Fiji Lifts Martial Law, but Introduces New Restrictions
January 12, 2012
Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama’s New Year’s Day announcement that the government will lift emergency powers has been met with considerable skepticism, but it might be considered a first positive step forward. The announcement included promises to hold democratic elections by September 2014, draft a new constitution by September 2012, and reduce military and police powers. Bainimarama’s second announcement on January 6 about new regulations, however, raises questions about whether the government will continue to silence its opponents. While the initial decree ostensibly removed martial law, it appears that the Public Order Act (Amendment Act, 2012) may have reinstated the draconian Public Emergency Regulations (PERs) in all but name.
The political history of Fiji, a former British colony made up of more than 300 islands in the central Pacific Ocean, has been turbulent over the past 25 years. The nation has experienced four military coups and had three different constitutions since gaining independence from Britain in 1970. Commander Bainimarama led the most recent coup in 2006 to install an “interim” government that has remained in power since that time.
Bainimarama in 2009 abrogated Fiji’s constitution, a move that prompted the Court of Appeal to label his government unconstitutional. In response, Bainimarama sacked the judiciary and instituted the PERs, which increased police and military powers, imposed strict press censorship, and tightly controlled public gatherings. Fiji has lost its membership in the British Commonwealth and been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) as a result of continuing martial law rule and human rights violations.
Leaders of neighboring countries, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and the European Union’s ambassador to Fiji have all greeted the removal of the PERs as a positive sign, but have repeated calls for substantial progress toward the restoration of democracy. Australia and New Zealand have imposed heavy sanctions on Fiji since 2009 and have stood by their decision to largely sever relations until democracy is restored.
Bainimarama’s promise to hold elections in 2014 remains plausible, but the key question is whether other candidates will be allowed on the ballot. Because recent developments appear unlikely to meaningfully increase political freedom, it remains to be seen whether Bainimarama will permit any legitimate opposition. The exodus of political opponents from Fiji resulting from three years of martial rule, the sacking of the judiciary, and the long-time suppression of the opposition further complicates the prospects for democratic elections. Life may become easier for groups previously targeted by the PERs (particularly the press and the Methodist Church), but they will need to continue to act cautiously because they can still be punished for remarks the government considers inflammatory under the Public Order Amendment Act, says Jenny Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute for International Studies (Australia).
Fiji’s return to democracy will have important implications for the region, particularly for the PIF. Fiji’s position as a natural regional leader has led to concerns that the PIF remains a weakened institution as long as Fiji’s suspension continues. Australia, New Zealand, and other members of the PIF have reiterated their willingness to reinstate Fiji’s membership to the PIF, but they insist on clear improvements in the protection of human rights and civil liberties before this can occur.
When Fiji’s neighbors welcome the nation back to regional and multilateral negotiations, it is likely to lead to important economic growth for both Fiji and the PIF as a whole. Hayward-Jones argues that the current developments could provide an opportunity for regional involvement in Fiji’s constitutional consultation process, potentially allowing Fiji’s more stable neighbors to peacefully expedite the return of democracy.
If Fiji remains excluded from regional partnership and dialogue, it is conceivable the nation could drift toward an alliance with China. That shift would be at the expense of involvement in the PIF and a strong relationship with Australia. This is a real possibility because while China has played an increasing financial role in Fiji—funding infrastructure projects through soft loans, for example—Australia and New Zealand have continued their tough policies against the nation. Alarmed about losing its regional influence, Australia is starting to relax its sanctions and recently announced that it would double its bilateral aid to Fiji to $36.8 million in 2013–2014.
The most important process to watch in Fiji in the days ahead is the development of the constitutional consultation. It is not unprecedented in Fiji for a new constitution to prove generally acceptable and capable of resolving grievances. It is also possible that the momentum generated by Bainimarama’s New Year’s Day message will usher in a movement of reform and political freedom. Although there has been no significant progress in Fiji yet, the prime minister’s announcement has provided a spark that could generate much-needed political change—particularly if regional powers such as Australia take this opportunity to engage Fiji and encourage moves toward democracy.
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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.