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FIJI: Some Positive developments: Qarase and Chaudhry have a one to one meeting.


Paper no. 691                          19.05.2003

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan 

Qarase and Chaudhry have finally met. Though it was not a formal or a structured one, the fact they readily agreed to meet and discuss common issues is itself a major breakthrough. Fiji is set to open its mission soon in New Delhi. There are indications that even if the court case on the cabinet formation goes against the Qarase government, there will be no immediate instability.

It is to the credit of Qarase government that they are moving relentlessly against all those involved in the May coup and November Army mutiny of 2000.As one legal expert said- "those in power have bitten the bullet and decided it is important to demonstrate to the wider community that the legal system works, people will be held accountable for their actions."

It may have taken three years to catch up with the criminals and yet it has been done and this shows that the legal system left by the British still holds good however unstable the country may be.

Some of the notable developments include

* Two of the main figures of 2000 coup have been found to be guilty of treason by the country’s High Court. The accused Jo Nata and Ratu Timoci Silatolu were senior members of the coup led by George Speight. Silatolu is a politician and Jo Nata, a former journalist was Speight’s public relations man. The five assessors delivered their unanimous verdict of guilty. Sentencing will be done by June.

* In the first ever indictment of someone other than a member of Speight’s core group, the current Deputy Speaker, Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure was charged for "swearing an unlawful oath to commit a capital offence." Vakalalabure was a minister briefly in the Speight government. The Fiji Law Society has also debarred the Deputy Speaker from practising.

* Fiji’s Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli was arrested and brought before the Suva magistrate’s court on 8th May. The day after the coup, Speight held a swearing in ceremony in Parliament, led by the accused Seniloli who was declared as president. This arrest is perhaps the biggest political arrest since George Speight led special force’s soldiers into Parliament in May 2000. Seniloli is a respected senior chief and his arrest could be made out to be an attack on the "chief system" itself in Fiji. Yet the government was courageous enough to arrest him and bring him to the magistrate’s court.

* Fresh investigations into the role of four senior government officials in the May coup have begun. The four are the former Police Commissioner and now Fiji’s Representative to the United Nations Iskia Savua, Prison Chief Aisea Taoke, High Commissioner to Papua new Guinea Ratu Inoke and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Vakalalbure. The last one has already been indicted on another offence. In an enquiry made by a former Chief Justice, it is learnt that the former Police Commissioner knew about the May 19, coup well in advance and still did nothing to prevent it.

A veiled threat issued by the Army Chief against the politicians has created a stir. Commodore Bainimarama in a radio talk said that politicians must be truthful in their dealings if they want the country to move forward, adding that politicians seemed to have developed a habit of working to destabilise the country. On another occasion, the Army commander called on Prime Minister Qarase’s government to step down if does not agree with the direction the military is going.

There is no doubt that the Army Chief has gone beyond his brief in threatening Qarase himself. There have been mixed reactions from the politicians. The information minister officially welcomed the "request" of Army Chief to politicians to watch their words in public, while many others resented such open threats. Some politicians said that they have the liberty to speak openly on matters of national importance. Another twist to the whole affair has been given by Speight’s brother, who has been elected to Parliament. He said that the Army chief should be charged with treason for his role in the May 2000 coup when he forced the President to step down to form a military regime.

The Army Chief is due to retire next February and had sought an extension. Rather than risk his continuance, it is likely that he would be given a good diplomatic post abroad.

A positive development has been that Prime minister Qarase and Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry had a one to one meeting on 17th April for the first time. Though not in the nature of a Talonoa session, the two leaders met basically to discuss the problems faced by the Sugar cane industry and agricultural leases where the Labour party has large stakes. However, the talks extended to other matters of common interest.

Both sides were keen to point out that it was not a regular Talonoa session where there is a structured agenda. In a joint statement following the meeting, the two leaders said that their talks which focussed on critical issues facing the country were "constructive and useful." One good result has been that both have agreed to meet more often when such meetings are needed. Interestingly, the call for one to one meeting came from Chaudhry and Qarase quickly accepted the invitation.

Rumblings in the Great Council of Chiefs: For a long time the Chiefs of the Great Council have been concerned about the inroads being made by the Churches into their traditional culture and beliefs. The Chiefs also believe that their hold on the people is being eroded by the church. The matter came into the open, when the Great Council of Chiefs wrote to the Fiji Council of churches that some members of various religious denominations have chosen to dissociate themselves from traditional activities and customs when they enter villages to conduct religious activities. The GCC also pointed out that while it respects the rights of individuals to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, these very beliefs are breeding animosity within the Fijian communities.

Surprisingly, the Indo Fijians in their individual capacity and in their organisations fully support the stand taken by the Chiefs.