HONOLULU (Nov. 20, 2007)—Smiling and waving soldiers at military checkpoints, relative quiet among students at the University of the South Pacific and a ratcheting down of public tensions between ethnic Fijians and Fijians of Indian descent initially suggested something very unusual may have happened here in the South Pacific.

Had the world witnessed a transformation that is not supposed to happen in democratic societies: The emergence of a “good” military coup?

On Dec. 5, 2006, Fiji’s military leader, Commodore Vorege “Frank” Bainimarama, following up on pronouncements made months earlier, instituted his coup. Citing rampant corruption and the doctrine of necessity to justify military intervention, Bainimarama dismissed the government, dissolved Parliament and appointed an interim administration.

The coup, Fiji’s fourth since independence, was largely peaceful. In practical terms, soldiers visited government offices and demanded that officials surrender keys to their official vehicles and cease reporting to their offices.

Communications, including telephone lines and the Internet, remained open.

One year into the coup, the verdict is still out. There remains considerable support for the current military leadership, which has brought stability and has led a deliberate attempt to lessen ethnic tensions.

And indeed, Fiji stands today in a far more favorable light than many countries that simply, because they hold elections, claim to be highly democratic. It’s not hard to argue that Fiji under military rule is managing better than some other Pacific island nations where regular elections have failed to produce governments capable of advancing the standard of living for their people.

But for all the stability, there are troubling signs that the military leadership has allowed matters to deteriorate.

The rule of law is threatened, with the judicial branch in limbo. The chief justice and the chief magistrate were summarily dismissed and the military has made it clear it will ignore judicial decisions not to its liking.

Human rights abuses remain a concern, although coup leaders deny that those who have spoken out against the regime have been beaten.

By most measures, Fiji’s economy is stagnant or even declining. Tourism has yet to rebound.

Corruption remains a concern, although there is no indication that Frank Bainimarama wishes to enrich himself in the style of Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who under the guise of creating a “new society” during the martial law era allowed rampant graft and corruption on an unparalleled scale.

By almost all accounts, the Commodore lives modestly, works hard and wants to see a future where all the people of Fiji enjoy a satisfying standard of living in which their children have bountiful opportunities.

At the one-year anniversary of “interim government” rule, there remains a small window of opportunity for Bainimarama and his colleagues to find a path that will lead Fiji toward a brighter future. Unlike many of the world’s dictators who see themselves as saviors with lifetime appointments, the Commodore has articulated his dislike for the Office of Prime Minister.

Not long ago, in fact, he proclaimed “I hate this job.”

The recent promise of national elections by March 2009 is a hopeful sign, but much can happen before then. Waiting another fifteen months poses a distinct danger that the absence of effective checks and balances could well result in a burgeoning of the types of corruption and economic decline the coup leaders decry.

Alternatively, there is much that can be done to advance national unity, increase accountability, and address major issues such as the future of the sugar industry. With hard work, bold decisions and the right forms of assistance from the international community, the questions becomes: Can Bainimarama make this a “good coup” by restoring democratic rule and possibly once again become the Fiji Post’s “Man of the year?”

Gerard Finin was Deputy Director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu.  This article is based on a paper he produced for the East-West Center. He can be reached at 808-944-7751 or via email at [email protected]


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