A bizarre rerun of the political intrigues of the 19th century South Seas aristocracy is being played out at a stately royal residence on the waterfront of the sleepy Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa. Consular House was once the home of the British High Commissioner to Tonga and the lion and the unicorn still gaze majestically down from the wall in the foyer. But now the timber tropical pile with its push out shutters houses the region’s latest and most celebrated political refugee – a Fijian chief who’s sought sanctuary with his distant kinsmen, the monocle-wearing King George Tupou V.
Lt Colonel Tevita Uluilakeba Mara – commonly known as Roko Ului – is a Fijian blue-blood, the younger son of modern Fiji’s founding father, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Four and a half years ago, Mara threw his considerable support– military and traditional – behind his commanding officer, Frank Bainimarama, in a coup that removed Fiji’s elected government and sparked an ongoing regional crisis. But last week he fled the country in dramatic circumstances, plucked from a boat in Fiji waters by a Tongan naval patrol vessel evidently sent by his royal relative and patron.
Mara had been removed as commander of Fiji’s biggest military regiment and charged with sedition after he allegedly made critical comments about Bainimarama during a trip to South Korea. He’s also been linked to the alleged disappearance of F$ 3-million from the coffers of the state-owned timber company, Fiji Pine. Mara protested his innocence during his court appearance, obtained bail and was forced to surrender his passport. But having reported to police as part of his bail conditions, he suddenly vanished, eventually turning up on a Youtube posting in which he eviscerated Bainimarama as morally and intellectually bankrupt.
As the Fijian authorities try to piece together what happened -taking in Mara’s wife, relatives and close associates for questioning – some intriguing details are emerging. Mara traveled from Suva to the southern tip of Fiji’s southernmost island, Kadavu, and spent the night in a bure at the Nagigia Island surfing resort. A local boatman says he saw him in the company of a European man – widely believed to be Estonian-born local fisherman Risto Harmat – and they were joined by another European man with an indigenous Fijian wife.
In a startling development if confirmed, the feverish coconut radio in Suva has it that this couple is surfing instructor Tim McBride and his wife, Adi Koila Ganilau, who is Tevita Mara’s niece. Adi Koila is the daughter of Adi Ateca Mara, Mara’s elder sister, and Bainimarama’s predecessor as military chief, Brigadier Epeli Ganilau. Epeli Ganilau was defence minister in Bainimarama’s government but resigned in a dispute last year, apparently over the regime’s desire to impose higher taxes on one of Fiji’s main exports, Fiji Water. Suddenly, the steady estrangement in recent months between Bainimarama and the Mara-Ganilau dynasty – once a cornerstone of his support – has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
According to the local boatman at Nagigia, he took some of Mara’s party to a larger vessel that then headed for open seas. Precisely where this vessel then made contact with the Tongan naval patrol boat, Savea, is now at the centre of a diplomatic storm, with Fiji accusing Tonga of violating its sovereignty by secretly entering its waters. Tonga’s chief secretary, the unlikely-named Busby Kautoke, maintains that Mara’s status was “a man rescued at sea”. But while Mara himself said he’d been picked up after issuing a distress signal, the relevant authorities in Fiji and New Zealand say no distress signal was ever detected.
So it appears that the Tongan King sent one his ships into Fiji to enact a political rescue, plucking his relative from the clutches of Fijian law and providing a base for Mara to wage war on Bainimarama. Needless to say, Frank is less than pleased and the traditionally close relationship between Fiji and Tonga has entered its own perilous waters. A plausible explanation from the Tongan authorities is still awaited, not least as to how someone without a passport was able to enter the country so freely.
King George has been traveling in Europe after being famously mistaken for Mohammed Al- Fayed at the recent wedding of Wills and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. His prime minister, Lord Tu’ivakano, says its up to the Fijian authorities to pursue an extradition request through the normal legal channels. That has now been lodged but is given little chance of success, partly because Tonga’s chief justice, Michael Scott, is something of a refugee from Fiji himself. Justice Scott was once on the bench in Suva but fell out with Fiji’s chief justice, Anthony Gates, over what he perceived to be Gates’s support for the Bainimarama regime.
Since he arrived at Consular House, Mara has been granting audiences to the regional and global media, portraying Bainimarama as a tyrant in the thrall of his Indo-Fijian attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed- Khaiyum. Mara’s hatred for Khaiyum is visceral and expressed in crudely racial terms. In both English and Fijian language postings on Youtube, Mara casts him as an overly ambitious Muslim seeking to exercise control over the country through his puppet, Bainimarama. It’s a none-too-subtle play on indigenous fears of Indian domination in a racially divided Fiji and has raised fears that part of Mara’s agenda is to derail Bainimarama’s push for a level playing field for all citizens. Certainly, his language suggests that he may not share his father, Kamisese Mara’s, commitment to multiracialism.
Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Mara’s defection is the biggest boost for the regime’s opponents in a long time. Their recent setbacks include a change of heart on Fiji by Australia’s most prestigious Melanesian think tank, the Lowy Institute, which is now arguing for re-engagement and acceptance of Bainimarama’s election timetable of 2014. This unleashed a storm of abuse on anti-government websites that immediately turned to glee at the prospect of Tevita Mara leading a movement in exile against the hated dictator.
Some of the content on sites like Coup Four-point-Five is frequently hysterical and occasionally borders on the certifiable. A group calling itself “Strategic HQ desk” has called for a peoples’ revolt in Fiji in the coming week, including a general strike. Part of its advice to civil servants is to put sedatives in their minister’s tea “ to make him senile” and “mix his water with a sweet ingredient that will put him to sleep”.
Coup Four- Point-Five has become the media outlet of choice for Tevita Mara and is also the source of some journalistic howlers that have made their way into the mainstream media in New Zealand and Australia. The website breathlessly reported that Bainimarama was planning to remove Fiji’s president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, whose wife, Adi Koila, is one of Tevita Mara’s elder sisters. The story was picked up by Fairfax New Zealand’s Pacific correspondent, Michael Field, who Bainimarama expelled from Fiji and has a history of slanted reporting on the country, including two adverse findings by the New Zealand Press Council. Field’s story was picked up by TVNZ and he subsequently told it in person in an interview on Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat, one of the region’s prime sources of news. It was wrong – as Bainimarama wearily explained to the censored local media – admonishing its international colleagues for being “naughty”. But it wasn’t as wrong as Coup Four- Point-Five’s story that the President was holed up at Government House working on a counter strategy to dismiss Bainimarama and then seek refuge in the US embassy. The President was nowhere near Government House and still on an official visit to distant Rotuma. But such is the static generated on the coconut radio by Mara’s sensational defection.
What now? Assuming Fiji’s fails in its extradition request, Mara faces a lengthy exile. Will he be content to languish in the royal residences of Nuku’alofa playing war games with King George’s famous lead toy soldiers? Or will he head for New Zealand or Australia and lead the loose anti-regime movement that has been so singularly unsuccessful in dislodging Bainimarama? The dictator himself has suggested the latter, telling the Fiji media that he doesn’t care if Mara goes to Australia and joins another disgruntled former fellow officer in exile, Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka. Baledrokadroka – who has close links to a high chief jailed over the 2000 Speight coup – was charged with insubordination for opposing Bainimarama before his own coup in 2006. He soon left for Australia and was granted a fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, from where he conducts a steady campaign against the regime, including some colourful invective on Coup Four -Point -Five.
The ANU happens to be a hot-bed of anti-regime activity. On its staff is the Indo-Fijian historian, Brij Lal, whose criticism of Bainimarama saw him barred from Fiji, and Dr Jon Fraenkel, a former lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Suva who is married to a indigenous Fijian. Both men wage war on the regime in the Australian media, Brij Lal as commentator of choice on Radio Australia and Jon Fraenkel in several pieces in The Australian, including one this week in which he argued that Australia continue its hardline approach to Fiji. Will Tevita Mara be joining them? His time at the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College may or may not hold him in good academic stead.
But while Mara may be a regarded as a fugitive from justice in Fiji, there’s a certain historical symmetry in him seeking refuge with the Tongan king. In the 1840s, a Tongan prince called Ene’le Ma’afu sought refuge on Mara’s home island of Lakeba in Fiji when he was seen as a rival for the Tongan throne. He aligned himself with Mara’s direct ancestor, the Tui Nayau, and eventually went to war on his behalf, conquering a string of islands in eastern and northern Fiji. Ma’afu, the Tongan, eventually entered history as one of Fiji’s most powerful and celebrated chiefs and played a large part in ceding the islands to Britain in 1874.
As he becomes a diplomatic thorn in the relationship between Fiji and Tonga, Tevita Mara’s own horizons probably lie much further afield in New Zealand or Australia. But he and the resolutely single King George are certain to have plenty to talk about when their war games are over and they while away the lonely hours of a balmy Pacific night.
This posting has since appeared on Pacific Scoop New Zealand, which prompted a wave of negative comments from Tevita Mara/ Roko Ului’s supporters that Graham Davis – who is Fiji born- has addressed directly. Those exchanges follow.
By way of explanation, kai idia means Indian, kai valagi means European, kai vata means one’s relations, i’taukei means indigenous Fijian and liumuri is a pejorative term that means literally “leading from behind” but is used colloquially to describe someone who is cowardly and less than frank.