A Military Coup and the Culture of Fear

Soldiers patrol the streets of Suva, Fiji on Dec. 8, 2006, after a coup led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama. (Photo: William West / AFP-Getty Images)

A short time after the Dec. 5, 2006 coup Virisila Buadromo, executive director of the Fiji Women's Rights Movement, and her partner were arrested and taken to the military barracks. "I was threatened and insulted, beaten and humiliated," she recalled. "Eventually, soldiers threw me on the floor and began jumping on my stomach. Since the coup I am receiving anonymous phone calls; some of them openly threatening us with rape."

Fiji is presently living in fear. Many of those who used to speak openly about social, political and racial injustice in this once idyllic island nation are now silently waiting for the situation to improve and for the first wave of terror and fright to subside. The military coup was definitely not one of the bloodiest that history has known, but it managed to plant the seeds of panic in this traditionally outspoken society.

The military is now omnipresent. It is erecting checkpoints and roadblocks on all major highways of two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu; its "boys" are keeping a high profile in the center of the capital, Suva. Characteristically, they are exercising, shouting and playing sports just a few yards from government buildings and the only international hotel, Holiday Inn. The military has taken over dilapidated seaside villas, and is now freely marching on the beaches or simply sitting at the curb of the sidewalks in full military uniforms, guns resting on their knees.

There is no certainty about the future. The military seems to be fully in control, its commanders arrogant and confident, showing no fear, ready to confront the countries it depends on, like New Zealand and Australia — even the world's sole superpower. In early July the military ruler — Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama — accused the United States ambassador of spreading misleading information about his coup, comparing the envoy to a New Zealand diplomat he expelled for allegedly meddling in the country's affairs. The visiting United States Congressional delegation was "disturbed" after hearing suggestions made by interim Foreign Affairs Minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau that "various contingencies might arise that could endanger Fiji holding an election in 2008 or 2009."

But what makes this miniscule military force so confident? The Republic of Fiji Military Forces (R.F.M.F.) is easily one of the smallest armies in the world, with a total manpower of 3,500 and 2,950 troops in active duty. Three hundred men are serving in the Navy. Two regular battalions of the Fiji Infantry Regiment are traditionally stationed overseas on peacekeeping duties; the 1st Battalion has been posted to Lebanon, Iraq, and East Timor under the command of the United Nations, while the 2nd Battalion is stationed in Sinai with the Multinational Force and Observers (M.F.O.). The 3rd Battalion is stationed in Suva, and the remaining three are spread throughout the islands. That's not a major force even taking under account that the country has lesser than 1 million inhabitants.

How could such small force perform four major coups since Fijian independence in 1970? The country was shaken by two coups in 1987, the mutiny at the Queen Elisabeth Barracks in Suva as well as the coup of 2000, then by the latest coup in December 2006. Earlier coups had devastated Fiji by reopening racial divides between native Melanesian Fijians and Indians, whose ancestors were brought to this country by the British colonial power as slave labor. In the late 80's, Indo-Fijians formed a majority, but racial discrimination and the coups accompanied by violence, looting of Indian business and rapes of Indian women triggered an exodus of thousands of the best-trained professionals. Indo-Fijians again became a minority.

Junta leaders of the 2006 coup cited corruption in the government as the reason for their action, as well as pending legislation to pardon soldiers involved in the 2000 mutiny. Successfully securing all key centers of the country, the Commodore took over the power of the president and dissolved Parliament.

The R.F.M.F. may be very small force, but it is extremely well connected. A retired member of the top military brass gave your correspondent an unprecedented interview. Not supporting the most recent coup, he preferred to remain anonymous.

"The Fijian military had been serving in many conflict zones as the U.N. peacekeeping force," he explained. "But some of its active or retired members were contracted directly by the U.K. or the U.S. governments. The Fijian military, for instance, worked on one of Iraq's projects called Filous (the Arabic word for "exchange of currencies"). The goal of this project was exchanging Saddam's currency for the new money. Fijian soldiers are very familiar with Arabs and their culture. Our soldiers were serving on Lebanon, Sinai Desert and elsewhere."

"The Fijian military actually expanded because of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, in 1978. The U.N. invited Fiji to join the U.N.I.F.I.L. [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon]. Under the British, Fijians were serving in many parts of the world, including Malaysia. Our soldiers are known for their excellence. They are trained locally, but also in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K. The Fijian military and the U.S. military are very close; we used to have excellent relations. But since the 2006 coup the U.S. had frozen all new cooperation, although existing projects can still go on. One more important issue to mention is that the U.S. security companies often directly contract retired Fijian soldiers who then serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. For Fiji it is tremendous business."

It is a well-known fact that Fiji is a major recruitment ground for mercenaries. But the issue is taboo. The majority of Fijian citizens, even those who are well informed, are not willing to criticize the involvement of Fijian troops abroad. As long as the money is brought back to Fiji, the morality of the projects are not questioned.

"Fiji is not a particularly rich country," explained a top Fijian international consultant, who preferred to remain anonymous. "We need money and frankly we don't care what our soldiers are doing abroad. Killing others, being involved in wrong causes? It's not our problem. Sorry for being so blunt, but that's what we feel here." Similar statements are not uncommon, even now.

For years, the Fijian military had been given carte blanche by the local population. But now, cynicism and indifference have backfired. In the very heart of Fiji, people are being taken to the military barracks to be interrogated. There are reports of gross human rights violations.

The junta is also clamping on the media, and it is being accused of "eroding the independence of the judiciary" by sacking prominent legal figures, and expelling foreign lawyers involved in court cases against the regime. The regime — which had previously warned it would round up reporters seen to be undermining it — admitted it has a "blacklist'' of people it will prevent from leaving Fiji," according to Xavier La Canna of Adelaide Now.

Joseph Veramu, a leading Fijian novelist and head of the Lautoka Campus of the University of the South Pacific shared his emotions: "Yes, there is definitely a fear. People are suddenly scared to speak out, to make a comment and be overheard by a passer-by. The military managed to plant small, tiny seeds of fear in our society. And then there is a reason for real fear as some people are truly suffering, like those who were taken in; dragged to the military barracks."

The issue remains: how did the international community allow a fundamentally racist and discriminatory force (99 percent of the Fijian military is staffed with native Fijians and it is often used as a vehicle for oppression of minorities) to participate in peacekeeping missions? The R.F.M.F. itself seems to have very few scruples. It is often described as a mercenary force, ready to be hired by the U.K., the U.S. or anyone else with deep pockets, no matter how dubious or immoral the task. In Fiji, moral issues don't seem to be at the top of the national agenda.

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