Grubsheet has again been wrestling in these columns with correspondents who claim – invariably without concrete evidence – that Frank Bainimarama and his regime are guilty of “torture” and widespread “human rights abuses”. There seems little doubt that some regime critics have been subjected to summary beatings in military custody and these are not excused. But the notion that human rights abuse is a leitmotif of Bainimarama’s “New Order” is risible. When asked to produce concrete advice, as opposed to rumour and hearsay, these critics invariably have to concede they can’t, lashing out instead at the supposed failure of the police or other authorities to investigate.
Fiji has always been a society in which order has been enforced by what’s called a “buturaki” – a beating. It’s how village authorities have traditionally maintained order in the vanua – indigenous society – and so it stands to reason that the practice also lends itself to use in the military and other areas of national life. It cannot be excused, not least because it sometimes results in serious injury or death, as in the case of the mutineers who tried to kill Frank Bainimarama in 2000 and were beaten to death. But it is not so much an instrument of state policy as a knee-jerk punishment for perceived misdemeanours, disrespect or, for that matter, any defiance of the established order.
It was ever thus and what happens today is a pale imitation of what occurred in Fijian society 150 years ago. Grubsheet has been reading the diary of the Reverend Thomas Williams, a Methodist missionary in Fiji from 1840 to 1853. It was a period of extreme violence in indigenous society and cannibalism was rife, so much so that Williams witnessed a number of cannibal feasts in the villages around him in the Lau group and Taveuni. His missionary colleague, The Reverend Richard Lyth, gives the following account in his journal of a routine village scene of monumental violence and cruelty:
“A Dreketi man, the murderer of two Soso women, had been captured and all the women of Soso were assembled to see him flayed alive in the rara or public area of their town on Mbau Island. The criminal was bound and then mutilated in the following manner: one eye was hooked out with a fish bone, and his nose was cut off; the hair of his head was burnt off, and a burning fire brand applied to the tips of his fingers. Then the fingers of both hands were cut off, grilled, portioned out and eaten before his eyes. His arms were then hacked off near the shoulders; then the legs, the toes having first been disposed of as were the fingers. Up to this time, there were signs of life. His insides were then opened; his head taken off and the whole body laid on the fire, grilled and eaten without further ceremony.”
Now that’s human rights abuse. Under the circumstances, surely even the regime’s sternest critics will concede that under Bainimarama’s “New Order”, things have improved.