Part of the reason the United States has been more sympathetic towards Fiji in recent times is due to the efforts of Eni Faleomavaega, the genial US Congressman from American Samoa. In stark contrast with the swaggering Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi – who leads the other Samoa to the west – Congressman Faleomavaega has always grasped the importance of Fiji’s attempt to create a fairer and more multiracial democracy.
Perhaps that’s because he’s an American and understands the basic premise that a democracy that favours one race over others isn’t a proper democracy at all. Or perhaps he’s just a better listener than the big-talking Tuilaepa, who poses as a regional standard bearer for democracy while behaving like an old fashioned Polynesian autocrat at home. Either way, American Samoa is streets ahead of its neighbour in understanding the real issues in Fiji and lending support to its political work in progress.
The difference is that Congressman Faleomavaega hasn’t – like Tuilaepa – sat on the sidelines hurling gratuitous abuse. He’s made the effort to visit the country, meet its leaders and judge the challenges for himself. And he’s then gone to Washington to promote the view to his fellow legislators that Australia and New Zealand and their Samoan proxy have got it wrong when it comes to Fiji. That the best way to achieve true democracy isn’t sanctions to restore a bastardised version but to help the Bainimarama government give the vote of every citizen the same value for the first time.
The importance for Fiji of a friend like Congressman Faleomavaega can’t be overestimated. A Democrat, he’s the ranking member and former chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific. As such, he has the ear of fellow legislators in the world’s biggest superpower and direct access to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So it’s no surprise that America has a much better understanding of the complexities in Fiji than its immediate neighbours Australia and NZ. Yes, Washington is also worried about China’s increased presence in the region. But Congressman Faleomavaega is cutting through the simplistic narrative of a “thuggish dictatorship” – the version promoted by Tuilaepa and his cronies – to explain why the 2006 coup was necessary and why Fiji deserves international understanding and support.
Last week, Congressman Faleomavaega was in Port Vila for the annual Pacific Debate organised by the Vanuatu-based Pacific Institute of Public Policy, the region’s only resident think tank. And he again criticised Australia and New Zealand for getting it wrong on Fiji, in particular their role in having Fiji suspended from the Pacific Forum. In an interview with Pita Ligaiula of Pacnews, the Congressman said the Forum had been fractured and Australia and NZ influence meant that its policy on Fiji had “failed miserably”. “Most countries continue to have diplomatic relations with Fiji. In my opinion this is a failure of the Australian policy in the past five years not to help Fiji but to punish (it) because of its military status,” he said.
While the Congressman didn’t mention Tuilapea by name, the fact that the Samoan prime minister is one of the strongest supporters of Fiji’s suspension also makes this a backhander from a fellow Samoan. Tuilaepa has said that Frank Bainimarama is “leading everyone down the cassava patch” with his undertaking to hold elections in 2014. But Congressman Faleomavaega said he was “very optimistic” that Fiji would be going to the polls as promised.
“The unfortunate situation here is that…the immediate reaction from Australia and New Zealand is, it will never happen. We talk about building confidence (but) that’s not the very positive way of helping fellow islanders who have serious problems”, he said. Congressman Faleomavaega said he believed in Fiji’s “own way of solving its problem” and giving it the support and a sense of confidence it needed to make fundamental change and avoid a fifth coup. “I am confident that the leaders and the people of Fiji are all looking forward to have the election come 2014 with or without Australia and New Zealand support,” he said.
The difference between this attitude and that of Prime Minister Tuilapea couldn’t be more stark – one enlightened and understanding, the other uncompromising and belligerent. Tuilaepa and his loutish media advisor, Terry Tavita ( see the comments section of the previous posting) continue to insult Fiji in general and Frank Bainimarama in particular. They also continue their gratuitous interference in Fiji’s domestic affairs by undermining it in regional forums and even encouraging rebellion through their support for the renegade former officer, Ratu Tevita Mara. One way or another, they will eventually have to account for that belligerence. In the meantime – fortunately for Fiji – in Eni Faleomavaega it has a much more important and influential Samoan on its side.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.