The military commander of Fiji overthrew the elected Government, declared a state of emergency, and installed a new prime minister and police chief claiming to prevent legislation that favored indigenous Fijians over naturalized and native Indians. In a televised address, Commodore Frank Bainimarama accused Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase of creating legislation that "would undermine the constitution and deny many citizens their rights." Qarase decried the fourth coup in 19 years saying that he is still the island nation's legitimate leader and many nations are supporting Qarase and international sanctions on the military regime is not ruled out.
Bainimarama rejected such criticism saying that they "respect" the opinion of those "who do not agree" with the motivations of the coup insisting that "There is no point in debating the legality or otherwise" and asked them not to "interfere with the process that is currently under way." He declared that "Qarase and his cronies are not coming back."
As in the past, the roots of this coup have the deep ethnic divide between the native Melanesian warrior tribes and the descendants of the Indian laborers brought by former colonial power Britain to work in sugar plantations. Both Bainimarama and Qarase are both ethnic Fijians, but Bainimarama says that while Qarase wants to protect only the rights of only the natives, he wants the whole nation (and both communities) to be protected. Using the military power, he assumed some of the presidential powers to dismiss Qarase.
Bainimarama is not new to sorting out political divisions. In the 2000 coup led by indigenous nationalists overthrowing the first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, he stepped in and brokered a deal to pass resolution to restore democracy, handpicked Qarase (banker by profession) to lead an interim government. He also arrested and imprisoned ringleaders of the coup for treason after promising amnesty. Even as Qarase's leadership gained legitimacy over two general elections, his increasing nationalist leanings including the intended pardon to the 2000 coup plotters, coastal land rights to indigenous Fijians (which are lucrative for tourism), are seen as reasons for the fallout with Bainimarama. Reacting to these overtures, Bainimarama demanded that Qarase kill the legislation. Buoyed by his international standing and sound bites of support help from New Zealand and Australia who stand to gain by these measures from tourism revenue, Qarase offered to suspend the move but not stop them.
"The government they want to set up will be totally illegal," Qarase said Tuesday at his house in Suva, where he said he was under effective house arrest. "What the military commander has done has raped our constitution."
Bainimarama installed a military medic with no political experience Dr. Jona Senilagakali as caretaker prime minister and promised a full interim government next week that will then organize a return to democracy in the future. Police chief Moses Driver, who opposed the coup as "illegal," was forced out of his post after he vowed not to follow the directives of the military and his deputy was named as the police head. Bainimarama said that government functionaries do not have "the freedom to incite" opposition "against the military" and warned of stronger measures such as curfews if there were protests.
The United States has suspended USD 2.5 million in financial assistance-mostly used to finance military sales and training personnel. New Zealand announced a suspension of defense ties and a ban on its military officers from traveling to Fiji after declaring the developments an "outrage." Britain also announced suspension of military aid and also hinted at Fiji being suspended from the 53-nation Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded the immediate restoration of the country's elected government warning Bainimarama of "consequences" and the effect on "its standing in the international community." Australia revealed that he had received an S.O.S. message from Qarase but had declined. Canberra had sent in three navy ships to Fiji only to evacuate Australian citizens trapped in the island in the event of a coup.
Bainimarama, who is believed to have children living in New Zealand, took umbrage to this move, accused Australia of planning an invasion. He ordered several rounds of mortar flames fired over the harbor and increased security around government buildings as a show of force.
Fiji is one of the richest and most developed nations in the South Pacific serving over 400,000 tourists a year and through export of sugar and gold. The sharp ethnic divide often plays to the divisions of the island. Interestingly, the 44% ethnic Indian population seems to be supporting Bainimarama this time who claims to have "undertaken" the coup "with a great deal of reluctance" and said he wanted the new government to "lead" the nation "into peace and prosperity and mend the ever-widening racial divide" that plagues this "multicultural nation."
A former police chief, an Australian, predicted that the coup will fail from a "popular uprising" as Bainimarama does not have the support of "the government, of the president, of the police, of the churches, of the chiefs, and of the people of Fiji."