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Military Versus Government In Fiji

Military Versus Government In Fiji

A cloud still hangs over the Fiji Military Forces. How many officers in the armed forces are against the Commander Frank Bainimarama? What role, if any, did the current government or the Home Ministry play in the January confrontation. As Fiji heads towards another election, the ghosts of 2000 are still lingering in the shadows.

By SANJAY RAMESH in Sydney


DURING the height of an armed takeover in 2000, the Fiji military once again intervened in politics, following growing lawlessness in the streets of Suva. The Commander of the Fiji Military Forces rescinded the 1997 Constitution and declared martial law and started a series of negotiations with the hostage takers, barricaded inside Fiji's Parliamentary complex with their prized hostages, who were members of the Peoples' Coalition Government.

When the hostage crisis ended after a 56 days siege, the Fiji Military Forces arrested the hostage takers and installed an all indigenous Fijian Interim Government headed by former banker and Senator Laisania Qarase. In 2001, an Indo-Fijian farmer, Chandrika Prasad challenged the abrogation of the Constitution in the High Court and won, forcing the Interim Government to go to the polls under a newly invented political party, Sosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL).

The Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), which had in 1990 blessed the formation of Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa in Taukei Party (SVT), publicly withdrew its support for that party, ushering in a new era when indigenous Fijians could make up their own mind at the poll.

The struggle between the Government and the Fiji Military forces began not long after the August 2001 general elections. The ruling SDL and Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV) quickly tried to hide coup suspects by providing them with lucrative positions overseas, in Senate and in Cabinet. The net result was ongoing frustration within the armed forces, where the Fiji Military Forces Commander Frank Bainimarama took it upon himself to ensure that those who conspired to execute Fiji's third coup did not escape justice. For the Commander, a number of his own men were facing mutiny charges for their part in storming the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in November 2000 with plans for his execution. Concerned about dissension and divisions and fears that parts of the army had become "rogue", the Commander spearheaded investigations into members of the armed forces involvement in the May 2000 coup.

Scenarios
It was not until December 2003 when allegations surfaced that the military commander Bainimarama provided scenarios to senior officers for deposing the SDL-CAMV Government. Some senior officers went to the press with allegations that the military commander Bainimarama planned to depose the government. The panic stricken SDL Prime Minister, Laisania Qarase, hastily composed and convened a National Security Council and recommended a Commission of Inquiry against Bainimarama. However, the Government's proposed Commission of Inquiry was rejected by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, following consultations with the army commander but tensions between the Government and the Commander continued.

The first of the high profile chiefs to face the full brunt of the of law in Fiji was Ratu Jope Seniloli. The Bauan high chief and Vice President of the Republic of Fiji was convicted of treason for his part in the illegal takeover of the Peoples' Coalition Government in May 2000. State witness Ratu Tua'akitau Cokanauto summed up by stating that "in our traditional roles as chiefs, when Ratu Seru Cakobau (the king of Fiji who ceded Fiji to Great Britain) put down his club, he took up the rule of law". The questions at the trial of the high chief "were not here to judge Fijian tradition, but Fiji law". However, the Government of Fiji was of a different view and argued in public that the chief was dispensing his traditional duties during the illegal takeover and as such should not be punished.

On 26 November 2004, Justice Anthony Gates convicted Naitasiri high chief Ratu Inoke Takiveikata on three counts of inciting mutiny, aimed at deposing the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces Commodore Bainimarama. Metuisela Turagacati and another person known only as Kadi arranged a number of meetings between Ratu Takiveikata and members of the army's Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU) including its leader, Captain Shane Stevens. The two became state witnesses and revealed in detail how the Naitasiri chief wanted to repeat the events of May 2000 and get villagers to congregate and eventually barricade themselves inside the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in support of the mutiny in November 2000.

On the same day, the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice announced that Ratu Jope Seniloli will be released on Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO) due to health reasons. Ratu Seniloli and four others Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, Peceli Rinakama, Viliame Volavola and Viliame Savu were convicted of taking an engagement in the nature of an oath to commit a capital offence.

The Fiji Military Forces closely monitored the situation and Commander Bainimarama publicly expressed disappointment at the speed with which the Attorney General moved to free Ratu Seniloli. Bainimarama rightly stated that the intervention by the state in releasing Seniloli sent a wrong signal to future coup conspirators. His calls were also supported by opposition parties in Fiji.

Grievances
Government response was to malign the commander in the media by accusing him of "not following proper channels to air his grievance". The commander very well knew that the National Security Council established by the Government was merely a tool for special interest within government to support and influence government decisions on coup suspects rather than to objectively review issues of national security. Since the Commander was already off-side with the Government over allegations that he planned to oust the SDL/CAMV Government, Commander Bainimarama found it extremely difficult to get for any meaningful redress to army grievances from the National Security Council or from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The SDL/CAMV Government was literally out to undermine the Commander and some ammunition was provided following audit claims that the military misused $3 million for the purchase of army uniforms. Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was called in to investigate falsification and manipulation of invoices and Local Purchase Orders (LPOs). The auditor's 2004 report revealed how approval from the Major Tenders Board was not obtained for all purchases made and how this resulted in the unauthorised issue of Local Purchase Orders totalling more than $2.54 million.

Meanwhile, senior officers continued to support the military commander, Former Land Forces Commander, Colonel Ioane Naivalurua , spoke at a special parade at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva to mark the beginning of 2005 defended the actions taken by Commodore Bainimarama on several issues. The Colonel reiterated earlier calls from Bainimarama for full and impartial investigation into the events of 2000 and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Government meanwhile had plans of its own and reduced the military budget, forcing the army commander to withdraw bodyguards for Prime Minister Qarase. Members of Cabinet complained that the manner in which the guards were withdrawn was very unprofessional. However, the military explained that the guards were not provided for in the budget. Furthermore, Department of Finance held the Commander personally responsible for blowing out the military budget and issued a garnishee order where a portion of Bainimarama's salary was appropriated to pay for the deficit.

Public war of words
A period of intense public war of words transpired between the army and the Government. In what was a major escalation, Fiji's military commander asked the United Nations to cooperate in returning a former military spokesman, to assist with investigations into the 2000 coup and subsequent military mutiny in the country. Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini is officially listed by the Fiji Military Forces as a deserter. Following his departure from Fiji, Tarakinikini was based in New York for some time, and was reportedly working as a security officer for the United Nations in Israel.

During the court martial of mutineer Corporal Lagilagi Vosabeci, former Government Printer Pio Bosco Tikoisuva told the military court on 17 February 2005 that Fiji Military Forces spokesman Lt-Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini was to be the new chief-of-staff when George Speight and his group overthrew the elected government in May 2000. Tarakinikini was the hostage negotiator and played a leading role in negotiating the Muanikau Accord, which gave immunity to the George Speight group.

While Tarakinikini remained on the Fiji Military Forces most wanted list, the Minister of Home Affairs as well as Foreign Affairs hit out at the Commander for bypassing its office and making a direct request to United Nations for relieving Colonel Saubulinayau in Iraq and in its place nominating Colonel Samuela Saumatua. Fiji TV reported that Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola was called in to facilitate the military's directive for a change of command in the guard in Iraq in what appears to be an embarrassment for government.

On 4 April 2005, Lands Minister Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, Senator Ratu Josefa Dimuri, Tui Wailevu Ratu Rokodewala Niumataiwalu and Tui Nadogo Ratu Viliame Rovabokola were convicted for unlawful assembly at Sukanaivalu Barracks in Labasa at the height of the political crisis in 2000. Immediately after the verdict, Prime Minister Laisania Qarase visited both Ratu Lalabalavu and Ratu Dimuri in prison and shortly afterwards both were released on Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO).

The Commander once again criticised the Government for demonstrating poor judgment and a war of words similar to the one a year earlier regarding the release of Ratu Jope Seniloli ensued. The Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF) president, Reverend Akuila Yabaki, asked "what about the hundreds of prisoners who have been serving their sentences and have been on good behaviour? They will now learn that they are lesser human beings than a government Minister or Senator under the Qarase government. Are they going to release Senator Ratu Takiveitaka responsible for the mutiny and seven deaths at the FMF as well? A Minister sentenced by our Courts should serve his sentence on the same terms as other citizens."

Fit of rage
Opposition parties were less than impressed except for the Government's coalition partner CAMV, which believes it was the culturally appropriate thing to do. In a fit of rage, CAMU accused the Commander for inciting instability. Ratu Naiqama, meanwhile, pledged his party's very strong support for continuing the on-going consultations with the SDL, on the two coalition partners forming and presenting a united front at 2006 General Elections.

On 5 May 2005, another four were convicted of coup related offences. Tevita Bukarau, Metuisela Mua and Eroni Lewaqai were sentenced to two-and-a-half years each while Viliame Sausauwai received a two-year jail term and Joji Bakoso, 15 months . On the same day, the Government of Fiji announced the establishment of an independent Reconciliation and Unity Commission under the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill (RTU).

The problem, according to critics, was that a Unity Commission close to the 2006 General Elections was ill-conceived. Victims of the coup asked why such a Commission was not established earlier, since the Government was in office from August 2001. Victim groups, opposition and Non Government Organisations (NGOs) were also concerned that from the outset the Prime Minister as well as the Attorney General have made a case that a majority of indigenous Fijians involved in the 2000 upheavals did so because of customary obligation. This was a dangerous precedent, aimed at undermining the rule of law in Fiji.

The hunt for coup conspirators continued relentlessly with the case against the Minister for Transport Simione Kaitani resuming on 14 June. Kaitani along with Levani Tonitonivanua, Viliame Sausauwai and Eroni Lewaqai were charged for taking illegal oath in George Speight's civilian government. Television footage used by the prosecution showed Kaitani among those present at the George Speight swearing in ceremony. While Kaitani was found "not guilty" by the courts, another government senator, Apisai Tora, was convicted of unlawful assembly involving the takeover of a military checkpoint in Nadi.

The Qarase Government defended coup supporters and stated that there were more than 20,000 indigenous Fijians who converged on Parliament at the height of the crisis in 2000 and that it will take a long time to finalise all investigations, causing more divisions and frustrations as a result. Prime Minister Laisania Qarase considered it in the national interest to seek closure on the events of 2000 through the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill.

Bill condemned
The Commander of the Fiji Military Forces criticised the Bill as an instrument designed to undermine the judiciary, the Office of Public Prosecution, the Fiji Police Force and the Military that played a leading role in ensuring that the perpetrators of the 2000 coup were brought to justice. The Fiji Military Forces argued that the amnesty provision in the Bill would provide a licence to coup perpetrators to continue on the path of lawlessness.

Meanwhile the Government went to various provincial councils and presented the Bill as an opportunity to heal the wounds of 2000. The Government explained that the Bill was inspired by the Christian ethos of forgiveness. However, it did not explain the inequities inherent in the Bill. For example, the perpetrators may not tell the truth or seek meaningful reconciliation with the victims but could be granted amnesty, whereas the victims have to prove "gross human rights violation" before being considered for reparation.

The Fiji Military Forces Commander argued that the Bill was a form of ethnic clensing. By proclaiming in the Bill that the events of 2000 were prompted by the collective fear of indigenous Fijians in their homeland, the Government of Fiji has provided a legal rationale for indigenous Fijian perpetrators to claim amnesty and subsequently escape justice.

Commander Bainimarama also criticised members of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) and the Methodist Church for supporting the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill. The Commander revealed that members of the current government had approached him at the Fijian Holdings boardroom in 2000 to overthrow the current President Ratu Josefa Ilolilo.

Commander Bainimarama threatened the Government that he will expose members of the government involved in the events of 2000. While the war of words between the Government and Bainimarama intensified over the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill, the mutiny trial was suspended by the High Court after a new military commission was ordered for the mutineers. Bainimarama blamed the bail of nine mutineers on 23 December 2005 and the delay in convening the court martial on Home Affairs Chief Executive Dr Lesi Korovavala.

According to the commander, Dr Korovavala was directly responsible for "unstable" and "insecure" decisions. Bainimarama recommended that lawyer Graham Leung be appointed Judge Advocate for the military court on a salary of $130,000 but the Home Affairs prolonged a decision on the matter, recommending a reduction of salary to $30,000. The Commander on 25 December challenged the Home Affairs Minister and Chief Executive Dr Lesi Korovavala, stating that the delay in finalising the court martial was a deliberate ploy by authorities to divide the army.

The Commander was also furious that the government was continuing with the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill and had plans to make only cosmetic changes. Besides being criticised by the Ministry of Home Affairs for attacking the Ministry, the Chief Executive Officer in Prime Minister's Office Jiogi Kotabalavu cautioned the commander not to meddle in government policy and SDL General Secretary Jale Baba requested that the commander join a political party and test his popularity at the upcoming general election.

Call to resign
On 3 January 2006, the Commander called on the Government of Fiji to resign and stated that the Government was effectively attempting to shield coup suspects through the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill and that the non-renewal of the contract of Deputy Public Prosecutor, Peter Ridgeway were cited as some of the many examples of government covert activity aimed at undermining the rule of law in Fiji.

Meanwhile Police Commissioner, Andrew Hughes, confirmed that some 2000 individuals were interviewed by investigators in relation to 28 different offences during August 1999 to November 2000. Hughes also confirmed that the police were investigating claims by Sydney resident Maciu Navakasuasua about an alleged conspiracy to blow up businesses, the Wailekutu Fiji Electricity Authority Transformer, and Nadi Airport. Also on the list were new allegations of plans to kill members of the Peoples' Coalition Government at the height of the 2000 crisis.

Realising that public exchange between the Home Ministry and the Commander had got out of hand, the Home Ministry quickly finalised the appointment of lawyer Graham Leung on 4 January.
In another development it was revealed that hitech weapons destined for the military had been diverted to the police. On 8 January, Bainimarama threatened to overthrow the Government. On 12 January, Acting Land Forces Commander, Colonel Baledrokadroka confronted the army commander at the Nabua barracks over threats to depose the government. Rumours quickly spread that the dissenters within the army were under arrest. Colonel Baledrokadroka was cited for insubordination and resigned from the armed forces. According to the Baledrokadroka, a "treasonous" directive from the military commander caused him to confront Bainimarama. A National Security Council meeting was quickly organised by Prime Minister Qarase who went on national television appealing for calm.

The situation at the army camp on 12 January highlighted divisions within the ranks of senior officers. But of greater concern is the ongoing tension between the army and the Government. The army is steadfast in its belief that the Government is hiding behind "indigenous rights" to protect known coup conspirators. The army has highlighted the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill and a series of interventions following high profile verdicts to release coup convicts on compulsory supervision.

On 16 January the Acting President of Fiji, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, intervened to calm the tensions between the government and the armed forces by brokering a meeting between Commander Bainimarama and Prime Minister Laisania Qarase. As a result of the meeting Fiji Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes and Bainimarama will be invited to attend a National Security Council meeting. Fiji's Prime Minister also promised that the military's concerns regarding the Racial Tolerance and Unity Bill will be looked into and as a result, the tabling of the Bill in its final form has been deferred from the scheduled February 2006 parliamentary session. As for the Commander, he has to seek clearance from government before going to the press.

Political parties are divided in their opinion on the tension between the government and the army. National Federation Party has condemned the Commander for threatening to depose the Government whereas the Fiji Labour Party stated that Bainimarama's concerns are "legitimate". The Fiji Labour Party alleged in a press release that the government was behind plans to depose the Commander and called on the Prime Minister of Fiji and the Home Affairs Minister and his Chief Executive Officer to resign. Government's coalition partner CAMV has repeatedly called on authorities to sack the commander and National Alliance Party leader Ratu Epeli Ganilau and United General Party leader Mick Beddoes have blamed the SDL government for continuing the impasse.

A cloud still hangs over the Fiji Military Forces. How many officers in the armed forces are against the Commander Frank Bainimarama? What exactly transpired between the Land Forces Commander and the Commander of the Fiji Military Forces on 12 January 2006 and what role, if any, did the current government or the Home Ministry play in this confrontation.

As Fiji heads towards another election, the ghosts of 2000 are still lingering in the shadows and continues to show its ugly head in one form or another.

- Copyright 2006: Sanjay Ramesh

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