[Originally published in slightly shorter form in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
Note for online readers: For more detailed analysis and reporting of the situation in Fiji, I’d recommend the perceptive and well-sourced Coup Four and a Half blog. In its own words:
This blog has been created to allow stories and information that have been supressed or banned by the administration of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as a result of the decision by the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to impose Public Emergency Regulations, which has led to heavy handed censoring of the media.
Recently, numerous commentators in Vanuatu and other Pacific countries have complained loud and long that Commodore Frank Bainimarama is being treated unfairly by the media. The real bad guys, they say, were the ones who so abused the shambles of Fijian democracy that the army leader was left no choice but to intervene.
Furthermore, they argue, the problems of governance in Fiji are significant enough that holding elections before 2014 (the date recently suggested by the ruling junta) would only result in a return to the same sorry state the nation was in before. In short: Fiji can have its coup now or later, but by having it now, we can rest assured that it’s happening for the right reasons, guided by the right man.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this argument. It’s true that some reports, especially those appearing in Australian popular media, tend to miss the point that Fijian democracy was deplorably weak when Bainimarama took over. Furthermore, the hard rhetorical line taken by the governments of Australia and New Zealand hasn’t done much to improve the situation for anyone.
Frank Bainimarama is without a doubt a patriot who cares deeply about the welfare of his nation. But the question is whether any single patriot should rule Fiji.
To be sure, Fiji needs to clean house. But the process by which this is accomplished is more important than any other consideration. The current regime’s apologists might say that the Commodore became disgusted with the tenants’ behaviour and, like any good landlord would, he turfed them out.
A commendable act, perhaps, but here’s the thing: It’s not his house.
The arbitrary use of coercive force is antithetical to democracy. Fiji’s military is known worldwide as an effective and disciplined force, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that (for the most part) they’ve shown discipline and restraint in spite of having no checks on their authority. But the very things that make it an effective fighting force make it perfectly unsuited to govern.
Government in a healthy, pluralistic society is a messy, disorganised, often self-contradictory contraption. Dissent, competition and the basic precept that a candidate succeeds or fails based on his standing in the eyes of his peers are all necessary to its proper functioning. Military organisations are necessarily designed to stifle all of these.
There’s a good reason why the military in every healthy democracy subordinates itself to the nation’s political leaders. It is precisely in order to ensure that discipline, unity of action and obedience for their own sake do not end up taking the country down a path the populace is not willing to follow.
Recent events in US political history have led to vigourous arguments about the nature of a unitary executive, but alas, even that kind of questing debate about the exercise of power is not currently possible within Fiji’s borders. As wise and well-meaning as Frank Bainimarama may be, he cannot be allowed to rule alone. He is, after all, one man, just as fallible and prone to human frailty as the rest of us.
And here we come to the crux of the problem: Nobody who’s given it more than passing thought would deny that the de-colonialisation of the Pacific has been fraught with problems. Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and PNG have all wrestled with the application of the tools of democracy left us by our erstwhile masters, often failing in the attempt to reconcile them with traditional approaches. The fundamental issue of self-determination remains unresolved in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Today, after a generation of mixed results, we would all do well to engage in a thorough examination of just what democracy means in the Pacific.
But that debate is prejudiced, even precluded, when its terms are applied arbitrarily and by fiat. Frankly, there is no place in a soldier’s world for dialogue. As long as Fiji remains under military rule, it cannot heal itself.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine how things could have happened differently. Before he ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, Bainimarama had already taken unto himself the role of benevolent but implacable defender of Fijian democracy. Few people complained when he ousted George Speight’s openly racist regime in 2000, and when he elevated Qarase to the PM’s chair, the populace later validated the choice. It was hardly a surprise, then, to see him take up the reins once again when Qarase began consorting with his opponents.
By acting unilaterally to ensure that Fiji’s previous coup-plotters were not allowed to walk away unpunished, Bainimarama was saving his own life as much as anyone else’s. But he was also defending one of the fundamental tenets of a society of laws: actions must have consequences.
What he seems to have disregarded, though, is the logical extension of that precept: His own actions have consequences, too. He must be answerable to his own people. As things stand right now, he is not.
And that alone makes him dangerous. Not necessarily because he’s wrong now, but because, being fallible, he could be. And when he does act against the interests of his country, intentionally or not, the only recourse left to those who oppose him will be to apply the same tools of arbitrary force against him.
One hope remains: That Bainimarama, with the assistance of his Pacific allies, finds an orderly way to back down from this impasse, and to subordinate himself once more to the will of the people he’s spent his life defending.