Grubsheet has come under withering attack for its previous posting that exposed the apparent links between the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement in Australia and indigenous extremists who staged the 2000 George Speight coup. Tempers in the diaspora of the disaffected who oppose the Bainimarama regime have been sorely frayed since we published a photograph of two supposedly independent academics at the Australian National University – Dr Jon Fraenkel and Professor Brij Lal – with Simione Kaitani, one of the coup perpetrators who’s been granted permanent Australian residency.

Jon Fraenkel, Brij Lal, Simione Kaitani (photo Drum Pasifika)

All three attended a rally in Queanbeyan -outside Canberra – on Saturday at which the key speaker was Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, the renegade Fiji military officer and son of the founder of modern Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Grubsheet – quite legitimately, in our view – raised questions about the relationship between Kaitani and Fraenkel and Lal, academics on the public payroll who regularly employ the mana that comes with their positions to act as commentators on Fiji in the mainstream Australian media.

Frankel and Lal spoke at this “pro-democracy” rally and declared themselves authors of a ten point plan to return Fiji to democracy that will be presented to the next gathering of Pacific Forum leaders later in the year. This alone makes them protagonists in the Fiji saga, not dispassionate commentators. But the real issue for us was their willingness to be photographed with someone in Kaitani who was a key player in the 2000 coup. He was described as “one of the mob” by no less a figure than the deposed elected Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, who was held hostage with his cabinet in the parliamentary complex for 56 days.

Simione Kaitani advises George Speight

Four days after we posed a series of questions to Fraenkel and Lal seeking an explanation, there’s still been no response. That silence is deafening. But there’s been a chorus of indignation from Kaitani and his supporters, who’ve unleashed a tirade against Grubsheet on anti-regime blogs, along with a rambling and decidedly unconvincing statement from Kaitani himself that readers can peruse at their leisure on our previous posting.

In this statement, Kaitani claims, absurdly, to have been “a victim of the 2000 coup” not a perpetrator, in that his parliamentary career in opposition was cut short. He also claims that he joined George Speight at the parliamentary complex for altruistic reasons, to provide a moderate and steadying hand. This is an extraordinary proposition given that the duly elected prime minister, Chaudhry, was beaten so badly during the siege that he subsequently required medical treatment in Australia.

Voreqe Bainimarama in 2006

The truth is that the 56-day ordeal for Chaudhry and the nation was – according to several accounts – an orgy of after-hours drunkenness and sex, as well as a wanton armed assault by indigenous extremists on the citadel of local democracy. It was only brought to an end when the Speight gang was eventually tricked into surrendering by the then military commander and subsequent coup leader, Frank Bainimarama.

Kaitani vehemently denies that he was involved in the planning of the coup and only became involved on the day it happened. There is no way to establish this beyond reasonable doubt. Just as there was no way – in the absence of concrete evidence – to convict him on a charge of treason when he subsequently faced trial for taking an illegal oath as a minister in George Speight’s government.

Simione Kaitani as coup spokesman

Kaitani makes much in his statement of this acquittal in 2005, seemingly convinced that it exonerates him from blame for the events of 2000 and therefore justifies the decision by the Australian Government to grant refuge to him and his family for allegedly being persecuted for his political views. This is arrant nonsense.

During the course of the illegal occupation, Kaitani freely acknowledges that he became “spokesman for the coup” and contemporary footage shows him giving interviews to the international media. In his statement, he claims he was only spokesman for one day and had been obliged to take the position by a person or persons he doesn’t identify. He also claims, bizarrely, that being awarded this position led to him being verbally abused by the leader of the Nationalist Party, Iliesa Duvuloco.

"Coup mastermind" Iliesa Duvuloco

Duvuloco has consistently refused to rule out that he was the mastermind of the 2000 coup – a claim made to Grubsheet in a Nine Network report in 2006 by one of the other conspirators, Maciu Navakasuasua. If that’s true, then it beggars belief that Kaitani was made coup spokesman over Duvuloco’s objections.

It also beggars belief – especially given George Speight’s fondness for the cameras – that the role of spokesman would have been handed to a “concerned outsider”, as Kaitani portrays himself in his statement. The more likely explanation was that Kaitani was at the core of the conspiracy – “one of the mob”, as Chaudhry casts him – who believed passionately in the notion of indigenous supremacy and was willing to help enforce it through the barrel of the gun.

Whatever Kaitani says now, the camera very rarely, if ever, lies. For at least five years, television footage of him at the centre of events at the parliamentary complex has been in the public domain, which makes it all the more remarkable that Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal – who’ve done academic studies on the events of 2000 – should choose to be photographed with him at a public event. So let’s just go with what we’ve got in balancing the visual evidence against Kaitani’s remarkably hollow explanation.

"A round of applause for our George"

There he is at Speight’s right hand – though he claims he wasn’t Speight’s “right hand man”. There he is as “coup spokesman”, someone speaking on behalf of the conspirators even as he makes the improbable claim that he wasn’t really one of their number. And there he is calling for a round of applause from the indigenous mob for the coup front man, the swaggering George Speight.

Now comes a fresh photograph of Kaitani from the Fiji Times in the opening days of the seige – one the whole country got to see at the time – to again give the lie to his claim to have been a bit player. It’s courtesy of Thakur Ranjit Singh, a New Zealand resident who was once the publisher of the Fiji Post and is himself, a regular commentator on Fijian affairs.

Triumphant Kaitani centre stage (photo:Fiji Times)

It shows a triumphant Simione Kaitani centre stage at the parliamentary complex, flanked by one of the armed men who kept the military and police at bay. Does he look like someone of no real consequence, such a wilting violet that he had to be forced at gunpoint to have his picture taken? Not to Grubsheet’s eyes nor, we suspect, the eyes of anyone in Fiji who walks around with them open.

Even if it’s true – as Kaitani claims – that he wasn’t part of the planning for the coup and only became involved on the day it happened, here’s a fascinating fact that throws a whole new light on his denials. Neither, it’s claimed, was George Speight. According to Maciu Navakasusua – among the core conspirators – Speight was only dragged in at the last minute when the man who was meant to carry it out suddenly got cold feet.

Coup whistleblower Maciu Navakasuasua

Navakasuasua told Grubsheet five years ago that the original front man was the late Savenaca Draunidalo, who like Simione Kaitani, went on to hold ministerial office in the Qarase Government that Frank Bainimarama removed in 2006. He said Draunidalo was waiting at the Holiday Inn for a signal from those whose task it was to take the Government hostage. But when he began to get reports of the widespread looting that had broken out during a simultaneous street march headed by Iliesa Duvuloco, he had second thoughts and vanished. It was only then – says Navakasusua – that the decision was made that George Speight would be the public face of the coup.

With such throws of the dice is history often decided. Speight now languishes in a fetid prison cell outside Suva – reportedly harbouring the most bitter of regrets about the mess he got himself into – while Simione Kaitani breathes the fresh air of freedom in Australia. And has his picture taken with people who should know better and evidently think they don’t need to explain anything to anybody.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun. Auckland University of Technology Associate Professor David Robie also comments on this saga on his Cafe Pacific blog.