Few people with access to the Internet can have failed to be shocked and distressed at the extraordinary video that emerged this week of two recaptured Fijian prison escapees being ill-treated by their captors. The clip that has appeared on local television is a sanitised version of the original, which at the time of writing has been viewed almost 60,000 times on YouTube. It isn’t just the violence unleashed on the escapees and the degrading treatment to which they were subjected. Many people have been equally disturbed that their captors were taunting them, laughing at them and recording their ordeal on their mobile phones.
Yes, these individuals are violent, hardened criminals who had escaped from lawful custody and can hardly have expected to be garlanded when they were eventually tracked down. Some comments left on Facebook and certain blog sites express the sentiment that they were simply getting what they deserve. Doubtless many ordinary Fijians are fed up with the kind of lawlessness that saw much of Suva terrorised during the Naboro Prison mass breakout last September. They want a tough response against law-breakers and especially home invaders. Yet, equally, nothing can justify the abuse these recaptured prisoners suffered – something that the police themselves have acknowledged by expressing their own disquiet and announcing an investigation. It may not have been as bad as some human rights abuses in other parts of the world but that’s not the point. This is Fiji and we generally don’t see ourselves in this way. That’s why there has been such shock and revulsion across the community – people saying that it made them cry and they couldn’t sleep – which is an encouraging sign of the moral state of the nation in itself.
Yet the fact is that police brutality occurs the world over. Bad things happen in good countries. This week, the Sydney police have been under fire for using excessive force as they made drug-related arrests during the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. In South Africa in recent days, there’s been an outcry after a man was killed when police allegedly dragged him behind a car. The shock of these incidents is understandably heightened when they are recorded, especially in this age of instant postings on Facebook or YouTube. Yet even before this, there was global outrage when vision was released in 1991 of Los Angeles police beating the black American Rodney King. That incident is still etched in many memories 22 years later. Will it be the same in Fiji with this video?
Only those with their heads in the sand can ignore the damage done to the reputation of our law enforcement agencies and Fiji’s general reputation abroad. Tourism Fiji is current running a social media campaign built around its new slogan “Fiji – where happiness finds you”. What happens to that now that the prisoner abuse clip has gone viral on the same platforms? How does it affect general perceptions of Fiji? Will it affect tourism numbers? The point is that perception is a fragile thing and international perceptions about any place and its people can shift in an instant. Talk to anyone in PR and they’ll tell you that reputations can take years to build and seconds to destroy. Even one human rights violation can destroy years of hard work. That said, has Australia’s image been unduly damaged by recent images of police brutality there, the deaths of aborigines in custody or the murder of foreign students by racist gangs? Countries are generally judged on their response to these incidents, not on the unfortunate fact that they took place.
Yet it’s also time for a wider debate about the general culture of violence that has always existed in Fiji and how to break it. Because one thing links both the victims and the perpetrators in the video in question. And that is that they’ve grown up in a country in which summary violence is often the norm rather than the exception. And, as we all know, violence invariably begets violence.
It’s a fair bet that everyone in that clip was raised as a child to expect a “hiding” – the traditional form of discipline in most Fijian homes for even relatively minor infractions. We’ve all copped it pretty much irrespective of background. Did we harbor resentment against our parents for getting a belting or a cuffing? Usually not. And at school, corporal punishment was routine until relatively recently – the strap or the cane on the hand or the backside the traditional means of enforcing discipline. It was all designed to instill fear and deter us from repeating the particular offence. Did it work? Only sometimes. But it’s inarguable that it instilled in many of us the notion that violence is an acceptable way of keeping social order. And it also made us – to a lesser or greater extent – inured to violence and more likely to resort to it ourselves. Children were beaten, wives were beaten, fists used whenever disputes arose. Indeed violence has been distressingly routine in some families and unfortunately it still occurs in far too many Fijian homes. The Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, has acknowledged as much by waging a personal campaign against the mistreatment of women by the men in their lives.
In the Vanua – in traditional i’Taukei society – it can be even more prevalent than in our towns and cities. The buturaki – the premeditated beating – has always been the traditional method of enforcing order at village level. Never mind the use of violence in family settings. These were targeted punishments – sanctioned by the village hierarchy – of wayward youths who would quite literally be bashed in the cause of the common good. It was all designed to be the ultimate deterrent, to teach them a lesson they would never forget.
The point is that it’s no stretch of the imagination to see echoes of this – albeit in extreme form – in the video that has surfaced this week. Because there’s little doubt that this concept of summary justice – of terrifying violence, of making an example of someone in the interests of deterrence – will have taken hold at other levels in Fiji, including the agencies that are charged with keeping order at a national level. There’s little doubt that the police motive is to send the strongest possible message to the prison community that hardened criminals can expect the direst of consequences should they be tempted to escape. The spectre of escapees returning to their cells broken in limb as well as spirit must have a big impact on any prisoner.
Let’s face it. Maintaining law and order in Fiji has been a big challenge in the context of the coup culture of the past 25 years. Violence has often been just below the surface, erupting at times with terrible consequences on both sides. In the mutiny of 2000, innocent troops were murdered by traitors and some of the mutineers were subsequently beaten to death. It left an indelible impact on the psyche of the entire establishment and especially the Prime Minister, the ultimate target of the mutineers, who barely escaped with his life. So it’s to be expected that official attitudes to law breakers generally are harsh and unforgiving.
In truth, many law abiding Fijians actually like being ruled with an iron fist if it means being able to sleep soundly in their beds at night. It doubtless explains why some correspondents to the newspapers this week have wanted more emphasis placed on their human rights in this debate than on the rights of those who violated theirs by committing robbery and rape. A few weeks back, Grubsheet was at Baulevu chatting to a young Indo-Fijian farmer about how much better he felt his life has been under the Bainimarama Government. “I feel safe for the first time in my life”, he exclaimed. He went on to recount a tale of abject horror during the 2000 coup. Marauding gangs of i’Taukei extremists terrorised his community, bashing residents at will and helping themselves to his cattle and meager personal effects. “It was so bad, we slept for weeks in the bush because we were too scared to stay in our homes at night. They would look for us but because we had grown up here, we knew the best hiding places”, he said. By this man’s account, it was only when the coup was put down that life returned to normal.
This is not an apologia for excessive use of force on the part of the police, as doubtless some of Grubsheet’s critics will argue. Yet there seems little doubt that certain elements of the criminal class in Fiji have a sense of entitlement that poses a very real threat – even in relatively peaceful times – to the rights of all citizens to not only feel, but be, secure and unmolested. This demands a particular resolve on the part of the authorities and some excesses are doubtless inevitable. They can’t be condoned but they can at least be understood, set against a social background in which violence has been an accepted feature for so long.
There are some encouraging signs of change, not least in the official attitudes to punishment in our schools. Corporal punishment has now been banned, the cane and the strap put away. As they are subjected to less and less violence, will current and future generations, in turn, be less prone to tacitly accept violence themselves? We can only hope so. As a nation, we need to do a lot more to prevent violence – to instill the notion in our children that it is unacceptable – just as we need to tackle the associated scourges of rape and child abuse, which have reached frightening levels in Fiji. Because it’s an uncomfortable fact that when we were watching that video of those prisoners being degraded and were appalled, we were also watching something of ourselves.
This article has subsequently appeared on Pacific Scoop NZ.