Analysis – By Crosbie Walsh
The New Zealand Herald has published Victor Lal and Russell Hunter’s article on Voreqe Bainimarama’s supposed four coups and the refusal of the NZ police to comply with the request of Fiji police commissioner Andrew Hughes – an Australian – to arrest Bainimarama when he was in NZ for his granddaughter’s christening just before the December 2006 coup.
The article, published at 8:40am Saturday, was copied by at least four anti-blog (FijiToday, RawFijiNews, TruthforFiji and Coup 4.5) within the next 24 hours.
These blogs publish links to each other so it takes no time to jump on new stories. I doubt the Herald or the blogs will publish this response.
The article, by former Fiji Sun editor-in-chief Russell Hunter – who was deported from Fiji in 2008 – and former journalist and now an Oxford academic Victor Lal, is of interest for two reasons, the first of which is its claim that Bainimarama had planned three coups before 2006.
I’ve read claims (on the anti-blogs, no sources cited) of the first supposed attempt when Bainimarama negotiated the release of Chaudhry and other MPs kidnapped by meverick businessman George Speight. But as one informed person put it: “It just doesn’t add up against what we’ve all understood: that Bainimarama handed power to Qarase expecting him to turn the country around and then became disillusioned over his pro-indigenous agenda and plan to free Speight.”
Most commentators at that time said Bainimarama was looking for a neutral, non-political person to head a temporary government and someone suggested Qarase to which Bainimarama agreed.
Had he wanted to, Bainimarama would have had the means, and a sufficient measure of public support, to take over government but instead he “installed” Qarase.
It was not expected that Qarase would form a party, the SDL, and stand in the 2001 election, The root of the tension between Bainimarama and Qarase — and the most probable reason for the 2006 Coup — can be traced to this time.
Qarase turned out to be far from neutral. He sought to release Speight and other detained plotters (the Tolerance and Reconciliation Bill); he included members of the former extremist Matanitu Vanua (CAMV) party in his cabinet, and he proposed “pro-Fijian” discriminatory legislation such as the Qoliqoli Bill that Bainimarama called upon him to withdraw.
Bainimarama felt cheated by Qarase and on several occasions said he had gone back on his word. By late 2006 many others shared Bainimarama’s concerns.
They thought Qarase’s proposed legislation discriminatory and racist and his regime corrupt. Even the Fiji Times expressed concern at the high level of corruption.
Lal and Hunter claim: “In 2000 during the negotiations that ended the Speight hostage crisis he (Bainimarama) suggested that the military should run the country for up to 50 years but Speight – and the president – would have none of it. In 2004 and again in 2005 he planned to take over the government but his senior officers refused to commit treason.”
But they provided no details or evidence to support their claim
The military may have offered to take over government as an interim measure in 2000, though I have never heard it mentioned and they cite no sources. I doubt the “50 years” accusation, but it’s possible.
Bainimarama’s off-the- cuff remarks are well known. What we do know is that no one took the alleged remark seriously.
Only people hostile to Bainimarama would create and elevate its importance, six years after the supposed utterance.
The claim of intended coups 2 and 3, in 2004 and 2005, is more credible though I think they would be better described as increasing tension between Bainimarama and government. It is likely the 2006 coup took a long time brewing so I’m not surprised, or concerned, that there may have been rumblings in 2004 and 2005.
By early 2006, however, matters were coming to a head and reported dissension within the mililary seems likely to have been due to diffences of opinion about what the military should do about pending Qarase government legislation, and rumours that Qarase, and Police Commissioner Anthony Hughes, were planning to arrest Bainimarama for treason.
The Baledrokadroka Incident, which recalls this period, is reasonably documented in Wikipedia, and the contrary views expressed between Bainimarama and his second-in-command illustrate just how difficult it is to get at the truth.
I suspect Baledrokadroka, now in exile and very anti-Bainimarama, is one source of the Lal and Hunter article.
The second reason the article is of special interest comes in two parts: Why was there what one reader called the “spectacular falling out between Bainimarama and Hughes when they’d once been on the same page? Was Hughes doing the bidding of people higher up the food chain in Australia? It may go some way to explaining Canberra’s continuing obstinacy about the regime.”
The plan to arrest Bainimarama in NZ
The second part is the action taken by Qarase and Hughes to involve the New Zealand Government. I quote the Lal and Hunter article:
“Fiji’s chief of police made a private call to his New Zealand counterpart urging him to arrest Commodore Frank Bainimarama a few weeks before the military leader seized power in a coup in December 2006. It was reported at the time that a request had been made through Interpol and rejected by the New Zealand Government but only now can details from behind the scenes be vealed.
“In November 2006 then Police Commissioner Howard Broad took the call from his Fiji counterpart Andrew Hughes, an Australian, who wanted to know if Commodore Bainimarama had committed any offence under New Zealand law for which he could be arrested.
“Teams of police officers from both forces worked over a weekend and agreed the future dictator could be charged in New Zealand with perverting the course of justice in a foreign jurisdiction.
“The planned charge related to remarks made by Commodore Bainimarama in New Zealand regarding an investigation into his alleged sedition in Fiji.
“Mr Hughes sent two senior officers – an assistant commissioner and a senior detective – to New Zealand to liaise in the planned arrest.
“Then Howard Broad had a change of heart,” said Mr Hughes. “He said New Zealand Foreign Affairs preferred a political solution. I argued it was his decision as Police Commissioner as to who should be charged in New Zealand.
“At the time Commodore Bainimarama was in New Zealand for his granddaughter’s christening and the Foreign Minister at the time, Winston Peters, had taken the opportunity to broker talks between him and elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase aimed at diverting Fiji’s lurch towards a military takeover.
‘We’re not going to arrest him’
“A day later, Mr Hughes received a call from Mr Broad… In the end, Mr Broad told me, ‘Well, we’re not going to arrest him.’
“Mr Broad, now retired, told the Weekend Herald yesterday in a written statement that he remembered the call well.
“I remember it as a highly unusual request to consider an allegation against the Chief of Defence Force of a neighbouring country’s properly constituted government. I remember giving this decision a lot of consideration because it contained complex operational, legal and policy issues. I made the decision but I took a lot of advice. I remain comfortable with it.
“He said some aspects of Mr Hughes’ explanation did not accord with his recollection but he did not specify what they were.”
Hughes said they did not attempt to arrest Bainimarama in Fiji because he was heavily guarded and he wanted to avoid an armed confrontation between the police and the military. So when PM “Qarase waited at Suva’s Nausori airport to board a New Zealand Air Force VIP jet to take him to the Peters-brokered talks in Wellington, he was surprised to be joined by Mr Hughes, who then explained that the arrest plan was unlikely to come to fruition. Mr Qarase was shocked.”
Lal and Hunter say: “Had Commodore Bainimarama been arrested in New Zealand the Fiji military would have been unable and unwilling to proceed with the removal of the Qarase government.” The then US ambassador to Fiji, Larry Dinger, in a leaked cable supported this view: “An arrest abroad might be the only way to enforce a criminal charge and remove the Bainimarama thorn.”
Thank goodness the arrest did not go ahead. Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman at the time, Phil Goff, sums up the situation well.
“Such a course of action would mean a country lost its credibility as a mediator for dealing with crises. I scarcely think you were going to lure a person here under false pretences only to arrest him. That would be seen as an ambush and bad faith and it wouldn’t have resolved the situation within Fiji.”
And as a reader commented: “Imagine the consequences if the commander of the Fiji Military Forces had been detained in NZ? It would have been seen in the Fiji military as tantamount to an act of war.” But that’s what Qarase, Hughes — and now Lal and Hunter — were apparently prepared to risk.”
ABC’s Pacific Beat has taken up the story with an interview of Russell Hunter and NZ’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, Winston Peters. Two questions are discussed: could/would NZ have arrested Bainimarama during his NZ visit; and would his arrest have prevented the 2006 Coup?
On the first question, Peters says no but Hunter thinks maybe, and on the second question Hunter says yes, and Peters provides a rather muddled I don’t think so.
Professor Crosbie Walsh is the retired founding director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific and publishes a specialist blog on Fiji affairs.