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Victor Lal was educated in his native Fiji Islands and at the University of Oxford and specializes in conflicts, coups and constitutionalism in multi-ethnic states. He was Reuters, Wingate and Research Fellow at Oxford. Victor Lal was Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Scandinavian Studies, University College, London, Guest Nobel Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, and was an associate researcher on 'Project 1905: Swedish-Norwegian Relations for 200 Years', hosted by the University of Oslo. He has held visiting fellowships in Norway, South Africa, Australia and Fiji Islands. Among his publications include Fiji: Coups in Paradise-Race, Politics and Military Intervention and a forthcoming book Towards a World Without War: Andrew Carnegie, Peacemakers and Nobel Peace Prize, 1901-1951. He is completing a book on East African Indians and the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya and the biography of Justice Ransley Thacker, the judge who jailed Jomo Kenyatta. In 2008 Victor Lal was co-winner of Fiji’s prestigious Robert Keith-Reid Award for Outstanding Journalism.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Security forces pose biggest threat to democracy: Chaudhry

The coup culture in Fiji, the Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry recently told India, was part of the political process, which he hopes will be eradicated when we return to democracy. Back home, the Interim Government has embarked on finding the causes of the coup culture, and how a stop could be made to it. Maybe, it should begin by interrogating the views of one its own – Mr Chaudhry who, in 2002, wrote up a detailed thesis on the coup culture in the country. His views titled “The Aftermath of a Coup: Power grabs and destabilization in Fiji” are contained in The Parliamentarian, the journal of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth, and the views were expressed after he was overthrown in part-Fijian George Speight’s 2000 coup.

Mr Chaudhry contended that the security forces posed the biggest threat to the stability to any democratically elected government in Fiji. The people of Fiji, he reminded his fellow Commonwealth parliamentarians, had been victims of three military coups to date. “The events of the past two years in particular have shown that neither the police nor the army can be trusted to uphold the constitution and maintain law and order. No elected government that is not of their choice will ever be safe in this country if this situation is allowed to go unchecked,” he wrote. Indeed, unless this situation is negated, he claimed, “Fiji will simply become another Indonesia where the military has formed an oligarchy with allegedly corrupt politicians and business interests”.

He claimed in his analysis that the Fijian army was split along provincial loyalties, was ethnically biased and some from among its ranks had allegedly become dangerous mercenaries. Mr Chaudhry maintained that the military had maintained a power bloc with corrupt politicians, unscrupulous businessmen and factional groups from the three Fijian confederates and the provinces to ensure that the held the reins of government, irrespective of who won the elections. He even claimed that the Fiji Police Force had been infiltrated by the army and could no longer be trusted to maintain law and order. The whole issue of security, he claimed, had racial overtones. Indo-Fijians and indeed Indo-Fijian politicians could no longer trust either the army or the police. “Racial parity both in the police force and in the army is, therefore, imperative,” he said.

What about the role of Commodore Frank Bainimarama in the 2000 crisis? In the same issue of The Parliamentarian the recently deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase had expressed his own views about the reasons for the coup culture in Fiji under the title “Rebuilding peace, stability and prosperity in Fiji”. Typically, he had defended the attempted coup in the now famous “Tagi ni Taukei” theory. According to him, on 19 May 2000 he was visiting one of the country’s outer islands as chairman of a select committee of the Senate when “suddenly someone came rushing into the meeting room to relay a radio report about an attempted coup in the capital Suva”. The news, according to him, stunned the committee members, and they were all filled with apprehension about the consequences for the country. In a set of circumstances Mr Qarase could never have imagined, he was asked to take a leadership role in steering Fiji back from the brink.

According to Mr Qarase, the military took action to protect the safety and security of citizens and the integrity of the state. It was never, he claimed, their intention to form a permanent military government. They were committed, especially, to ensuring Mr Chaudhry and other hostages were freed unharmed. They succeeded in that after very complex negotiations. He pointed out that the army returned to the barracks at the end of 2001, when the National Security Council judged that law and order had improved to the point when the police could again resume their normal role.

Reflecting on the first days after 19 May 2000, Mr Qarase told his fellow Commonwealth parliamentarians: “I followed the drama of the insurrection closely, as a citizen very much concerned for his country. Fiji was experiencing an unprecedented ordeal and when the army moved I felt it had an opportunity to bring back order and help people to feel safe in their homes again. But at no stage did I think I would be called on to play a part in the saving of the country.” As we know, Mr Qarase’s whole career had been in the civil service, development banking and commercial finance.

According to him, in early June, Commodore Bainimarama asked him if he could give financial advice to the military administration. “I did not hesitate. In my view-and that of many others-the army was motivated out of concern for the country. It gave hope when all was darkness. It was not long after this that I was asked by Commodore Bainimarama to head an interim civilian cabinet with freedom to appoint Ministers of my choice. There was a more difficult decision to make here. Acceptance meant giving up a well-paying and secure post as Managing Director of Merchant Bank. I would be moving into an extremely volatile and possibly dangerous political environment. I had my wife, children, and grandchildren to think about. They were central to my life,” Mr Qarase wrote.

But the love of Fiji and her hour of need made Mr Qarase accept Commodore Bainimarama’s offer to become interim Prime Minister. The interim military administration soon gave way to an interim civilian government. Commodore Bainimarama invited the Great Council of Chiefs to appoint a civilian President. They duly appointed Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who had served as Vice-President to the ousted President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Looking on his appointment, Mr Qarase wrote: “Of course, there were some loud protests about the fact that we were unelected. The protestors found it difficult to accept that in the Fijian environment at that time, it was simply not feasible for the ousted government to return to office. That would have led us into even greater difficulties. Emphasis on legal and constitutional niceties might have played well in certain overseas forums, but in 2000 they had little relevance to the reality of our position. The constitution had become just a piece of paper. We need pragmatism and common sense to help us move forward.”

Mr Qarase also pointed out that the civil service had stayed solidly intact as a neutral and independent body, the Reserve Bank was vigilant in maintaining financial stability, and the judiciary dispensed justice; the court remained open. There was, however, division among the judges, he conceded, over the actions of Chief Justice Sir Timoci Tuivaqa, who later spoke of fundamentally differing perceptions of the rule of law, separation of powers and judicial independence at a time of dangerous and confusing crisis. According to Mr Qarase, the former CJ “acted to preserve the judiciary because without it, Fiji would have moved closer to total collapse”. “My Interim Administration fully supported the actions he took. Pragmatism and common sense in safeguarding the well-being of the state and all its citizens clearly constituted the right approach to take in the circumstances. Those who favoured a strictly legalistic approach were out of touch with reality. Sir Timoci, in my view, has been vindicated,” Mr Qarase asserted.

Someone asked Mr Qarase whether the response of the international community had been helpful in Fiji’s endeavours to put our situation right. He answered as follows: “I have said that we always felt we had the ability to solve our own problems, in our own way. We appreciated those countries which understood this, who gave us space and did not try to pressure us.” Ironically, the alchemy of exile, and the loss of political power have forced the deposed Prime Minister Qarase to sing to a totally different tune from his native Mavana Island in Lau. He is not in a mood to listen to Commodore Bainimarama’s plea for pragmatism as the army chief tries to search for solutions to move the country forward from the debris of a fourth coup.

Mr Qarase is, however, following in Mr Chaudhry’s footsteps. In his article in the Parliamentarian, Mr Chaudhry recalled Justice Anthony Gates now famous 15 November 2000 judgment that the interim administration then led by Mr Qarase had “no constitutional foundation of legality”. Mr Chaudhry told his fellow Commonwealth parliamentarians that faced with the intransigence of those who grabbed power, his deposed Peoples Coalition government had no other recourse but to seek redress through the courts. Meanwhile, the army, the President and the interim administration gave an assurance to the Commonwealth and the rest of the international community that they would abide by the Appeals Court ruling. On 1 March 2001, the Fiji Court of Appeal, Mr Chaudhry noted, upheld the Gates ruling and the validity of the constitution. It went further and ruled that the actions of the army commander in abrogating the constitution and assuming executive authority could not be justified under the doctrine of necessity.

The ruling paved the way for Parliament to be reconvened and the elected government restored to office. This, however, was hardly what the post-coup authorities had in mind. “What took place in Fiji next was a blatant and wilful distortion and manipulation of the constitutional and legal system to allow the army-backed regime to continue in office,” Mr Chaudhry claimed. On 14 March 2001, President Ratu Josefa dismissed Mr Chaudhry and proceeded to appoint Ratu Tevita Momedonu, a member of Chaudhry’s ousted government, as Prime Minister for 24 hours to legalize his next move. He then dissolved Parliament on Ratu Tevita’s advice and reappointed Mr Qarase as caretaker Prime Minister. In his analysis of the events, Mr Chaudhry described Ratu Tevita as “a puppet Prime Minister” and the whole appointment for a day was farcical and it made a mockery of the constitution.

Mr Chaudhry also went on to berate the President himself: “The constitution requires the President to be appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the Prime Minister. In the next questionable move Ratu Josefa Iloilo, placed in office after the coup and who the Appeals Court declared to be in an acting capacity only, convened a meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs, and got himself appointed President.” What all these events clearly meant, he claimed, was that Fiji’s post-coup authorities had no respect for the rule of law.

Mr Chaudhry once again also cast doubt on the subsequent 2001 general elections, claiming that the elections were not free and fair. He also attacked the suspended Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki, who had replaces Sir Timoci. “The Chief Justice has, in my view, continued to frustrate legal challenges to some of the developments since the terrorist attack of 19 May 2000 by interfering with the judicial process, and indulging in judge-shopping. Such antics have brought disrepute to the judiciary, and puts its integrity and credibility on the line. Much of what has transpired in the last couple of years has, I contend, been done with the connivance or complicity of some members of the judiciary,” Mr Chaudhry claimed.

He also condemned the Commonwealth for hastily and injudiciously lifting sanctions etc on Fiji. While condemning the forces of destabilization, he said the Commonwealth was effectively giving tacit encouragement to these elements.

Reflecting on the tragic and bloody 2 November 2000 mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks when the rebels made a last ditch attempt to seize the army headquarters and remove Commodore Bainimarama, Mr Chaudhry told his fellow Commonwealth parliamentarians: “It is important to note hear that the army’s decisive move to restore law and order was driven more by its determination to purge its own ranks of rebellious elements and their supporters who posed a threat to the commander’s life, than from a desire to restore democracy. Furthermore, having achieved the objectives of the coup and established a government of its choice, it was ready to provide the stability that was a prerequisite for that administration to function effectively.”

Thereafter, it quickly became clear, Mr Chaudhry continued, that the army-backed interim administration had no intention of relinquishing power and restoring the elected government to office. “Today there is convincing evidence that senior army officers and several senior members of the post-coup administration had been party to the conspiracy to overthrow the People’s Coalition government,” Mr Chaudhry claimed. He contended that the security forces posed the biggest threat to stability to any democratically elected government in Fiji.

And yet Mr Chaudhry had no hesitation to become Interim Finance Minister in a military-led government? Why? A coup is a coup? Who are the senior army officers who pose a threat to Fiji?