Fiji's Slow March Toward a Military Takeover
On Nov. 13, the Fiji Military Forces (F.M.F.) came up with a list of demands for the government. In a letter to Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, the army put forward the following demands:
The chain of events that started with Bainimarama's independence day speech saw the army and the government caught in a dangerous standoff. Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes was drawn into this ongoing conflict after he refused to release the ammunitions that had arrived for the army at Suva harbor (The Fiji Times, Oct. 30). Under Schedule 5 of the Fiji Arms and Ammunitions Act, only the police commissioner can issue import licenses for any arms importations. On the morning of Nov. 1, heavily armed soldiers boarded the vessel and took possession of the ammunitions. However, there is a 1969 ordinance that exempts the military from seeking police approval.
On Oct. 31, Prime Minister Qarase sought audience with the Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi and a decision was made to change command at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Nabua (Fijilive). Lt. Col. Meli Saubulinayau was summoned to the president's office with orders to take over as the new commander of the F.M.F. However, Col. Subulinayau declined, stating that he did not have the support of the army. With Cpmmodore Bainimarama away in the Middle East, Land Forces Commander Pita Driti, Acting Commander Esala Teleni and military spokesperson Maj. Neumi Leweni expressed deep concern over government moves to oust Bainimarama.
On Nov. 1, Qarase convened a National Security Council meeting, threatening that his government would resign if Bainimarama stayed on. The Police Tactical Squad guarded government buildings as Fiji's Pacific neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, upgraded travel warnings and sent warships and personnel for a possible evacuation of their citizens (AAP, Nov. 1). Meanwhile, the Fiji police came out with a press release confirming that investigations had started against Bainimarama for his outbursts against the government (The Fiji Sun, Nov. 1).
Bainimarama arrived in the country on Nov. 4 and remained silent over the events that transpired during his absence. The police, nevertheless, continued to press ahead.
With the police waiting to interview Bainimarama, the army lashed out at Australia for getting involved in Fijian affairs after Australian Defense Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, called on Bainimarama not to carry out his threat to force the resignation of Prime Minister Qarase's government. (Fijilive, Nov. 5). In addition, the F.M.F. alleged that Australia had covertly sent a Special Air Services team on Nov. 3 to Fiji to carry out reconnaissance for a possible "invasion" (The Fiji Times, Nov. 8). These allegations were strenuously refuted by the Australian High Commission media liaison officer, Matt Anderson.
On Nov. 7, the military called on the police commissioner to resign (The Fiji Times, Nov. 8) as the political drama unfolding in Suva shifted to the Great Council of Chiefs (G.C.C.), which met on Nov. 9 at the request of Prime Minister Qarase. On Nov. 8, Bainimarama broke silence and accused Qarase of lying.
Bainimarama boycotted the first day of the G.C.C. meeting, arguing that Qarase's move to bring in the high chiefs was a poor judgment on the part of the prime minister. On Nov. 10, Bainimarama addressed the chiefs and expressed personal disappointment with the leadership of Qarase. In response to the crisis, the G.C.C. formed a six member mediation committee, which was expected to report to the G.C.C. meeting in Levuka Dec. 12-14 (Islands Business, Nov. 10). The two day G.C.C. meeting passed seven resolutions:
As both the F.M.F. and the government started the next phase of their maneuvers, it was becoming clear that both sides were dug in and not giving an inch. The minister for home affairs, Josefa Vosanibola, warned that the commodore was not above the law and should not be making any demands on an elected government (Fijilive, Nov. 16). On Nov. 19, Bainimarama told Fiji TV that the government was wrong to involve chiefs in the standoff between the military and the government and argued that most of the chiefs in the G.C.C. were involved in the 2000 coup and could not be "honest brokers." Bainimarama further criticized the government for attempting to oust him from office while he was overseas (The Fiji Daily Post, Nov. 20).
Bainimarama warned that if the Racial Tolerance and Unity, Qoliqoli and Lands Claim Tribunal bills were passed, the national security situation would deteriorate (The Fiji Daily Post, Nov. 16). On nov. 19, Bainimarama questioned the appointment of a psychiatrist, Selina Kuruleca, as an advisor to the special committee of the G.C.C. (Fiji Village News). On Nov. 20, Bainimarama gave two weeks notice to the government to acquiesce to his demands, warning that he would "clean up" the government himself (Fiji TV). On Nov. 21, Bainimarama flew to Auckland to attend the christening of his grand daughter. At Auckland airport, journalists, without success, sought clarification from Bainimarama on his "clean up" campaign (Fairfax).
Back in Fiji, Police Commissioner Hughes revealed on Nov. 23 that five senior officers including the commodore were likely to be charged with sedition. On the same day, police officers armed with summonses went and confiscated documents relating to the army from the office of the president (Fijilive, Nov. 25). In the ABC Lateline program the same night, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, expressed new fears that a coup would occur within weeks (ABC, Nov. 24).
Word reached Bainimarama in New Zealand that the office of the president was searched by the police. He reacted angrily, arguing that a foreigner had violated the office of the president by not following traditional Fijian protocols and ordered Police Commissioner Hughes out of the country (Fijilive, Nov. 25).
Armed soldiers in full battle gear began patrolling the streets of Suva on Nov. 25. On Nov. 27, the New Zealand High Commission in Suva closed its doors and advised its citizens to leave Fiji. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs also made similar calls as fears of a coup escalated (Fiji Village News). Prime Minister Qarase called on citizens to work together and the home affairs minister reiterated that demands by the commodore to drop all investigations against him was contrary to the rule of law (Fijilive).
In a bid to thwart a coup, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs organized a Forum Foreign Ministers' meeting in Sydney on Dec. 1. Fiji TV on Nov. 27 reported that Qarase requested assistance from regional Pacific island states under the Biketawa Declaration. There was growing nervousness among government members as well as consular officials in Suva after a thousand members of the territorial forces were recalled to the army camp.
On Nov. 28, The Fiji Times reported that an arrest order was out for Commodore Bainimarama and that two police officers went to New Zealand to seek assistance from Interpol. The Fiji Village News reported that the police commissioner had moved his family to Australia and changed residence for security reasons (Nov. 28). Commissioner Hughes told Radio New Zealand that there was a real and credible threat from the army barracks to arrest him (The Age, Nov. 28). Meanwhile, Britain joined Australia and New Zealand in upgrading its travel warning (BBC, Nov. 27).
Rumors circulated that Bainimarama would place government ministers and the police commissioner under house arrest after arriving back in Fiji. Feeding the rumors was the apparent breakdown in the progress toward a multiparty governance framework. On Wednesday, Nov. 22, four Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) cabinet ministers voted against the 1997 budget. The F.L.P. leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, had warned earlier that all nine F.L.P. cabinet ministers must be present for the vote. However, five members were granted leave of absence by Prime Minister Qarase. Chaudhry was unhappy after the budget passed with 40 votes in favor and 26 against. On Friday, Nov. 24, Quarse came up with a compromise, which was rejected by Chaudhry. Qarase proposed that he would allow the four F.L.P. cabinet ministers to stay provided the F.L.P. did not take disciplinary action against the other five. Adding to the multiparty woes was the outburst by F.L.P. cabinet minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, who attacked the police for raiding the president's office on Nov. 23 (Fiji TV, Nov. 27). On Nov. 28, three F.L.P. members, 'Atu Bain, Prem Chand and Vijay Singh, and two cabinet ministers, Krishna Datt and Poseci Bune, were expelled from the party (The Fiji Daily Post, Nov. 29). The fate of three other cabinet ministers, Adi Sivia Qoro, Gyani Nand and Dr Gunasagaran Goundar, was yet to be determined by the F.L.P. caucus (Fijilive).
Oxford academic Victor Lal argued that the government should acquiesce to the military's demands and urged the president to take a leadership role in resolving the crisis. If there was no consensus between the government and the army, then Lal suggested that the president suspend Parliament for three to six months and seek resolution between the disputing parties with a help of advisors (The Fiji Sun, Nov. 28).
The New Zealand government attempted to broker a peace deal, following private discussions on the security situation in Fiji between New Zealand's minister for foreign affairs, Winston Peters, and Commodore Bainimarama in Wellington. On Nov. 28, Prime Minister Qarase, chief executive in the prime minister's office Jiogi Kotobalavu and Police Commissioner Hughes went to Wellington after Bainimarama agreed to a meeting (The Australian, Nov. 28). With a diplomatic solution in sight, two Fiji politicians, cabinet minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi and opposition leader Mick Beddoes, urged police to drop all investigations against the Bainimarama for the sake of political stability (Fijilive).
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that more than 500 Fijian soldiers serving in peacekeeping duties in the Middle East would be sent home if the Bainimarama carried out his threat to oust an elected government in Fiji. The U.N. chief spoke to Prime Minister Qarase on Nov. 28 and refused to take calls from Bainimarama (Fiji TV). The European Union (EU) reaffirmed its support for the Qarase government as the diplomatic corps in Suva attempted without success to talk to senior army officers at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.
In New Zealand, Bainimarama remained defiant and told Indo-Fijian Radio Tarana that his meeting with Qarase would be short (New Zealand Herald, Nov. 29). New Zealand's prime Minister, Helen Clark, remained optimistic. However, Bainimarama arrived at the meeting late and had to leave early to catch his flight to Fiji. Despite a two-hour discussion, a solution to the crisis was still not in sight as Qarase called for "good sense to prevail" (Fiji Village News). The Fiji Times reported that the army would start preparing for a "possible" invasion by Australia by holding military exercises. In a press statement released by military spokesperson Capt. Leweni, the army planned to secure strategic sites within the greater Suva area between midnight and 3 a.m.
Both Bainimarama and Qarase arrived in Fiji in the evening of Nov. 29 and did not make any comments to the media (Fiji TV). At 8:15 p.m., Bainimarama arrived at Nadi International Airport and left through the back gate to the Nadi military camp. Police Commissioner Hughes did not return with Qarase and took leave to be with his family in Australia: "A high-level source told the Herald that Mr. Hughes has suffered acute stress as a result of events in Fiji and will not be returning as commissioner" (Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 30).
On Nov. 30, the military announced further exercises in Suva following news of an Australian Black Hawk helicopter crash near Fiji. The army alleged that the Australian Defense Force was planning an invasion from its navy ships (Fijilive). The army alleged that the Forum Foreign Ministers' meeting in Sydney on Dec. 1 would allow Australian intervention under the Biketawa Declaration of 2000.
At 11 a.m., Prime Minister Qarase met with the president and in the afternoon spoke with Vice President Madraiwiwi and F.L.P. leader Chaudhry. At 4:30 p.m., Qarase thanked the New Zealand's Prime Minister Clark, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Governor General Anand Satyanand for providing support and advice for the meeting between him and the Bainimarama in Wellington on Nov. 29. Qarase requested that the F.M.F. provide evidence against all those involved in the 2000 coup to the police for investigation.
Commodore Bainimarama remained unimpressed. At a press conference in Suva on the evening of Nov. 30, the army commander gave the Qarase government until noon on Dec. 1 to "clean up" his government. Fiji TV, in its 10 p.m. report, stated that the army was ready to takeover and impose military rule. There were also rumors that the army would confiscate the business assets of those involved in the 2000 coup.
New Zealand's Prime Minister Clark and Foreign Minister Peters expressed surprise at Bainimarama's statements, confirmed that discussions brokered by New Zealand were successful and warned Bainimarama not to depose an elected government. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Qarase told ABC that he hoped for "divine intervention" to resolve the crisis. Australian minister for foreign affairs Alexander Downer argued that a military coup would have a negative impact on the entire South Pacific region. At 10 a.m., Bainimarama visited the president and held discussions on the current situation for 40 minutes. He then went to the Post Fiji Stadium where senior army officers were briefed. At 11:30, the University of the South Pacific and a number of businesses closed for the day in the Suva City Business District (Legend FM, Dec. 1).
In another development, Legend FM confirmed that Police Commissioner Hughes had not resigned as earlier alleged by some news reports. Speaking live from Cairns in Northern Queensland, Australia, Hughes explained that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (D.P.P.) could decide that it is not in the "public interest" to proceed with sedition charges against Bainimarama. Hughes further stated that he was monitoring the situation in Fiji and was scheduled to return on Dec. 18.
At noon, Bainimarama told journalists that since the government had failed to accede to his demands, he assumed that it was now up to him to start the "clean up" process (Radio SargamDec. 1). Meanwhile, Prime Minister Qarase confirmed that he would not resign, following rumors that the New Zealand government had offered him safe haven. Ministers in the Qarase government were taken to undisclosed location for fear of military action (Fijilive).
Prime Minister Clark cast doubt about whether New Zealand would continue making its $8.7 million a year contribution to Fiji. Worse, the European Union's $48 million aid was in jeopardy, as was nearly $12 million in United Nations payments for Fiji's peacekeeping duties overseas (The New Zealand Herald, Dec. 2). Following the Forum Foreign Minister's meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Downer, stated that the Australia-Fiji defense cooperation would be suspended, including $39 million in aid. On Dec. 1, Fiji TV reported that the United States had joined the chorus of protest against any military intervention (CBS News, Dec. 2).
On Saturday, Dec. 2, Vice President Madraiwiwi held separate meetings with Commodore Bainimarama and Prime Minister Qarase (Fijilive). Bainimarama remained defiant and told Qarase to resign or be removed. On Dec. 3, one of the options on the table was for Qarase to request the president to dissolve parliament (Fijilive). Qarase told Legend FM that a National Security Council meeting would be convened on Dec. 5 to discuss the current impasse. Meanwhile, Bainimarama reiterated that Qarase was no longer the prime minister as of noon, Dec. 1. The ongoing tensions between the army and the government started to hurt the hotel industry and Nadi landowners urged a quick resolution (Legend FM, Dec. 3).
The Fiji Trade Union leaders, Attar Singh and Felix Anthony, requested the army to uphold the constitution and the rule of law. Fijian lawyer Kitione Vuataki, SDL Sen. Tupeni Baba, former president of the Methodist Church Josateki Koroi and Fiji's supervisor of elections Semesa Karavaki expressed support for the elected government (Fiji TVDec. 3). The New Zealand Herald and Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, picked up a story from the Fiji Daily Post, which reported that:
Commodore Bainimarama clarified that there would be no army officers in any new interim government. "People that are interested in positions will be asked to apply. Whoever is fit will be part of it. A lot has been said about names of people we have chosen but we have no names in mind," he said. Bainimarama then referred to a time in 2000, when one of his senior officers suggested that he be appointed president: "I said it then and I will say it again, no military officer should and will benefit from the interim administration" (The Fiji Sun, Dec. 4).
On Dec. 4, armed soldiers went to the Police Tactical Response Units in Nasinu and Nasova and removed weapons from the armory (Legend FM). Land Forces Commander Driti confirmed that weapons in possession of police were removed so that they would not pose a threat to the military (Fijilive). Meanwhile, some 30 armed soldiers set up a military roadblock at Sawani near the Naitasiri province. At the checkpoint, soldiers disarmed the prime minister's bodyguards. At 3:30 p.m., The Fiji Daily Post closed its head office in Suva after reports that it was one of the "targets" in the army's "clean up" campaign.
At night, armed soldiers set up roadblocks throughout Suva and in the west. Prime Minister Qarase's residence was surrounded and he was not allowed to see Vice President Madraiwiwi (Fiji TV). On the morning of Dec. 5, the military tightened its grip on Suva city and confiscated the official vehicles of government ministers (Fiji Village News). At 11:30 a.m., Fijilivereported that the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo had dissolved parliament and given the army the go-ahead to take over government. Legend FM contradicted this news when reporter Vijay Narayan read a statement from the president's office at 4 p.m., which stated that "his Excellency neither condones nor supports the actions of the army."
At 6 p.m., Bainimarama assumed executive authority and established a military council to run the affairs of the country with the assistance of Interim Prime Minister Jona Baravilala Senilagakali.
On the evening of Dec. 5, The Fiji Times and Fiji TV were warned not to publish any "propaganda" from the deposed prime minster or any of his ministers. Fiji Broadcasting Limited, which operates Radio Fiji stations, including Radio Fiji One, Radio Fiji Two, Radio Fiji Gold and Radio Mirchi, had their evening news contents checked and cleared by the army before going on air (The Fiji Times). On Dec. 6, The Fiji Daily Post reported that the military was preparing to publish martial law decrees.
At 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 6, Prime Minister Qarase and his family were flown from his official residence in Suva to his home in Lau. That same day, G.C.C. chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini confirmed that the council meeting scheduled for Dec. 12-14 was postponed due to military takeover. Bokini stated that President Iloilo was still the head of state, even though Bainimarama had assumed the powers of the president. Meanwhile, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Pita Nacuva, revealed that he had received no directive from the president on the dissolution of parliament and as far as he was concerned, it was "business as usual" (Legend FM).
At about midday, armed soldiers surrounded the Parliament and detained Nacuva. Also taken into custody were Solicitor General Nainendra Nand and Public Service Commission chairman Stuart Huggett (Fiji Times). Acting Police Commissioner Moses Driver was taken by soldiers to the army barracks in Nabua and the Senate was adjourned indefinitely (AAP). The army declared a state of emergency and Bainimarama ordered all soldiers to march into camp so they could be deployed at various strategic locations. Bainimarama said the primary objective of the interim military government was to "take the country forward toward good governance, rid us of corruption and bad practices and, at the same time, promote the well being of Fiji and its people at the earliest possible opportunity" (Fijilive).
In response to the military takeover, Australia imposed an immediate ban on all travel by senior army officers and their families from Fiji and the Australia-Fiji Defense Cooperation program was suspended indefinitely. Britain, New Zealand and the European Union all imposed similar restrictions and sanctions, with Fiji once again on the brink of losing its membership in the Commonwealth (Fiji Times). At 5 p.m. on , Bainimarama swore Senilagakali into office as interim prime minister. At about 9 p.m., soldiers raided the SDL office on McGregor Road and 30 armed soldiers later detained ousted state minister for provincial development Ted Young. He was taken to the Queen Elisabeth Barracks in Nabua for questioning and later released (The Fiji Sun, Dec. 7)
Vice President Madraiwiwi was removed from office on Dec. 6 as well, sparking fears that the military had deposed the vice president, who was appointed by the G.C.C. Speaking on Radio Fiji Two, G.C.C. chairman Bokini hoped that Bainimarama would come back to the negotiation table to work with the council in finding a solution to the political mess.
On Dec. 7, the military sacked Police Commissioner Hughes, Public Service Commission (P.S.C.) chairman Stuart Huggett, P.S.C. C.E.O. Anare Jale, prime minister's office C.E.O. Kotobalavu , Solicitor General Nand, Acting Commissioner of Police Moses Driver and Assistant Commissioner of Police Kevueli Bulamainaivalu. The military warned that public servants not cooperating with relevant C.E.O.'s will also have their employment terminated (Fijilive).
The newly appointed interim prime minister, Senilagakali, gave an interview on ABC Radio and requested Australia and New Zealand not to interfere in the political situation. Senilgakali defended the takeover of the government as the only way to implement a corruption-free administration and to heal racial wounds caused by the previous three coups. Australian minister for foreign affairs Downer argued that the coup was an attempt by Commodore Bainimarama to scuttle investigations into the death of four rebel soldiers, who were supposedly "murdered" by soldiers loyal to the commander, following an attack on the army barracks in November 2000 (The Australian).
Fiji has had three military coups since independence from Britain in 1970. The first, on May 14, 1987, deposed the multiethnic government of Timoci Bavadra. Following the takeover, coup leader Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka established a military council, abrogated the 1970 constitution and imposed martial law. On Sept. 25, Rabuka deposed the governor general and declared Fiji a republic. By December, an interim government was established under the leadership of Ratu Mara and Ratu Penaia Ganilau.
In 2000, George Speight, with the support of members of the army's Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit abducted the Peoples' Coalition government and held ministers hostage in Parliament for 56 days. George Speight's group argued that the government of Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Chaudhry was implementing policies detrimental to indigenous Fijians. Similar arguments were made by Rabuka in 1987.
This time around, the Dec. 5 coup was executed by army commander Bainimarama, who was involved in a five-year fight with the SDL over moves to bring Speight supporters into the government. Moreover, the tensions between the army and the government were further fueled by three controversial bills, the Racial Tolerance and Unity, Qoliqoli and Land Claims Tribunal bills, which were seen by the army as a threat to national security. Bainimarama usurped power by deposing President Iloilo and invoking the "doctrine of necessity" that had also allowed military intervention in Thailand and Pakistan.
As in previous coups, there are concerns that this one may not have support of the vanua (Fijian people). In 1987, Rabuka had their support ,and some sections of the community supported George Speight in 2000. Fiji's Council of Chiefs has come out strongly against the takeover, placing Bainimarama in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation. If there is a mass uprising of Fijians against the army, the coup may collapse as soldiers refuse to violently subdue popular protest.
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