Military Unity Crumbles In Fiji

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In recent months, Fiji’s close-knit administration has been disrupted with resignations and sackings. Key army officers who supported Fiji’s leader Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama have been sent on leave, while the post-coup administration has lost key civilian supporters.

Since his December 2006 coup, Bainimarama has relied on a number of close confidants, including Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. But decision making in Fiji is governed by the Fiji Military Council made up of senior military officers, many of whom also hold positions within the public service or on statutory boards.

In past decades, many Fijian leaders have served in the army at some point during their professional life, with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces serving as a pillar of social and economic power. But the post-coup regime since 2006 is unique, in that serving military officers have not resigned their commissions before taking up public service posts, raising concern about the militarisation of the civil sphere.

Given the media censorship maintained in Fiji under the Public Emergency Regulations, it is often difficult to obtain accurate information on decision making by the Fiji Military Council. Fijians often rely on the rumour mill and reporting (sometimes accurate, usually scurrilous) on a range of anti-regime blog sites.

There is clear evidence over the last 12 months, however, that the military unity shown after the December 2006 coup is now crumbling, with key officers sidelined from their posts.

An early sign of the tensions in the military was the removal of naval officer Esala Teleni from his role as Police Commissioner in mid- 2010.

Teleni was appointed to head the police force in July 2007, in spite of the usual separation between the civil and military "disciplined forces". A fellow naval officer alongside Commodore Bainimarama, Teleni is a graduate of the year-long senior officer training course at the Australian Defence College in Canberra.

Teleni’s role as Police Commissioner was controversial from day one, as he launched an evangelical crusade within the police force, believing that Christian values would help counter rising crime levels. Unlike the military, which is mostly ethnic Fijian, there are a high proportion of Indo-Fijians in the police force, and the Commissioner’s Christian evangelism did not go down well with Hindu or Muslim police officers.

In July 2010, there were rumours that Teleni was to be dismissed, and lawyer Richard Naidu was briefly detained by police for reporting on the issue in the website Fiji Live. In spite of initial denials, Teleni announced his resignation on 25 August 2010, saying he would consider "further career opportunities."

Teleni’s resignation came after reports of turmoil in the police. Several senior police officers were terminated in 2010 on charges of alleged mutiny, and Teleni was also criticised for overspending on the police budget and mismanagement of internal operations. On 17 September, Commodore Bainimarama announced that Teleni’s replacement as Police Commissioner would be army officer Brigadier Ioane Naivalurua, formerly the Commissioner for Prisons. After remaining in limbo for some months, Teleni was nominated as Fiji’s new ambassador to China, removing him from the domestic political scene.

Bainimarama also appears to have fallen out with other senior military officers, including former Land Forces Commander Brigadier General Pita Driti, Brigadier Aziz Mohammed and Lieutenant Colonel Roko Tevita Uluilakeba Mara

Amidst rumours of unrest within the military barracks, Pita Driti and Tevita Uluilakeba were sent on "indefinite leave" on 25 October 2010.

Even though they are now supposed to be on leave until next April, replacements were announced in November 2010: Lieutenant Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga (former Commissioner of Central District) was named as Land Force Commander, with Major Amani Suliano as the new Commanding Officer for the 3rd Fiji Infantry Regiment.

The changes in the military line-up affect key business sectors, as military officers have been appointed to statutory bodies and state-controlled investment companies since the December 2006 coup. Tevita Uluilakeba Mara had been the chair of Fiji Pine Company Limited since April 2009, but after he was sent on leave was replaced as board chair by Commander Viliame Naupoto (a navy officer who also serves as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries)

The shakeup in the top ranks of the military were also paralleled and reinforced by resignations and sackings in key economic and legal spheres, as people who have worked with the interim administration begin to distance themselves from the government.

However, in spite of this turmoil at senior levels, army and naval officers still maintain key positions in government and around the public service.

As of early 2011, three serving military officers are still in the Cabinet, and as both Prime Minister and Commander in Chief, Commodore Bainimarama is also responsible for a full basket of portfolios: Minister for Finance, Strategic Planning, National Development and Statistics; Public Service; People’s Charter for Change and Progress; Minister for Information, National Archives and Library Services of Fiji; Minister for I-Taukei; Acting Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources.

In coming months, we’ll see if Pita Driti returns to the fold, but other senior officers who have gone on leave have never won back the trust of the Military Council or the Commodore. At a time when the country faces major economic woes, the turmoil at the top is raising uncertainty about just how long the Bainimarama administration can maintain control.

 

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