Short time after the coup, Executive Director of Fiji women’s Rights Movement FWRM), Virisila Buadromo and her partner had been arrested and taken to the military barracks. “I was threatened and insulted, beaten and humiliated”, she recalled. “Eventually, soldiers threw me on the floor and began jumping on my stomach. Since the coup I am receiving anonymous phone calls; some of them openly threatening us with rape.”
Fiji is presently living in fear. Many of those who used to speak openly about social, political and racial injustice in this once idyllic island nation are now silently waiting for the situation to improve and for the first wave of terror and fright to subside. Military coup which took place on 5 December 2006 was definitely not one of the bloodiest history had known, but it managed to plant the seeds of panic in this traditionally outspoken society.
Military is now omnipresent. It is erecting checkpoints and roadblocks on all major highways of two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu; its “boys” are keeping high profile in the center of the capital Suva. Symbolically, they are exercising, shouting and playing sports just a few meters from government building and the only international hotel ‘Holiday Inn’. Military took over dilapidated sea side villas, and is now freely marching on the beeches or simply sitting at the curb of the sidewalks in full military uniforms, guns resting on their knees.
There is no certainty about the future. Military seems to be fully in control, its commanders arrogant and confident, showing no fear, ready to confront the countries it depends on, like New Zealand and Australia, even the sole superpower. Early July military ruler – Commodore Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama – accused the United States ambassador of spreading misleading information about his coup, comparing the envoy to a New Zealand diplomat he expelled for allegedly meddling in the country’s affairs. Then visiting United States Congressional delegation was “disturbed” after hearing suggestions made by interim Foreign Affairs Minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau that “various contingencies might arise that could endanger Fiji holding an election in 2008 or 2009″.
But what makes this miniscule military force so confident? Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMS) can be easily one of the smallest armies in the world, with total manpower of 3.500 and 2.950 troops in active duty. 300 men are serving in the NAVY. Two regular battalions of the Fiji Infantry Regiment are traditionally stationed overseas on peacekeeping duties; the 1st Battalion has been posted to Lebanon, Iraq, and East Timor under the command of the UN, while the 2nd Battalion is stationed in Sinai with the MFO. The 3rd Battalion is stationed in the capital, Suva, and the remaining three are spread throughout the islands. That’s not a major force even taking under account that the country has lesser than 1 million inhabitants.
How could such small force perform 4 major coups since Fijian independence in 1970? Country was shaken by two coups in 1987, the mutiny at Queen Elisabeth Barracks in Suva as well as the coup of 2000, then the latest coup of December 2006. Earlier coups had devastated Fiji by reopening racial divides between native Melanesian Fijians and Indians whose many ancestors were brought to this country by the British colonial power as slave labor. In the late 80s, Indo-Fijians were forming majority, but racial discrimination and the coups accompanied by violence, looting of Indian business and rape of Indian women had triggered exodus of thousands of best-trained professionals. Indo-Fijians became again a minority.
Junta leaders of 2006 coup were citing as the reason for their action corruption in the government as well as pending legislation to pardon those soldiers involved in the 2000 mutiny. Successfully securing all key centers of the country, Commodore took over the power of the President and dissolved parliament.
RFMF may be very small force, but it is extremely well connected. Your correspondent had been given unprecedented interview by one of retired top brass of the military. Not supporting the most recent coup he was prefers to remain anonymous.
“Fijian military had been serving in many conflict zones as the UN peacekeeping force”, he explains. “But some of its active or retired members were contracted directly by the UK or the US governments. Fijian military for instance worked on one of Iraq’s projects called “Filous” (Arabic word for exchange of currencies). Goal of this project was exchanging Saddam’s currency for the new money. Fijian soldiers are very familiar with Arabs and their culture. Our soldiers were serving on Lebanon, Sinai Desert and elsewhere.”
“Fijian military actually expanded because of the UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, in 1978. The UN invited Fiji to join UNIFIL. Under the British, Fijians were serving in many parts of the world, including Malaya. Our soldiers are known for their excellence. They are trained locally, but also in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. Fijian military and the US military are very close; we used to have excellent relations. But since the 2006 coup the US had frozen all new cooperation, although existing projects can still go on. One more important issue to mention is that the US security companies often directly contract retired Fijian soldiers who then serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. For Fiji it is tremendous business.”
It is well known fact that Fiji is a major recruitment ground for mercenaries. But the issue is taboo. Majority of Fijian citizens, even those well informed, are not willing to criticize involvement of Fijian troops abroad. As long as the money is brought back to Fiji, morality of the projects is not questioned.
“Fiji is not particularly rich country”, explained one of the top Fijian international consultants. She prefers to remain anonymous. “We need money and frankly we don’t care what our soldiers are doing abroad. Killing others, being involved in wrong causes? It’s not our problem. Sorry for being so blunt, but that’s what we feel here.” Similar statements are not uncommon even now.
For years, Fijian military had been given carte blanche by the local population. But now cynicism and indifference backfired. In the very heart of Fiji, people are being taken to the military barracks to be interrogated. There are reports of gross human rights violations. Junta is also clamping on the media, and it is being accused of “eroding the independence of the judiciary by sacking prominent legal figures, and expelling foreign lawyers involved in court cases against the regime. The regime – which has previous warned it will round up reporters seen to be undermining it – had admitted it has a “blacklist” of people it will prevent from leaving Fiji”, according to Xavier La Canna from Adelaide Now.
Joseph Veramu, leading Fijian novelist and head of Lautoka (second largest city in Fiji) Campus of University of South Pacific (USP) shares his emotions: “Yes, there is definitely a fear. People are suddenly scared to speak out, to make a comment and be overheard by a passer-by. Military managed to plant small, tiny seeds of fear in our society. And then there is a reason for real fear as some people are truly suffering, like those who were taken in; dragged to the military barracks.”
The issue remains how did international community allow fundamentally racist and discriminatory force (99 percent of Fijian military is staffed with native Fijians and it is often used as a vehicle for oppression of minorities) to participate in peacekeeping missions? RFMF itself seems to have very few scruples. It is often described as a mercenary force, ready to be hired by the UK, the US or anyone else with deep pockets, no matter how dubious or immoral the task. In Fiji, moral issues don’t seem to be on top agenda.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist, playwright and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. His latest novel about war correspondents – “Point of No Return” – exposes brutal world of military conflicts in so called developing countries. Editorial Director or Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com) he lives in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]