Tevita Mara aka Roko Ului (photo: Drum Pasifika)

The Ukrainian Club in the New South Wales city of Queanbeyan – adjacent to Canberra – was the unlikely setting this weekend for the launch of what’s being billed by its organisers as the most serious attempt thus far to dislodge the Bainimarama regime in Fiji. The star speaker was Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara – the renegade Fijian military officer also known as Roko Ului, who’s been warmly embraced by Frank Bainimarama’s opponents even as he stands accused of personally abusing democracy activists in the wake of the military coup he helped stage in 2006.

The anti-regime forces see Mara – who made a dramatic escape by sea to Tonga last month after being charged with sedition – as a credible figure around which to base a serious challenge to Bainimarama. That attempt seems to have the tacit support of both the Australian and New Zealand Governments. Canberra lifted its travel ban on Mara to enable him to attend the Queanbeyan gathering despite the fact that he’s a fugitive from Fijian justice and was on a list of Fijians excluded from Australia because of their roles in the 2006 coup.  At first, New Zealand indicated that it was keeping Mara more at arms length, saying that it was in no hurry to admit him. But foreign minister Murray McCully has since announced that Wellington will grant Mara a one-off visa to attend a similar gathering of regime opponents in the coming week.

Tevita Mara began his Queanbeyan speech by pressing the one button that he knows makes him a far more consequential figure in Australian eyes than any other potential Fijian leader-in-exile. This is the fact that he’s the son of the country’s respected founding father, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Tevita  described his father to the gathering as “revered” and seems intent on using the Mara moniker to maximum effect. The problem is that some of his new acolytes are people who Mara senior loathed and blamed for the destruction of his own presidency in 2000 and the destruction of his attempts to forge a thriving multiracial nation in Fiji.

Jon Fraenkel, Brij Lal, Simione Kaitani (Photo:Drum Pasifika)

This is what the Americans would call “the smoking gun” photograph that demonstrates a startling link between the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement in Australia and the indigenous extremists who brought the country to its knees in the George Speight coup of 2000 and drove Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara from office.

On the left is Dr Jon Fraenkel of the Australian National University, who regularly spars with Grubsheet in these columns and in those of The Australian. Fraenkel is a British-born former lecturer at the University of the South Pacific who is married to an indigenous Fijian. In the middle is the Indo-Fijian historian Brij Lal – also of the ANU – who is a regular commentator on Radio Australia and its influential Pacific Beat. Both are fiercely anti-regime and described as co-authors of a ten point plan presented to the Queanbeyan gathering to return Fiji to democracy at the earliest opportunity. So far so good. But on the right of the photo is a man called Simione Kaitani, who happens to be one of the co-conspirators of the 2000 coup who went on to become a minister in the government of Laisenia Qarase, which Frank Bainimarama removed at gunpoint in 2006.

Kaitani as George Speight's right hand man

Grubsheet investigated the circumstances of the 2000 coup just before Bainimarama’s coup six years later when we worked for the Nine Network’s now defunct Sunday program. One of the 2000 conspirators, Maciu Navakasuasua, blew the whistle on the people around him who’d seized power at gunpoint and held the then prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and his cabinet hostage in the parliamentary complex for 56 days. Among those he fingered was Simione Kaitani, who he alleged was one of the indigenous extremists who’d encouraged George Speight to carry out his coup and was with him in the parliamentary complex. Navakasuasua’s account was one thing. But in the vaults of Channel Nine, Grubsheet also found archival footage of the coup clearly showing Simione Kaitani before several hundred people in the parliamentary forecourt calling for a round of applause for George Speight. That evidence is undeniable.

Kaitani was subsequently charged with treason for allegedly taking an illegal oath of office as one of George Speight’s ministers. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted because of a lack of concrete evidence that he’d actually taken the oath, in the form of photographs or video footage of the event. But this does nothing to alter the fact that he was an enthusiastic Speight supporter, was identified as one of the co-conspirators of 2000, and was present throughout the parliamentary siege when the legally-elected prime minister of Fiji was held against his will for nearly two months and was also badly beaten. Mahendra Chaudhry told Grubsheet in a televised interview: “He (Kaitani) was very prominent during our incarceration. I believed him to be, you know, one of the mob”.

Kaitani as Laisenia Qarase's right hand man

Kaitani went on – in highly controversial circumstances – to be appointed a minister in the Qarase government, not just in some minor role but as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. In this capacity, he sat at Laisenia Qarase’s right hand and was a key figure urging Qarase to strengthen the position of indigenous Fijians over other races in Fiji. This influence led to what was called the Qoliqoli Bill, which would have extended indigenous land rights to include dominion over coastal waters. And to what was cynically called a “Reconciliation and Unity Bill” that would have freed George Speight and other convicted 2000 coup makers from prison and allowed them to stand for public office. Surprise, surprise.

All this enraged the military commander, Frank Bainimarama, who’d jailed Speight in the first place and appointed Qarase as civilian prime minister on condition that he put Fiji back on the multiracial path set by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Instead, he put people like Simione Kaitani in positions of power and set about entrenching indigenous rights. Bainimarama warned Qarase to back off but he refused. So in December 2006, Bainimarama staged his own coup with the stated intention of restoring racial equality and ending what he called the corruption of the Qarase years.

After his trial, Simione Kaitani fled to Australia. But why was he given residency when there’s clear evidence of his active involvement in the events of 2000? Australians also deserve some urgent answers as to why they should give any Fiji “pro-democracy movement” credence when it has coup-makers at its heart. What was Kaitani doing at Tevita Mara’s Queanbeyan talkfest? What is his role in the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement? Why are Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal – academics on the Australian public payroll – being photographed with a 2000 coup maker? Are they willing to explain this remarkable picture and their relationship with Kaitani?

Queanbeyan rally (Photo:Drum Pasifika)

All this goes way beyond the concept of odd bed-fellows to strike at the heart of the nature of this movement, which Australia is evidently supporting. What steps has the Australian Government taken to establish the bona fides of these individuals? What steps have media organisations like the ABC taken to establish their backgrounds and the veracity of their motives? These are some of the questions that need to be answered as Tevita Mara begins what he says will be a global campaign to dislodge the Bainimarama regime.

Grubsheet has been at the receiving end of a stream of invective from Jon Fraenkel about our attempts to encourage Australia to engage with the Bainimarama regime and help it keep its pledge to hold one-man, one vote elections for the first time in Fiji in 2014. He’s castigated us as “coup supporters” – which we deny – yet is prepared to be photographed with a proven coup-maker in Simione Kaitani. So, Jon, let’s hear your explanation. You tout a blueprint for a return to democracy with someone like this by your side?

Trashed legacy: Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara

Tevita Mara also needs to explain to those who may be persuaded to see him as Fiji’s new best hope to explain the presence of proven coup-makers at his “pro-democracy” gatherings. He’s already under fire for allegedly dog whistling to indigenous extremists. He accused Fiji’s Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed- Khaiyum, of giving a fellow Muslim a job but only in a Fijian language Youtube broadcast. Is the presence of a prominent indigenous extremist at one of his rallies a sign that he’s not only repudiated his father’s multiracial legacy but also embraced someone who helped destroy his father’s presidency?

The destruction of the “Mara-Ganilau dynasty” was a stated centrepiece of the Speight coup and something Simione Kaitani presumably supported. Now he evidently sees Mara the son as Fiji’s potential saviour. Ah, irony upon irony. The story of modern Fiji. And of Australia, for that matter – a country that gives refuge to coup makers who are avowed racial supremacists and does everything it can to destroy others pursuing racial equality.

Postscript: As well as being the authors of Tevita Mara’s ten point plan to return Fiji to democracy, both Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal evidently addressed the Queanbeyan rally – a clear indication that they’ve become active, partisan political players rather than the independent commentators they’ve allowed themselves to be portrayed as in the Australian media until now. The agenda shows those attending also heard from representatives of two national institutions that have been bastions of indigenous supremacy and are most at loggerheads with the Bainimarama regime – Laisenia Qarase’s SDL Party and the Methodist Church in Fiji. A message was also conveyed from the Great Council of Chiefs, the hereditary body that once dominated indigenous politics but has been sidelined by Bainimarama and is banned from meeting until further notice. All this indicates that Mara is heading a loose coalition that includes elements of a pro-democracy intelligentsia but is heavily comprised of those stripped of their power and influence in 2006.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun, Pacific Scoop New Zealand, and NZ academic Crosbie Walsh’s influential blog – Fiji:The Way It Was, Is And Can Be. For further commentary on the subject, Grubsheet highly recommends Cafe Pacific, the blog of veteran regional journalist and Auckland University of Technology communications professor David Robie.

Simione Kaitani has since issued a response to the anti-regime blog Coup Four Point Five about our central allegation of his involvement in George Speight’s 2000 coup. We’re re-publishing it here in the interests of fairness but stand by our original story:

I wish to respond to Graham Davis’s article (Unholy Alliance on Fiji, Fiji Sun, 13/6/06).  His attempt to re-crucify me afresh for my alleged involvement in the 2000 coup not only cast doubts, but very much confirms my suspicions regarding his vested interest and personal agenda, unbecoming of his journalistic profession.

Mr Davis’ sweeping statements and diatribes, peppered with hasty generalisations, are a public admission of his continued personal support for the illegal regime of Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum and Frank Bainimarama. It is very obvious that Mr Davis is desperately seeking to find some scapegoats as a means to sustaining and distracting attention away from the Regime’s current illegal activities. You’ve got it all wrong, Mr Davis. All very wrong!

Let me remind him that I was an Independent Member of Parliament and also a victim of George Speight’s coup of 2000. So despite all the allegations levelled against me, I wish to categorically state that I was never party to any of the meetings or planned takeover of our Parliament of Fiji prior to the Speight coup. I had just embarked on my political career.

Why should I, therefore, have been interested in deposing our Parliament when that would have meant the termination of my own political life and aspirations? Mr Davis’s allegations and subtle choice of words, that I was Mr Speight’s Right Hand Man, is grossly erroneous. He has jumped to the wrong conclusion by making a false connection.

The truth is I was never Speight’s “Right Hand Man”, for I only met and came to know of Speight in that mayhem on the morning of 19th May, 2000. For Mr Davis’ information, it was out of our own concerns for the negative impressions being generated by the extreme nationalist elements in Parliament, that some of us – Members of the Opposition in the deposed Parliament – got together to embark on a damage control exercise.

With great hesitation and after continual pressure from others, I was compelled to take over as spokesperson for the coup from the nationalist leader Mr Duvuloco. That was done without George Speight’s knowledge but very much at Mr Duvuloco’s anger. He publicly and repeatedly swore at me in front of the crowd when I took over the microphone from him upon instruction from my colleagues. We later approached Speight and explained our action, which he accepted.

I was spokesperson for only one day and for the purpose of calming the crowd. I recall being personally threatened with a pistol by one of the nationalist militants when I took over the microphone from Mr Duvuloco. It was during my one-day role as spokesperson that I opened up the Parliamentary complex to the International Media who had been denied entry during the first day. I did this, recognising the need to keep the world informed of the mayhem inside the complex itself and the need to have dialogue with George Speight and his team.

Mr Davis’ unsubstantiated statement that I fled to Australia is also a fabrication and total misinformation. I never fled from Fiji. His unsubstantiated statement casts doubt of his professionalism and integrity. It is obvious that his blind support for Messers Khaiyum and Bainimarama has resulted in a highly distorted and fabricated diatribe against me in the Fiji Sun.

The truth is that on the very morning of the coup in 2006,  I had left Fiji on an official Parliamentary assignment as Leader of the House, representing our Fiji Parliament in a two-day Conference organised by the Democratic Parliamentary Union [DPU] held in Taiwan on the 8th  –10th of December, 2006. I only learnt of the military takeover of our Parliament on arrival at Sydney Airport. It was for an official Parliamentary engagement that I had left Fiji. I never “fled”.

Moreover, his comments regarding my support for the Truth and Reconciliation Bill as a means of preventing members of our Government from imprisonment, is another misinformation.It is public knowledge that I was the last of the Ministers in Qarase’s Government to be charged but subsequently cleared by the Fijian court on August 15th, 2005.

It is also public knowledge that had the proposed Reconciliation Bill been passed by Parliament, the only person who would have directly benefited from the Bill would have been Bainimarama himself, for reasons which I do not wish to make public at this stage.

It seems, however, the birds have finally come home to roost. Recent public revelations point to Bainimarama’s personal/official involvement not only in the execution of the 2000 coup but also the military involvement in its planning. For those, like myself, who had been made scapegoats and considered the fall guys for these sad events, we are waiting anxiously for these truths to surface. I am thankful to God for allowing someone like Roko Ului Mara to be exposing these truths for the world to see!

I consider Mr Davis’s decision to berate and question the sovereign rights of the Government of Australia in granting of the Permanent Residency Status for me, and my family, malicious and mischievous. Australia is honouring its obligation to protect me under international convention for my political beliefs. We are ever thankful to the Government of Australia for their help to us as a family in these very hard times we are going through.

Mr Davis has also questioned my role and agenda in the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement. Well, I consider myself better off than Mr Davis to that effect. Being a victim of two political coups, why shouldn’t I rise publicly and fight against the tyranny and spirit of coups that is ruining my country, my people, and has isolated myself from my constituency and families in Fiji?

Mr Davis should know that “All that are necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. I have publicly forgiven Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara in Canberra last Saturday. I have expressed my forgiveness for all that he did in 2006 against myself, and his action in deposing our Parliament and our elected SDL Government. I publicly pardoned Roko Ului and have called for our joint efforts in pursuing nothing but the truth. I have also reminded him of the Mordeccais counsel comment to Queen Esther: “Who knows, that you have become our Queen as such a time as these?”

Finally, we are all at a loss, that whilst we are focussing on the current status of political offences and atrocities committed against the State and people of Fiji, we have journalists like Mr Davis hell bent on  flogging a dead horse in a failed attempt at defending the indefensible.

May God bless Fiji!