- This is the second part of the speech DR BRIJ LAL was to have given tomorrow at the Fiji Institute of Accountants Congress in Nadi. These are excerpts from his handwritten notes.
It is no secret that the interim administration is unhappy with the reaction of the international community, and it has singled out Australia and New Zealand for particular criticism in relation to their alleged interference in forum decision-making about Fiji.
There are several points to consider. The forum position has hardened over time in direct response to Fiji’s intransigence. Tonga’s Fred Sevele was sympathetic to Fiji in the beginning, as was PNG’s Michael Somare. Both were disappointed at Fiji’s snub of Pacific leaders’ meeting in Niue and then in Port Moresby.
Fiji needs to recognise that Pacific leaders are not pawns in the hands of Australia and New Zealand, and it is deeply offensive to Pacific Island leaders for Fiji to think so.
And there is a further point to consider. Why should anyone express surprise that Australia and New Zealand are using their diplomatic leverage in the region to effect an outcome they want?
You would surely expect democratic countries to champion values that underpin their own political culture and not condone practices which seek to subvert them. But having said that, I know that the international community does want to help, provided there is genuine willingness on the part of the interim administration to engage in inclusive dialogue.
Fiji’s siege mentality in the circumstances is understandable, but it is also a hindrance to progress. It is perhaps this closed mindset that obscures a clear perception of the international reaction to Fiji.
I recall what then Minister Mahendra Chaudry said when the Rudd Labor Government was elected into office. He welcomed the new government and said that he was hopeful that Canberra would show a more sympathetic appreciation of the situation in Fiji.
I was asked to respond to this on a Hindi radio talk show. The whole world came crashing down on my head. I said that the change of government would not alter Australia’s position on Fiji, and gave three reasons. One was that no Australian political party would ever condone a military coup against a democratically elected government. Two, that after 13 years in the wilderness, the ALP having won power at the ballot box could hardly be expected to condone its violation in its own neighborhood. And three, Australia would not take a position on Fiji without consulting its closest partner New Zealand, which had already condemned the coup in the strongest terms possible. All this was, or should have been, common sense.
Today, some in the interim administration are making a similar noise about China. Let me say at the outset that I hope the interim administration is right and that Chinese aid, trade and investment will flow into Fiji in ample measure in the years to come.
But I am not optimistic. Why?
We have been on this route before, soon after the 1987 coups when Fiji embarked on a “Look North Policy” with great enthusiasm, not the least to teach Australia and New Zealand the lesson that they were not indispensable to Fiji’s development.
Nothing tangible came from that initiative. Nothing. And I am not sure that much will come out of the current China drive either.
China’s strategic interest in Fiji is limited. Its regional policy is driven by the Taiwan factor. At this time of global financial crisis, no country, including China, will invest in an environment characterised by systemic instability and periodic eruptions. And for China, Australia and New Zealand are far more important than Fiji.
For that reason alone, China is unlikely to do anything in direct defiance of Canberra and Wellington.
The interim administration has repeatedly told the international community and anyone else who would listen, that merely having elections will not solve Fiji’s problems.
I agree. Elections by themselves don’t solve anything. That is common sense. What they do is to provide the basis of legitimacy for governance.
This fundamental point has escaped many who place trust and confidence in the military and the interim administration. Fiji tells the international community that Fiji’s constitution is “undemocratic” and that it has to go if Fiji is to develop into a fair and just society.
I have alluded to this before, but let me make some additional points. I do not know what criterion is used to define democracy. What I do know is that international laws allow for a certain margin of appreciation to accommodate a country’s unique culture and history and traditions and for these to be incorporated into its constitutional structure.
There is no one-size-fits all.
Second, I know that the 1997 Constitution attempted to deal with the most fundamental problem that has beset Fiji since the inception of party politics in 1966.
That problem was not a flawed electoral system (although the first-past-the-post most certainly was), but the systematic exclusion of one community, the Indo-Fijians, from sharing power.
They were the perennial “Other” of Fijian politics. The compulsory power-sharing provision in the 1997 Constitution was designed to address that problem. And in 2006, for the first time in Fiji’s political history ever, there was a genuinely multi-ethnic, multi-party government in place.
A new beginning was being made, however tentatively. Consider the sweet irony: Fijians and Indo-Fijians were in government, while the opposition was led by a General Voter!
Third, I know that there are other forms of democracy other than the Westminster variety, respected and practiced in many stable democracies. One such, upon which the 1997 Constitution was partly founded, was what Arend Lijphart has called “consociationalism” whose principal characteristics are: A grand coalition of elites representing different segments of society; guaranteed group representation so that no major community is excluded from power; mutual veto over matters of particular concern to the different communities; proportionality in political representation; and segmental autonomy that allows for the maintenance of different cultural identities.
This, too, a model of democracy, and Fiji’s 1997 Constitution meets its test fully. In this version, reserving seats for distinct communities is not the evil that the advocates of the Westminster model make it out to be.
Fourth, I know that no country will ever enjoy political stability so necessary for economic development unless there is basic respect for the rule of law. You may have the most perfect constitution in the world, the most perfect model of democracy on paper, but as long as you have a large standing military in an environment characterised by violence and disorder, there will always be a threat to peace.
The time for apportioning blame about what happened is over. The question now is: Where do we go from here? First, we need to confront the inescapable truth that Fiji cannot go it alone, that sooner rather than later, it will have to engage with the international community Fiji will have to adopt a more open and inclusive approach.
Many initiatives contemplated by the interim administration are praiseworthy, and I have no doubt that there would be a meeting of minds on many of them. That is why there is an urgent need of tact and diplomacy.
Fiji is an island, I have said so many times before, but it is an island in the physical sense alone. The words of John Donne come to mind: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of the thy friends or thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind.”
As a practical matter, the interim administration, if it is serious about returning Fiji to parliamentary democracy in a timely fashion – and I have already expressed my doubts before – it should deign backwards from 2014 and draw up a timetable for taking the country to elections.
Without that demonstrable commitment, the international community will not engage. That much is clear. No one wants to be taken for a cheap ride.
It would also be helpful if the interim administration set out in specific detail what aspect of the abrogated 1997 Constitution it finds problematic so that areas of agreement and disagreement among the different stakeholders can be clearly identified.
The problems Fiji faces are huge, but they are surmountable. The international community will come to the party but it will have to be convinced of Fiji’s genuine desire to engage in an inclusive dialogue.
In the end, though, solutions to Fiji’s problems will have to be found here, devised by the people of this country. And no solution will be sustainable and enduring unless it is based on tolerance and a sensitive understanding of this country’s diverse inheritance.
It must be based on the understanding that dissent does not mean disloyalty.
President Obama said it well in Cairo earlier this month. He said that “in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground”. Fiji can realise its potential that is so within its reach. That is its challenge and its opportunity.
I want to end by quoting again words from President Obama’s Cairo address which are apt for my purposes. He said: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: The ability to speak your own mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.
“These are not just American ideas; they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” – fiji uncensored