Tevita Mara aka Roko Ului : Fiji's next coup leader?

Australia and New Zealand have a long history of misjudging events in Fiji and are adding to their litany of mistakes with their tacit support for the overthrow of the Bainimarama regime. Neither country – at leadership level – will acknowledge that this has now become official policy. Yet there are clear indications that Canberra and Wellington have abandoned any notion – peddled by the Lowy Institute, among others – that they engage with Bainimarama and help him meet his stated objective of elections in 2014. Instead, they appear to have embraced the idea that the regime will eventually implode, the dictatorship will crumble, sweet reason will triumph and their own brand of democracy restored.

What’s the evidence for this? Well, two recent developments that unfolded not on some distant balmy isle but in frosty Canberra at the feet of the Australian Government. First was its decision to welcome the renegade Fijian military officer, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, who’s fallen out with Bainimarama and is now touring regional capitals drumming up support for his removal. The second was to countenance the visiting Samoan prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, meeting Mara in Canberra and calling for tougher sanctions against Fiji to provoke a popular uprising and Bainimarama’s overthrow. Before he gave Ratu Mara his blessing, Tuilaepa would have been well advised to gauge his support among ordinary Fijians, which judging from his public appearances in Australia, is pathetically low. But more on that later.

Samoa's Tuilaepa

Never mind the diplomatic niceties or the Samoan leader’s gratuitous intervention in a Pacific neighbour’s internal affairs. Australia and NZ know that any popular uprising in Fiji is virtually guaranteed to cause bloodshed, perhaps a lengthy stand-off and along with it, the destruction of the local economy as tourists flee, plus the significant Australian and NZ commercial presence with it. Was there any high level comment from Canberra and Wellington on Tuilaepa’s reckless suggestion? Not a word. Did any political journalist in either capital even ask the question? Evidently not – a clear sign in itself of just how low Fiji rates as an issue and the partisan anti-Bainimarama stance of the overwhelming majority of journalists assigned to cover Pacific affairs.

Funnily enough, this is even more evident in New Zealand than Australia, with a string of reports and editorials in the mainstream NZ media that appear so ill-informed about events in Fiji as to be almost willfully negligent in a country that prides itself on its Pacific ties. Local commentators with intimate knowledge of Fiji- including David Robie at Auckland’s University of Technology and Crosbie Walsh, the academic blogger – are routinely ignored simply because they go against the grain of the accepted wisdom that Bainimarama is a tyrant and his political opponents are heroic bearers of the democratic flame. But that’s another story.

The truth that ought to be self evident to everyone – but isn’t – is that supporting the notion of tougher sanctions to provoke an uprising in Fiji is not only misguided but fraught with danger for the entire region. Yes, the Samoan leader is an entertaining character with a sometimes amusing turn of phrase. Yet in the interests of regional stability, he should confine himself to his pet projects of forcing Samoan motorists to drive on the other side of the road and propelling his countrymen back to the beginning of each day by moving them lock, stock and barrel across the International Dateline.

For their part, Australia and New Zealand seem to have no public strategy on Fiji other than to keep chanting their mantra that Bainimarama abandon his leadership and return the country to democracy immediately. But as they do so, events are rapidly getting away from them. Other countries like China, India and Indonesia are rapidly strengthening their links with Fiji. At the United Nations, even Australia concedes that Fiji is damaging its attempt to secure a temporary seat on the Security Council. And all the while, the topography of the traditional Aussie and Kiwi backyard is changing as both countries sit on the back deck nodding in furious agreement with each other and the regime’s opponents like Tevita Mara.

Firm friends: outgoing Chinese ambassador Han Zhiqiang

How will history judge a period when Australia and New Zealand – mired in their domestic agendas – failed to see the signs of change and were overtaken by events?  Such questions are generally ignored or treated with scorn. Anyone, for instance, who dares to suggest in Australia that China’s increasingly close links with Fiji are cause for concern is howled down. Two years ago, Australian officials, and some gormless commentators, were peddling the line that China wasn’t really interested in Fiji, except perhaps at a commercial level. When asked, “Who says?”, they produced an extraordinary answer: “Well, the Chinese. They’ve assured us that they’re not interested in Fiji and that their influence there is benign”. Oh, alright, that settles in then. The naivete implicit in such comments is breathtaking.

Never mind an Australian defence white paper clearly identifying China as the biggest threat to regional security. Or the remarkable suggestion by defence planner Ross Babbage that Canberra needs to obtain American nuclear submarines to counter that threat. Or the head of the US Seventh fleet reporting that his Chinese naval counterpart discussed carving up the Pacific between them. Or news of a massive Chinese military buildup – including a new generation of missiles, stealth fighters and the imminent launch of its first aircraft carrier. No, when it comes to Fiji, none of that matters because they’ve done us the courtesy of telling us they’re not interested.

Australia will pay for this reckless indifference, just as Britain paid for its grossly misguided judgment in the 1930s that Nazi Germany posed no threat. But this is just the “big picture” historical mistake, as China steadily moves into Fiji and the rest of the region, placing high level diplomats in supposedly low level island backwaters, all the while telling the gormless Aussies and Kiwis that they’re just there for the palm trees and to sell their wares. The more immediate threat is to good governance in places like Fiji, as Australia and New Zealand scream ” bring back democracy at once!” yet fail to grasp that their own notions of democracy can’t be established in the short term without eroding the very principles that underpin the democratic ideal – voter equality and equal opportunity for all citizens.

Grubsheet has become decidedly weary of pointing out what, to us, is the bleeding obvious in Fiji – that the democracy Frank Bainimarama removed at gunpoint in 2006 wasn’t a democracy worth having. Why? Because not only was the vote of an indigenous person worth more than the vote of a non-indigenous person, the indigenous majority had begun to use their power to disadvantage other citizens. Racial equality had been sacrificed at the altar of a bastardised democracy, which only those who benefited regarded as a true democracy. Oh, plus Australia, New Zealand and anyone else like them who preferred lip service and a quiet life to the tedium of actually having to examine the facts, insistent on enforcing a “democracy” that they would never  accept themselves. Yes, we’ve said at all before and no-one listens. But it’s worth repeating nonetheless. History lesson over, let’s come to the present.

Mara's Melbourne audience (photo:coup 4.5)

The Ratu Mara glee club moved south to Melbourne at the weekend for yet another church hall meeting in Chadstone on Saturday night.  Stung by the pathetically low attendance at Mara’s first public outing in Queanbeyan, outside Canberra, the Melbourne organisers were predicting a turn-out this time of between 150 and 200. But in the end, barely 50 people were in the room and it’s a minute fraction of the Fiji-Australian population in Melbourne.

It’s a little known fact that Australia has the largest Fijian population outside Fiji, with 44,000 Fiji-born Australians registered at the last census in 2006. No more than 30 turned up at Mara’s Queanbeyan rally. And with the Melbourne attendance struggling to reach the half century, what does this say about Mara’s support and ability to trigger a popular uprising in Fiji? That’s right. Zilch. So why are Australia and NZ giving the thumbs up to someone with no evident grassroots appeal? Is this Fiji’s future “democratic” leader-in-waiting, the Aung San Suu Kyi of the islands? Hardly.

Dallas Swinstead, Simione Kaitani, Mme Swinstead (photo: Coup 4.5)

There were a couple of surprises in Melbourne, including the presence – yet again – of Simione Kaitani, one of the principal figures of the 2000 George Speight coup. Kaitani is evidently also one of the principal figures behind Mara’s political crusade, more than enough to raise eyebrows in itself. While there was no sign on Saturday of Canberra glee clubbers Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal, there was another surprise celebrity in the form of former Fiji Times publisher Dallas Swinstead, who – like Fraenkel and Lal – posed happily with Simione Kaitani, seemingly unconcerned or unaware about his highly colourful past.

NZ journalist Michael Field

Mara himself has been on the defensive all week after one of Frank Bainimarama’s most strident critics – the New Zealand journalist Michael Field – dismissed him as yet another coup leader in the making. Field portrayed Mara as not only a disgruntled former member of Bainimarama’s inner circle who stood accused of human rights abuses but a privileged chief who was planning his own coup and wasn’t fit to lead a genuine democratic movement. This withering assessment stunned the Mara camp and Roko Ului – as Mara is otherwise known – was forced to issue a public statement rejecting Field’s claims.

Mara also continues to be dogged by allegations of an anti Indo-Fijian bias that gives the lie to his claims to support a multiracial Fiji – the cornerstone of his father’s blueprint for the country he led to independence 40 years ago. Disturbing reports emerged after a community meeting Mara addressed in the Fijian language at the Canterbury Fijian Methodist Church in Sydney. One of those present said Mara suggested that Fiji’s attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, intended to alter Fiji’s land ownership provisions, which currently set aside more than 80 per cent of the country for indigenous people. There’s no evidence whatsoever for Mara’s claim yet nothing could be more designed to inflame indigenous sentiment against the regime. Already, Mara has repeatedly cast Khaiyum as Bainimarama’s puppet master and once depicted him as a Muslim helping another Muslim to get a job.

This blatant scaremongering about Indo-Fijians pulling the strings and plotting land seizures raises loud alarm bells for the 40 per cent of Fiji citizens who aren’t indigenous. If even the Bainimarama regime’s fiercest critics like Michael Field see Mara as no different to any other of Fiji’s expanding list of coup makers, why is he being feted by countries like Australia, New Zealand and Samoa? Why give him the thumbs up – Mara’s Churchillian wannabe signature – just because he claims to have had some Damascene conversion to democracy as he fled the camp in disgrace four and a half years after the coup he helped stage? And after a brace of genuine democracy activists say it was Mara -not Bainimarama- who was doing the abusing during the 2006 crackdown?

Thumbs up for more of the same? (photo: Coup 4.5)

And – while we’re at it – why give Bainimarama the thumbs down when unlike Mara, he’s firmly in control of Fiji, isn’t going anywhere fast, leads a regional grouping in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, has demonstrated a commitment to multiracialism and promises, hand on heart, to hold elections in 2014?  No, cry the critics, we want elections now! Well tough titty, it ain’t going to happen – “over my dead body”, says Bainimarama – no matter how many church halls attract a smattering of regime opponents in the weeks and months ahead.

This is the reality whether regional politicians and journalists like it or not. So isn’t it better to be there to help Fiji clear up the unfinished business of independence, help it develop its own form of democracy and maintain our collective stake in the country’s affairs? This is what the Lowy Institute and other enlightened parties -yes, like Grubsheet – prefer to a country that gradually embraces the morals and mores of the communist Chinese. Or yet another would-be soldier-turned-politician like Tevita Mara who even elements of the “pro-democracy” movement regard as undemocratic and the potential leader of Fiji’s next coup.

NOTICE: These articles on Fiji have triggered a wave of offensive and racist comments. The worst of these have been excised, as have a number of comments in the Fijian language. We regret having to do this. Grubsheet isn’t normally censored, except for postings that incite racial division and hatred. We also insist on the use of English as the common language of our correspondents.