18 May 2011

Top Bainimarama Officer Flees Fiji

By Michael Swanston
The crisis in Fiji's military has come to a head, with the dramatic escape of a senior officer to Tonga. Michael Swanston reports on the latest division in Fiji's post-coup regime
In March, New Matilda reported on tensions within the Fiji military, noting that "Commodore Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama 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."

This tension has now exploded. After being sent on leave last October, both Pita Driti and Tevita Uluilakeba Mara were earlier this month formally charged with sedition, attempted mutiny and other military offences.

However, after being released on bail, Mara — the former commander of Fiji's 3rd infantry regiment and a member of one of Fiji's leading chiefly families — made a dramatic escape to Tonga.

The official story from Mara and the Tongan Government is that he was out fishing and sent out a distress signal, to be rescued by the Tongan Navy vessel VOEA Savea (one of the Pacific patrol boats provided to Tonga by Australia in March 1991).

Very few people believe this fiction however. Fiji's interim government has declared him a fugitive and sought his return for trial. From exile in Nuku'alofa, Mara has launched a series of extraordinary attacks on the military regime in Suva, using Youtube videos to circumvent the ongoing censorship of the Fiji media under Public Emergency Regulations. His sharpest attacks are for Fiji's Attorney General Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum, the Indo-Fijian lawyer who is a central figure in the Bainimarama administration.

In his first Youtube statement, Mara denounces Saiyed-Khaiyum as the puppet master:

"For inexplicable reasons, Commodore Bainimarama, weakened by ill health, morally and intellectually bankrupt, is no more than Aiyaz Khaiyum's hand puppet. The advice which we, as senior officers, have offered the Commander in an attempt to soften the regime's approach to public dissent was seen by Khaiyum as a direct threat to his person and his megalomania is inspired entirely by the self-importance of a lonely and inadequate man."

These unexpected events highlight the dynastic chiefly links that bond together ruling families across the Polynesian region. Mara is the youngest son of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Fiji's founding leader at the time of independence, who led the Alliance Party as prime minister from 1970 to 1987 and later served as president from 1993 until 2000. The Mara clan have always retained a role in governance in Fiji, regardless of which way the political wind is blowing, and have strong connections to the Tongan monarchy and nobility — suggesting the youngest Mara son has found an especially safe haven in the Kingdom.

The Bainimarama regime has formally filed extradition papers seeking Mara's return, but there are a number of legal issues that will hamper their case. Mara's lawyers have a range of arguments which will make extradition unlikely: beyond their probable challenge to the legality of Fiji's interim administration and the likelihood of a fair trial, Fiji retains the death penalty for treason.

Although recent sedition cases — such as that of 2000 coup leader George Speight — have ended with the commutation of the death sentence, this will most likely add weight to a decision by the Tongan courts to refuse extradition on human rights grounds.

Driti and Mara are not the first senior officers to fall foul of Bainimarama. Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka was land forces commander until he challenged the attacks on Fiji's elected government in early 2006. He was arrested and jailed after the December 2006 coup for allegedly being involved in a plot to assassinate the commander, until declared not guilty in the courts. He currently lives in Canberra as a student as the Australian National University.

These divisions in the senior ranks are a worrying sign. During the 2000 coup, the greatest threat to public security came with divisions within the military, when soldiers loyal to coup leader mutinied against Bainimarama in November 2000. As a naval officer, Bainimarama has long sought to play off ambitious army officers against each other, but these ongoing divisions at senior levels may start to permeate among the ranks, creating divisions that will be difficult to manage once Fiji's military returns to the barracks as part of any transition to democracy.

Ironically, the latest crisis comes at a time when Australian and regional business leaders have been calling for a change in policy towards Fiji, arguing that the existing system of travel sanctions against key regime leaders is not working to pressure Fiji towards democratic rights.

In-fighting in the regime poses new challenges for human rights activists and democrats in Fiji. The Bainimarama regime had promised to remove the Public Emergency Regulations after the passage of media legislation last year, but these controls are continually extended as a way of muzzling dissent.

With the labour movement, churches and community sector under pressure because of media censorship and legislation that restrains freedom of expression and assembly, it's time for a regional push to remove the Public Emergency Regulations, to allow the people of Fiji to determine their own path.

 

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