#111 WHEREVER THREE ARE GATHERED (UPDATED)

Labour's Mahendra Chaudhry at the first "permitted" gathering in March (Photo:Coup 4.5)

STOP PRESS WEDNESDAY JULY 18th: Cabinet has announced that no permits will be required for any group of any size to meet until the draft constitution is submitted to the President. The exceptions are meetings held on roads, in parks or in sports arenas:

With close to 100,000 voters now registered for the 2014 Fiji election and discussions on a new constitution well underway, the Bainimarama Government is making good on its pledge to return the country to democracy with concrete action across a broad front. There’s now ample evidence of the regime’s commitment to hold a free and fair election to accepted international standards on a level playing field of one man, one vote. Yet it continues to attract an array of negative perceptions that are undermining its credibility and damaging its message – both in Fiji and abroad.

Chief among these is an image of repression arising from the current tight legal constraints on political gatherings of any kind. Some of this – Grubsheet believes – is unnecessary and counterproductive. Why? Because it stands to reason that holding a free and fair election requires political debate and the ability to meet and organise. Just as freedom of religious expression requires the ability to meet and worship. Simply put, you can’t have one without the other. And to pretend otherwise is a fiction that doesn’t make for good reading for people who otherwise want to support the process.

An ugly history: 2000 political march (photo: Coup 4.5)

That said, some controls are clearly necessary. In fact, they are essential to ensure national stability and protect the economy on which the livelihood of every Fijian depends. Even its critics will concede that there is fevered opposition to the regime in some quarters and especially from those it removed at gunpoint in 2006.  Commodore Bainimarama has already spoken of an alleged attempt to organise a coup against him by the renegade officer, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara. And while this was thwarted, traumatic memories linger of the concerted effort to kill the Prime Minister during the mutiny of 2000. Unfortunately, the assumption must always be that those who failed in that attempt would – if given the opportunity – try again.

There has also been a discernible escalation in the fury of the government’s critics on internet websites, especially since the corruption trial began of Laisenia Qarase, the deposed prime minister. These people do not want a successful election in 2014 and will do everything they can to derail it. They want Qarase restored and the continuation of the old order that favoured the i’Taukei, not the Bainimarama revolution of a multiracial, merit-based Fiji with equal rights for all citizens. Suffice it to say, few in positions of authority in Fiji doubt the need for the utmost security and vigilance as the countdown to 2014 enters one of its most crucial phases.

"Never again": the 2000 riots ( photo Fiji TV)

Yet these security concerns need to be weighed against the right of citizens to congregate to discuss the country’s political future and their participation in it. And this is where Grubsheet believes that the regime should loosen the reins. The Fiji Police Force is adamant that if politicians want to discuss politics and the constitutional process, then they need to apply for a permit. Yet surely it’s a question of how many people gather in the one venue and how much of a potential threat that poses to public order. This week, we’ve had the police Director of Operations, Rusiate Tudravu, reiterate that any gathering of three of more people to discuss politics is deemed to be a “meeting” for which a permit is required. He said that if any event is “social” or “festive”, then no permit is necessary. But police can still intervene “if they have reasonable information that any issue could undermine the safety and security of Fiji”.

Grubsheet, for one, fails to see how any gathering of three people – no matter what they discuss, aside of course from a criminal conspiracy – has the potential to undermine the safety and security of the country. Let’s dissect the logic here. So two people can talk freely about strategy for the 2014 poll – and even the need to defeat the Bainimarama government at the ballot box – but add a third and you need to get a police permit? It just doesn’t make sense. And worse, it’s undermining the positive elements of the return to democracy and presenting an image of a government that’s oversensitive and boxing with shadows. When Fiji has such a good story to tell, it’s a paragraph in the narrative that needs to be deleted.

2000 mayhem ( photo: Fiji Times)

No one is blaming the police. They’re just doing their job. But even they must wonder why they were sent to a house in Lautoka last week to arrest a clutch of aging Indo-Fijian Labour Party members who’d gathered at the house of party stalwart, Vyas Deo Sharma. The Labour leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, says the group was merely “having a yaqona (kava) session at a private residence when the police barged in”. The Government, in response, says they were discussing politics and had broken the law. But in Grubsheet’s view, whether they were discussing politics or “just drinking yaqona” is neither here nor there. They should have the right to do both and the decree that says otherwise should be amended. Aside from any question of the justice or otherwise of this incident, it’s simply not a good look, especially when those arrested weren’t released until the following day and no charges were laid.

There needs to be a much more realistic limit set on political gatherings for which permits are required. Not three people but, say, 30-40 people – the size of an average classroom. Much more than that and we’re fully prepared to concede the potential consequences for public order and the need for police to be informed. In addition, any meeting should be confined to clearly defined venues – whether homes or community halls – with strict prohibitions on these turning into protest marches. History tells us that any gathering that spills onto the street definitely has a history of getting out of hand in Fiji. Certainly no business owner who lived through the anarchy of 2000 wants even a hint of this ever being repeated. So public order must be maintained at the same time as the public needs a right to unimpeded discourse.

It’s time for a better balance to be struck that gives more weight to the mood in the country to talk politics. The Christians among us know that in Matthew Chapter 18, Verse 30,  Jesus Christ said: ” Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I”. But in Fiji, where three or more are gathered to discuss politics, the State shouldn’t be there at all. It should leave them to get on with it without undue interference and the need for a piece of paper from the police.