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Reconciliation takes a step forward

The decision of Fijian Prime Minister Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama to relinquish his military role and contest in the September 2014 general election as a civilian has accrued positive reaction in New Zealand.

Speaking at a military parade at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva on January 21, he said that he would end his role in the military on February 28 but continue as Prime Minister until the day of the general election.

Prime Minister John Key described the move as “a step in the right direction.”

He said that all New Zealanders were keen to ensure that the forthcoming general election is free and fair.

“Therefore, the fact that he is essentially indicating that he is moving towards that process is welcomed by New Zealand,” Mr Key said.

Softening attitude

Mr Key’s comments would indicate softening of attitude, leading to improved relations. New Zealand is a part of an international advisory group that has been advising the Bainimarama Government on the ways and means of ensuring free and fair elections.

Mr Bainimarama has his opponents, both at home and overseas, but also has majority following, especially among the Indian population, accounting for about 39% of the country’s estimated 859,000 people.

Since he seized power through a military coup on December 5, 2006, ethnic minorities including Indo-Fijians have been accorded equality in all fields of activity, denied by earlier governments.

Think Fijian

He is credited with having brought credibility and cleanliness in public administration, eradicated corruption and asked all Fijians to stand united in promoting economic and social development.

During the constitution crisis of April 2009 and later during an interview with this reporter in his office (August 2009), he said that everyone should be identified as ‘Fijians,’ and not as ‘Fiji Indians’ or ‘Fiji Chinese.’

“Fiji has different ethnicities and cultures. While we must celebrate our diversity and richness, we must remember that all of us are Fijians. All of us are equal citizens and must be loyal to Fiji. We must be patriotic and we must put Fiji first,” he had said.

Moderate dissents

Mr Bainimarama is mindful of the fact that many moderate politicians in Australia and New Zealand privately admit the impressive changes that he has made to end the vicious cycle of corruption and administrative lethargy in his country. He is also aware that they are somewhat reluctant to agree that Fiji could not have changed without military rule.

But it is not true that there is overt military presence in civilian life anywhere in Fiji. People attend to their jobs; do business among themselves and with the outside world with fun and ease that are characteristic of Fiji. People of European descent from Australia, New Zealand, UK and US enjoy living and working in Fiji. Many of them have made Fiji their home for several decades.

Ending coup culture

The worst image that Fiji has carried since 1987 is that it is vulnerable to coups (there were four coups in less than 20 years) and that it subscribes to political instability. It may sound ironical – Mr Bainimarama’s coup in December 2006 was intended to free Fiji from coups, stop exploitation of people of other ethnicities and promote a harmonious society.

Some of his measures may appear crude (for instance, his decision to abandon the Constitution suggested by a Commission appointed by him) but Fijians in Fiji understood why; that the Constitution is the foundation for the country’s democratic ideals and that the earlier Constitution had failed to deliver on its promises. It is not uncommon for Governments to dump reports and recommendations of committees and agencies appointed by them. The New Zealand Government had done so in the case of a Don Brash recommendation relating to Maori seats in Parliament and a few other proposals of the Tasks Force 2025.

Moving ahead

Addressing the 15th anniversary celebrations of Pacific Destinationz in Nadi on January 10, he said that 2014 will see Fiji raise a new parliamentary democracy, based for the first time on the principle of common citizenry.

“Fiji is on the right track. Guided by the new Constitution, we are walking down a path that leads to stability, equality and prosperity. There is hope for the future where there wasn’t before and this is something to be excited and proud about,” he said.

The sweeping changes that he has made since he assumed charge of the country is indicative of his resolve to ensure that no divisive force becomes active again.

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