Those who said that Commodore Bainimarama was just bluffing, and that Fijians would work out their problems peacefully, have been proved wrong. On Tuesday the Commodore tore up the rule book, declared himself head of state and placed the elected prime minister under arrest.

John Howard turned down Prime Minister Qarase’s request for Australian military help, and while the decision smacks of cowardice and racism (would a coup in New Zealand be treated with the same sang-froid?) it was inevitable: the time for assistance was weeks or months ago.

A speedy and public offer of Australian help to arrest Bananarama and defend the legitimate Fijian government might have nipped the crisis in the bud. But realising perhaps that he was on his own, Qarase seems to have been terrified of bringing matters to a head.

It’s been clear for some time that anything less than the removal of Bananarama would be a defeat for democracy, but the politicians in both Fiji and Australia somehow seemed to envisage an outcome that left him in place.

For comparison, consider how Spain handled a recalcitrant military commander earlier this year. Lieutenant-General Jose Mena Aguado, head of Spain’s land army, suggested in January that the military could intervene if Catalonia, albeit by entirely peaceful and constitutional means, went too far in its quest for autonomy.

He was promptly put under house arrest, then dismissed from his position and moved to the reserves.

It was also Spain, of course, that back in 1936 frustrated General Franco’s plans for a military coup by issuing arms to the workers, who defeated the fascist takeover in Spain’s major cities. The republic eventually went down to defeat, but only after three years of civil war and the intervention of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Qarase’s call for non-violent resistance does him credit, but it is unlikely to be much use. Sometimes democracy has to be defended by more than just words.

Peter Fray

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