Fiji… What to do about Fiji?

by Dom on May 21, 2011

The most serious and interesting issue from the last week (and probably for the week ahead) has definitely been the flight of Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara from Fiji to Tonga. This has made some things abundantly clear, raised a few questions, and been met with mixed reactions. The responses of Canberra and Wellington have been particularly telling, showing as little leadership as we have come to expect on anything to do with Fiji, the Fijian military regime has sampled its feet, the media has remained rather quiet after an initial flurry, and Tonga has played its cards quite close.

After the 2006 coup Australia and New Zealand’s relationship with Fiji deteriorated severely. Diplomatic engagement is practically nonexistent, and engagement even rarer. I have mentioned before that ignoring a problem does not make it go away, and have compared this situation to the London’s approach to the IRA, especially in the 1980s. At the same time, a non-democratic Fiji is not the problem for Australia and New Zealand as repeated bombings and assassinations were for the UK. Just last week we heard from a top think tank that engaging Fiji would simply legitimise the regime. I’m not convinced that is a problem, but as I have said before, Canberra and Wellington just don’t really care. Since writing that post, I dare say domestic events have galvanised lack of interest.

Enough of the background, back to the topic at hand. Mara and the Tongan Navy have brought Fiji back to centre stage, and have elicited a range of commentary form a range of people. Some of it has been great, some of it less constructive. Here’s my take on it, with a different perspective.

Australia has been very quiet about the whole affair, but what do you expect from a Prime Minister who has no interest in foreign policy? And given the state of her domestic political situation, Gillard probably has no time to consider the welfare of one Pacific Islander and a boat, so long as he doesn’t come to Australia. Even then, his welfare probably wouldn’t be considered. Maybe Australia could learn a thing or two about hospitality towards maritime arrivals from Tongan King George Tupou V. Furthermore, the Tongan high commissioner in Canberra is the King’s brother, heir presumptive to the throne, and ex-Prime Minister, so there is a good chance DFAT and anyone else who cares are as informed as they want to be. No matter how informed that may be, Julia still doesn’t care.

As for New Zealand, John Key’s comment that Wellington should have known what was happening came complete with generous lashings of hypocracy and arogance. Given New Zealand’s stance has been to disengage, condemn and ignore, stating that they should have known implies an interest, but maybe a serious lack of intelligence where Fiji current affairs are concerned? In reality John Key missed a perfect opportunity to engage with Bainimarama and Fiji when he became Prime Minister as he could align the policy however he pleased. Like Julia Gillard, foreign policy isn’t the currency-trader-from-Christchurch’s primary interest. But this is all well known, the question so many are asking is, what should the rest of the Pacific community do next?

Although the latest incident has brought Fijian issues to the fore again, now is certainly not the time to be calling for change from across the seas, or trying to publically engage with Bainimarama or the RFMF. If you had just been made to look ineffectual and listless by someone formerly so close to you, would you have any interest advice form forceful and generally tactless outsiders? Probably not; think something along the lines of your ex-girlfriend’s mother giving you advice on how to move on…. Although significant in itself, the flight of Mara to Tonga is no special catalyst for sudden and/or public alteration to current policy towards Fiji. It is interesting and refocuses attention, but as Murray McCully said, there is still much that needs to play out.

But in the meantime, there needs to be more than just sitting idle and occasionally sniping from afar. That doesn’t build engagement, rapport, trust or goodwill. Ignoring Fiji also effectively gives the regime carte blanche to do as it desires. The negative comments and personal attacks now serve to let Commodore and his cadre know who he can ignore. Furthermore, general policy, at least for Australia and New Zealand, has been to make life more difficult for the Fijian military and their connections, while keeping the negative impact of the general Fijian population to a minimum. While commendable and ultimately sustainable in perpetuity, it has been shown to be little more than an irritation to most its intended targets.

Given that in over four years we have seen precious little movement towards democratisation or even a positive internal shift in power balance, the current policy is basically one of attrition. This makes the focus on will crack first. Will the military decide they have achieved their aims and return to democracy, and almost certain reduction in size and influence? Not likely. Maybe the population take to the streets in protest in a fashion similar to the Philippines in 1986 or as currently being seen throughout the Middle East?  More likely, and I would tip the outcome to be more in line with the Philippines than Syria, but still unlikely. Also seemingly unlikely, is that someone usurps (read: assassinates?) the Commodore, and who knows what might happen then. The status quo, from a civilian perspective at least, is about as constructive as the US-Cuban relationship, and that is potentially testament to the leadership and creativity of those in power. Fiji may be highly fractured and show some signs of instability, but again, whining about a problem and very publically doing nothing about it is hardly a solution!

In light of all this, I have a very limited list of realistic suggestions as to how the Pacific’s states, especially Australia and New Zealand, can influence the situation in Fiji. They focus heavily on multi-track diplomacy, and specifically track II diplomacy, back channels and shuttle diplomacy. When looking at other disputes, some clear cases of successful influence can be learnt from; however, attempting to convince an unnecessarily large military regime to reinstate democracy is a rather tricky situation….

As ignoring a problem and cutting it out of the international system don’t work, I suggest serious consideration of back channelling and track two diplomacy, especially to address the goals outlined in the paragraphs below.

In order to influence in an effective way, and maintain the current policy of not impacting too negatively on the general population, and not push Fiji closer to China or another ally, states must engage. To do this openly and publically would simply justify the credibility of Fiji, and would probably be met with a swift refusal anyway. Therefore, retired statesmen, business leaders, respected third parties or other people with mana such as military leaders acting in a civilian capacity need to engage with whoever they can on the Fijian side. Over time, trust and access to higher levels of power will grow. Any form of diplomatic conduit, especially one out of the public and media eye, is a bonus.

A more targeted option is to engage in dialogue, through the channels outlined above, and discover what the goals of the regime currently are. If these seem supportable to other parties, then offer support to get them to happen. For example, if Fiji is to hold elections in 2014, offer assistance. Even offering largess, sweeteners or other benefits, whatever you choose to call them, is better than doing nothing for gaining influence. And if it is conducted behind closed doors and away from wider scrutiny or publication, it may just have some chance of making an impact. As outlined above, given the current domestic situations in Australia and New Zealand, this is probably not currently a viable option on any large scale, but some contact is better than none, especially if elections are pursued.

We’ll watch this space.  And probably see very little change. Or leadership, from anyone but Commodore Bainimarama.

Questions, comments, thoughts, retorts?

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