For many of us, Fiji is best known as a country of beach resorts and beautiful tropical scenery. But yesterday’s news that a Fijian man killed himself at Villawood detention centre is a sharp reminder that many Fijians are being forced from their homeland as a result of long-standing political unrest.
Overshadowed by turmoil in countries like Iraq and Sri Lanka, Fiji’s political situation has not been covered in the media as widely as it could have been. Australian National University Fiji expert professor Brij V. Lal — director of the Centre for the Contemporary Pacific — helps clarify what has really been going on, and how it is affecting the Fijian people.
What is the current political situation in Fiji?
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Professor Lal describes Fiji’s political situation very simply: “an impasse”. The country is technically ruled by a president, but real power rests with the cabinet, which is headed by the prime minister and the military and essentially claims the right to intervene in the political situation at any time.
At the moment, the country has no constitution, no evidence of democracy, and is “being ruled by decree”. The military has promised to hold elections in 2014, but professor Lal has seen no evidence that this will actually happen. Until an election does happen, Fiji is in a state of social and economic limbo, which looks unlikely to resolve itself. Even if a successful election does take place, history suggests the likelihood of another coup removing the elected government is high.
How have the coups affected the country?
According to professor Lal, the first coup in May 1987, which was led by the military’s third highest ranking officer, was the start of political instability from which Fiji has never really recovered. A subsequent coup in September of the same year overthrew the Fijian monarchy and its constitution, and soon after led to Fiji being declared a republic. Since then, there have been coups in 2000 and 2006. Professor Lal believes that “each coup takes the country back a generation”.
How has the freedom of the press been affected?
Fiji has a media decree in place that makes reporting the news impartially almost impossible. As professor0 Lal states: “There is no freedom of the press whatsoever.” Strict penalties for journalists who defy the state have led to a situation where there is “censorship as well as self-censorship” and journalists are afraid to write anything that might be disapproved of.
This has had consequences not just for Fijians, but for foreign media outlets trying to get an idea of what is actually going on within the country. Last week, News Limited was forced to sell the Fiji Times after the media restrictions became too much to manage.
How have everyday people been affected?
At the moment, 45% of Fijians live below the poverty line and 15% live in squatter settlements, and this number is increasing. There is no suggestion that the trend is about to change, either, because there is no investment being made to secure the country’s future. Many people live in fear of the military, and this is also a big barrier to progress.
“There is fear of harassment by the military: people are still being taken in for questioning all the time. It’s a fear that anything could happen at any time,” professor Lal says. Although immigration figures are very hard to obtain because of strict state control, it’s not hard to see why many Fijians are desperate to escape.