Saturday, March 3, 2007

Chiefs take on the military. But where to from here?

By Samisoni Pareti -  Island Business

Do traditional leaders have a role to play in a political crisis? Some people in Fiji surely think so, although the chiefs' claim to being the sole repository of God-given mana has been tested in recent times.

Chiefly talk... Ratu Sakiusa Makutu, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara and Sitiveni Rabuka who are members of the Great Council of Chiefs.
Meeting 15 days after the Fiji military ousted the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, Fiji's Council of Chiefs (GCC) was hard-pressed to come up with a solution that will be accepted by both the military and the government it toppled.

At the end of what was initially set to be a two-day meeting but dragged on to the third day, the chiefs decided to side with the law. 

Expressing "profound regret" at the "unlawful overthrow of Fiji's democratically-elected government," the chiefs went on to urge Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his men to return to the barracks to allow aging president Ratu Josefa Iloilo to form an interim government. 

In return, the chiefs will ask Prime Minister Qarase to resign given that his government "has been rendered ineffective and incapable of discharging its constitutional responsibilities".

Interestingly enough, Qarase when contacted after the second day of the chiefs' meeting, said he holds the GCC in the greatest esteem and he stands "ready to listen" to its decision. 

But Bainimarama and his soldiers would not play ball. Angry that the council had invited him as the military commander, thus not recognising his takeover of government and his consequent sacking of Iloilo, his deputy Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi and Qarase and his government as well as parliamentarians, together with some senior public officials, Bainimarama stayed out of the GCC meeting. 

When told on the final day of the meeting that a GCC delegation, to be led by chairperson Ratu Ovini Bokini, would like to deliver personally to him the council's decision, the army chief said he was busy and refused to receive them. 

"Now they want to recognise that I have the executive authority," Bainimarama told the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association's news agency, PACNEWS.

"The only message I want to tell members of the (council) is for them to go to their villages and enjoy their Christmas and New Year. We don't recognise them."

Whilst Bainimarama snubbed the GCC meeting, he did allow one of his senior officers to attend-Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara-who heads the Fiji Military's 3rd Infantry Regiment. 

He is one of the three Lau province's representatives on the Great Council of Chiefs. Lau at this December emergency meeting was hopelessly split and could not put up an unanimous front. 

Mara, a lieutenant-colonel, was pushing the military's position, another rep from Moala was a die-hard Qarase supporter, leaving its third rep, Ratu Josefa Basulu, to walk the middle ground. 

Basulu is currently chair of the Lau Provincial Council and happens to be Qarase's chief. Whilst he agrees that his island of Vanuabalavu and the entire province of Lau are solidly behind the ousted prime minister, he admits that Mara and the military should get a fair hearing.

"I think we the chiefs are meeting fire with fire," Basulu told ISLANDS BUSINESS.

"If we really want to achieve something and resolve this crisis, we need to adopt a more softer approach."

But many Lauans wouldn't agree with him. He is even accused of being a traitor in the Qarase camp. There are, however, reasons for Basulu's cautious stance. He confirmed that his province's chief administrator, the Roko Tui Lau, has already been summoned to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks where he was warned by none other than Lt Col Mara.

"Tell Tui Mavana (Basulu's traditional title) to watch what he says or I will arrest him too," was Mara's message to the Roko.

Basulu said on another occasion, soldiers were found outside his home where he and a few other Lau councillors were meeting days prior to the chiefs' meeting.

Interesting is the young Mara's participation at the December meeting of the Council of Chiefs. Irritated by his constant intervention during the first day of the meeting, insisting-officials said-that the council offers its support for the military, a council representative from Tailevu province reminded the army officer to remember what the military did to his late father, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Haunted by the detention in parliament of his favourite daughter who was tourism minister in Mahendra Chaudhry's Government in 2000, Ratu Mara had fought hard to get the council to uphold the law and reject the George Speight-led coup. 

The GCC heeded Ratu Mara call and relented, only to have its position severely compromised when its supposed mediation committee entered parliament only for many of them to openly support Speight and his cronies. The Council of Chiefs' only commoner and life-time member Sitiveni Rabuka was then chair of the council. The life membership was the payoff he got when he executed Fiji's first coup on May 14, 1987. 

Then, the council sided unashamedly with Rabuka, praising him as a hero for ousting the Labour Government of Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra.

Unbeknown to many is Rabuka's proposals to the December Council of Chiefs meeting. Many of his recommendations were already contained in a discussion paper the chiefs' secretariat had circulated to delegates. But three stood out as original and revolutionary. 

It included getting Bainimarama to resign but to continue to receive his military commander salary until he reaches the age of 55. As well, it was Rabuka who identified another source of the provision of immunity for members of the Fiji Military Forces. 

He says the president of Fiji has the "inherent powers as the fount of mercy" to grant pardon to Bainimarama and his men and women.

The third, which the chiefs ignored, was a drastic re-structuring of the Fiji military. Rabuka recommended splitting up the military into two independent services: the navy and the army with a non-executive commander to be named Chief of Defence Staff who will work with the Secretary of Defence under the Minister of Defence.

So with the chiefs' intervention reaching a stalemate, what's next then for Fiji? For one thing, the chiefs will need to revise their resolutions if they want the Fiji military to come to the negotiating table. 

While they want the president to form an interim government to take the country to fresh elections, they however are recommending a 10-member privy council to "advice him (the President) to establish the interim government of national unity." 

After enjoying uninterrupted and unfettered access to Iloilo, it will take more than a three-day meeting of chiefs to convince the military to give it up to a privy council that relegates it to a minority voice.

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