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It was a slow-motion coup, but on 5 December armed forces chief Frank Bainimarama finally sacked Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, his cabinet, and senior officials — including Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, an Australian Federal Police officer.
This is partly about unresolved conflicts from a previous coup. The Qarase government planned to pardon rebels who in 2000 had almost killed Bainimarama. That infuriates him. Qarase supporters say the Commodore has questions to answer about his own role in 2000.
Fiji’s history of coups dates to 1987, when Lt-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka deposed the country’s multi-racial Labour government, manipulating indigenous Fijian racism against Indians. A second upheaval in 2000 tossed out another Labour government. That was more chaotic, with adventurer George Speight holding the government at gunpoint, until Bainimarama terminated Speight’s take-over — but he didn’t return Labour to power.
Instead he installed Qarase as interim PM. Qarase and his cronies later won election in coalition with conservative Fijian nationalists.
This time Bainimarama may meet greater resistance. The Great Council of Chiefs (indigenous elite) opposes the coup and has called for troops to desert. Despite loathing Qarase, the Labour Party and the unions have called for a restoration of democracy. So have NGOs. Early attempts to muzzle the press collapsed.
Claims from “intelligence sources” about divisions in the army may also be partly true, though this probably relates to the reserves rather than regular troops.
For workers the coup is a disaster. The economy depends heavily on tourism, and this sector will be hardest hit, with 20 percent job cuts already happening. Government employees face pay cuts. The same NGOs who oppose the coup have warned that international sanctions will overwhelmingly hit the poor. “Removing scholarships and access to guest worker schemes obviously affect poor people, and not the military,” says the Coalition for Democracy and Peace.
Blocking investment in the sugar industry could damage it severely (which would rather suit the big Australian sugar growers).
However Bainimarama has supporters. Some business interests are pleased to see the end of Qarase because he proposed to hand ocean foreshores back to villagers, threatening tourist industry profits.
And the military has another card to play: hostility to Australian and New Zealand domination, a sentiment that’s growing in the region. Andrew Hughes makes a fine hate figure. Hughes fled to Australia before the coup, just as former Solomon Islands Solicitor-General Nathan Moshinsky had to leave the Solomons in October.
Now Hughes is sacked, but he’ll remain a handy target. Bainimarama’s interim Prime Minister Jona Senilagakali told the media, “I kept telling the army to keep an eye on this man because he is going to promote the Australian foreign policy.”
In fact, events have exposed many of the weaknesses of Australian and New Zealand imperialism. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark tried to broker a pre-coup settlement, but got nowhere. Australia sent three warships to the region, which Defence Minister Brendan Nelson thought might “discourage” a coup, but they just gave the local military an excuse for a show of force. When Bainimarama returned from New Zealand, his troops staged overnight “exercises,” shooting flares and locking down the city, ostensibly to show they were ready to repel invaders.
Hostility to outside intervention was strong enough that three days before he fell, Qarase insisted that “Australia and New Zealand would not intervene in Fiji’s affairs.” After Bainimarama sacked him he appealed for just such an intervention, but despite its warships, Australia refused. Canberra and Wellington have fallen back on sanctions.
This contrasts sharply with events in neighbouring Tonga, where street protests and riots had shaken the authoritarian regime of King George Tupou V in mid-November. After non-violent demonstrations and strikes didn’t bring a transition to democracy, crowds burned down 80 per cent of the central business district in the capital. This finally seemed to force democratic concessions, but Australian troops from the same three ships promptly landed in an “an act of brotherly generosity” to shore up the regime.
New Zealand took similar action, its Foreign Minister Winston Peters claiming Tonga might become a failed state.
Trouble Coming Every Day
Australian Prime Minister John Howard loves to talk of heroic Aussie troops defending democracy, yet in Tonga they protected a monarch, while in Fiji they let democracy go. Why is that?
One reason is that Tonga has a token army, whereas Fiji has well-trained and well-equipped troops — and they know how to fight, having been blooded as “peacekeepers” and mercenaries in the Middle East. Howard was worried about “very significant Australian casualities” if he sent troops. The heroic Aussies only go where Howard can keep them out of harm’s way.
Another is that Howard cares little for democracy; he’s focused overwhelmingly on keeping order in what Australian strategists call the “arc of instability” running from Indonesia into the Pacific. Canberra’s (and Wellington’s) strategy to stabilise this zone has run into myriad challenges.
Papua New Guinea’s Michael Somare collaborated with Solomons leader Manasseh Sogavare to outsmart Australia over the Julian Moti affair. Sogavare has also won a confidence vote. Implanted Aussie officials have got the boot from the Solomons and Fiji. East Timor remains a running sore, with public opinion starting to sour on the Australian presence.
And opinion around the region is irked by the “arc of instability” tag.
So Tonga and Fiji are chapters in an emerging story. Meanwhile in Australia there is renewed xenophobia. In response to the Fijian events, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper allowed one John Pasquarelli to spew hysteria. Pasquarelli is former adviser to racist MP Pauline Hanson.
He warns the Pacific will “become a Force 10 crisis zone,” and our northern coasts will see “hundreds of boat people from West Papua and PNG pouring ashore.” Disintegrating Pacific countries offer “ideal havens and a springboard to Australia for drugs, disease, criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants.” Meanwhile Hanson herself has reappeared, spouting lurid nonsense about African blacks and Muslims.
Pasquarelli seized on two potentially dangerous issues. One is about illegal substances. In September, a government report warned of drug threats in the Pacific region, and Howard could pick up this theme at any time. Pasquarelli has pretty much written his lines for him: “As Colombia and cocaine is to the US, the Pacific rim and [the drug] ice will be to Australia.”
Another is the diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan, with China emerging as a rival to the west. Here Howard might tread carefully because he doesn’t want to offend Beijing. But the issue has already surfaced in post-coup Fiji, as the army meets international sanctions with defiant statements about “turning to Asia.”
Other parts of Canberra’s strategy that could bring major dangers include a pact with Indonesia that re-legitimises the murderous Kopassus (special forces) troops and offers help with nuclear power; and a security deal with the Philippines that allows Australian troops to hold “anti-terrorism” drills in the country’s troubled south. Australians are even providing “anti-terror” training to the brutal Burmese regime.
There’s more trouble coming in the region, and Australia’s rulers will have a hand in it all.
Tom O’Lincoln has has been active on the left since 1967, in the German SDS, at UC Berkeley, and for many years in Melbourne Australia. He’s the author or editor of five books on Australian history and politics (Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism; Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era; United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia; Class and Class Conflict in Australia; and Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History), and maintains the Marxist Interventions website: www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/. Tom is a member of Socialist Alternative.