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  • Writer's pictureB.M. Allsopp

Elephants of Fiji politics

I generally avoid politically sensitive topics in my Fiji posts, but I can't avoid the elephant in the room. Even a political elephant. You may recall I devoted two posts in 2022 to the Russian super-yacht, Amadea, arrested in the port of Lautoka by the Fiji government for entry violations and eventually seized by the US government. You can check on this fascinating and twisted tale here and here. Another time, I wrote here about the tussle between two powerful but ageing bull elephants: current prime minister Mr Sitiveni Rabuka and his predecessor, Mr Voreque Bainimarama, both leaders of successful military coups. Both gentlemen have made the headlines recently.

Voreque 'Frank' Bainimarama

Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji in 2014 in London
Frank Bainimarama in 2014 Source: FCO, UK

As Commander of Fiji's Defence Force, in 2006 Bainimarama ousted the

elected government in a bloodless coup, accusing it of corruption and discriminating against the Indo-Fijian minority. Throughout 16 years in power, erstwhile Bainimarama did much to remove racial identity from public policy and grow the economy. He brought in popular measures such as free public education and free transport for students. It's also fair to say he believed he knew what was best for the country and acted on this belief unilaterally in many instances.

The case of cooking the USP books

The day following his resignation as prime minister in March 2023, Bainimarama was charged with perverting the course of justice back in 2019. The public prosecutor alleged Bainimarama put a stop to a police investigation into a decade of financial mismanagement at the University of the South Pacific (USP). In October he was acquitted. but Fiji's High Court recently convicted Bainimarama on appeal. Although this crime carries a prison sentence of up to five years, the Magistrate's Court responsible for sentencing, yesterday granted the 69-year-old an absolute discharge on the grounds of ill health. The public prosecutor immediately lodged an appeal, so this case may not be over yet.

China's presence in Fiji

From 2006, Bainimarama was active in developing Fiji's faltering economy. He sought foreign investment, trade and aid from both traditional allies like Australia and newer sources, like The People's Republic of China (PRC). PRC has operated in the South Pacific for decades, persuading several nations to switch their diplomatic support away from Taiwan. Under Bainimarama, PRC's presence in Fiji multiplied, with many new agreements signed and projects commenced. One of these offered training in PRC for Fiji Police officers, but many people didn't realise this also involved 'embedding' PRC police officers in the Fiji Police Force.

Sitiveni 'Rambo' Rabuka

In the year since Rabuka took office, he seems to be evaluating with concern the build-up of PRC investment and influence under his predecessor. Rabuka has voiced concern about PRC's intensified presence in island nations like Solomon Islands and Kiribati, fearing it may undermine values and ways of doing things. In one of his first foreign policy actions, Rabuka restored the name and full diplomatic status of Taiwan's office in Suva. This quote is from Taiwan's Foreign Office press release.

PM Rabuka with ROC Taiwan officials
PM Rabuka with ROC Taiwan officials Source: MOFA/PINA
"Under pressure from China, the former administration in Fiji in 2018 unilaterally renamed the overseas mission as the Taipei Trade Office in Fiji. Over the past several years, the R.O.C. (Taiwan) government and members of the overseas mission have spared no efforts to have the original name restored. Meanwhile, the general election at the end of last year led to a change of governing party in Fiji ... The new government recognizes that since Taiwan established a representative office in Fiji in 1971, the two sides have engaged in close bilateral exchanges and cooperation in such domains as agriculture, fishery, medicine, education, and development of human resources, contributing substantively to the welfare of the Fijian people. Following internal discussions, the cabinet of Fiji overturned the former administration’s decision and reinstated the name—Trade Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the Republic of Fiji—and diplomatic privileges to Taiwan’s overseas mission."

Some months ago, the prime minister foreshadowed that he might scrap the controversial policing agreement cited above. Perhaps PRC has been persuasive, because a few days ago Rabuka announced that the cooperation agreement would remain for now. However, Rabuka stated that he could see no need for PRC police officers to be embedded in the Fiji Police Force and had already ordered their repatriation. It goes without saying they will return home with a good understanding of Fiji police operations and much to report to their superiors. One could say their mission is already accomplished. Is Rabuka right to dial back the pace of China's growing presence in Fiji?

In my May post, I'll explore the most damaging effect of PRC China's operations in Fiji.

If you have friends interested in Fiji or Pacific islands in general, I encourage you to share this post.

I look forward to hearing from you!


B.M. Allsopp

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