beginning

Whether Fiji will let bygones be bygones and be prepared to start a new chapter of friendship with New Zealand and Australia remains to be seen. The Fijian leadership today, which is likely to remain so after the September election, may find it hard to forgive and forget the insults and inconveniences that it suffered along with its people for more than seven years.

But the ‘be-good-to-thy-neighbour’ (especially if that neighbour is rich and powerful) theory may work. After all, Fiji too needs New Zealand and Australia in a number of areas. They include education, health, stop-over flights and of course Soccer and Rugby.

Read related reports under Homelink and Viewlink.

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