Pacific Scoop

Pacific geopolitical power balance shifting back to Fiji, says Bainimarama

Video: Grubsheet / Sky News 

Pacific Scoop:
Report – Television interview by Graham Davis with Fiji regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama

Fiji regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama has condemned Australian and New Zealand policies in the Pacific while  new power brokers are at work in their backyard.

Shunned by Canberra and Wellington since Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 coup, Fiji now has new friends – such as Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, making the first ever visit to the region by a Russian leader.

The Russians are following in the steps of the Chinese, who have become the Fijian leader’s new best friends.

But Bainimarama admits that New Zealand is privately “more understanding” than their political counterparts in Canberra.

 This is a transcript of the interview by Graham Davis broadcast on Sky Television Australia  on Saturday and Fiji television on Sunday:

A new power play in Australia and New Zealand’s Pacific backyard.

Shunned by Canberra and Wellington since Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 coup, Fiji now has new friends – like Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, making the first ever visit to the region by a Russian leader.

The Russians are following in the steps of the Chinese, who have become the Fijian leader’s new best friends.

China’s Vice-Premier has been in Fiji; Bainimarama has been feted in China.

Raising concern
And all this is raising concern in Washington, where containing China is a major geopolitical imperative.

It has prompted the US to break ranks with its Australian and Kiwi partners in ANZUS, telling its ambassador in Suva to resume contact with Bainimarama.

No one from Australia has had a meeting like this for more than five years.

Fiji isn’t just engaging with the Americans again but a host of other democracies like Japan.

Why the continuing impasse? Well, while Canberra insists on an immediate election in Fiji, Bainimarama says there won’t be one for another two and half years – in September 2014.

He needs that time, he says, to make some fundamental reforms.

A new constitution to guarantee equal rights to non-indigenous Fijians will be introduced – a level electoral playing field of one- man one-vote for the first time.

Stopping racism
It is all designed, he says, to stop the racism at the root of Fiji’s chronic instability and to end a coup culture that has seen four governments removed at gunpoint in 25 years.

Meanwhile, life for ordinary people goes on. Bainimarama is putting infrastructure into parts of the country that he says the previous government neglected.

And most important of all for Fiji’s struggling economy, the Australian and New Zealand tourists still come. Still engaging with Fiji themselves, even as their governments turn their backs on Frank Bainimarama.

THE INTERVIEW (first for about 18 months) :
Foreign relations. Have you seen anybody from Australia since the coups five years ago?

Graham Davis: Prime Minister, in the last five years you’ve become a lot closer to the Chinese, you’ve become a lot closer to the Indonesians, the Russians and a host of other countries. When was the last time you saw an Australian diplomat face to face?

Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama: I can’t remember.

Q: Have you seen anybody from Australia since the coups five years ago?

B: No.

Q: No?

B No.

Q: Does that strike you as extraordinary considering the nature of the relationship, the fact that Australia is Fiji’s biggest trading partner, biggest aid donor?

B: Well I think they’re getting their … their instructions from Canberra, so I really don’t have any any say in that.

Q: But you say that for the last five years you have not met a single Australian official, right?

B: I may have met one accidentally in some ways, but none- I can’t remember. Seriously.

Q: No formal meeting?

B No, none.

Q. None whatsoever?

B: No.

Q: They presumably know what you’re doing because they’ve got an intelligence capability and eavesdropping and all of that.

B: There’s no doubt about that.

Q: Does that bother you, that they’re listening into you?

B: Not really.

Q: And why wouldn’t it bother you, because –

B: Because we have an agenda to follow and I’m – it’s for the people of this nation, it’s not really for the Australians.

Q: So you’re saying there’s no secret, is that, is that it?

B: There’s none. They’re welcome to come in and find out what we do here, like everyone else, like the rest of the international community, that they come in and and talk with us.

Q: But they choose not to?

B: They choose not to.

Q: I mean all along they’ve said they want an immediate election; all along you’ve refused. They say the ball’s in your court, as soon as you start playing ball they’ll re-engage with you. What’s your response to that?

B: We’re not here to play ball with Australians in terms of our our constitution and our election dates. This is for Fiji and for Fijians. Whatever they want is secondary to what we’ve got planned…

Q: So whatever they want?

B: Whatever they want is secondary to what we’ve got planned.

Q: You are never going to give them what they want?

B:  No, we are not going to have elections tomorrow. We’re not going to have elections next year. We’re going to have elections when we’re ready for elections.

Q: Which will be before  September 2014?

B: 2014.

Q: Which you’ve said all along.

B: Which I’ve said all along.

Q: Kevin Rudd has repeatedly said that Australia has no beef with the Fijian people – the beef is with you. I mean he talks about you as a pariah, a dictator, someone who bashes the unions, harasses the clergy.

B: A lot of people have come up with that, but it doesn’t bother me because I and the people of Fiji have some … have an agenda – and we need to work on that agenda.

Q: Can I ask you your personal opinion of him?

B: Well, I think he’s a very ambitious politician.

Q: I think that’s self-evident.

B: Yes, and he hasn’t done much for the Pacific Islands.

Q: In what sense?

B: Well, you’ve never seen him around the Pacific Island nation states. He’s complaining about everyone coming here, but he hasn’t come here.

The New Zealand relationship
Q:  What is the relationship specifically with New Zealand? Because I gather that Murray McCully, their Foreign Minister, has been meeting with your Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuabola.

B: Yeah.

Q That’s quite different from the Australian approach, isn’t it?

B: It is.

Q: It is?

B: Mmm.

Q: Are the Kiwis being more understanding, do you think?

B: I think the Kiwis are more understanding than the Australians.

Q: And why do you think that is?

B: The only, only reason I can think of is they’ve been pressured by the Kiwis to talk to us.

Q: People within New Zealand?

B: People within New Zealand.

Q And there’s quite a significant Fijian community there?

B: Yes, there’s a large number of Fijians in New Zealand.

Q: There’s certainly no division between Australia and New Zealand in terms of their public statements. You’re saying that privately New Zealand is being more understanding?

B: Yes.

Q: They’ve still got, they’ve still got these smart sanctions on you, haven’t they?

B: Yes.

Travel bans
Q: Including these travel bans. What sort of pain is that causing you still?

B:  There’s a lot of people [who] we want to bring on board, financial institutions, the board, board directors, but they can’t because of the ban. So that’s the only bit that we … And, of course, our rugby players. We cannot pick the best players to go to Australia and New Zealand because of the, because of the ban.

Q: I mean I’ve heard several senior businessmen in Fiji say, private businessmen, saying they would’ve been happy to have served you and the government had those bans not been in place.

B: Yeah.

Q: That’s really been damaging for you, hasn’t it?

B: That’s the damaging bit.

Q: There’s a lot of people now calling for re-engagement within Australia, isn’t there? The Lowy Institute, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and yet Canberra turns a deaf ear. Why do you think that is?

B: Well, I think it’s more to do with pride than anything else. They’ve been on this path for the last, what, five years and they don’t want to move away from it because they’ve made a statement about going to elections and they will assist us. So they’re going … they’re sticking with that.

Q: Labor is clearly in trouble in Australia and Tony Abbott looks increasingly likely to be the next Prime Minister. Do you think he’d be an improvement on what you’ve got at the moment to deal with? Would he be more understanding?

B: I understand Abbott is is more understanding of the situation than Kevin Rudd and his team. And yes, I would think there may be a change in policy.

Q: You and he are much more likely to get on, aren’t you? I mean he’s a sportsman . . .

B: . . . Yes, yes, yes.

Q: He’s a boxing champion, you like that?

B: No doubt, yeah.

Q: Yeah? Would you hope for a better relationship if he, if he gets in?

B: Yes, there’s no doubt about that. We hope for a better relationship with every country in the region, especially Australia and New Zealand. But that can’t be helped and we understand that.

Q: Do you harbour a hope that Abbott might be more understanding?

B: Yes.

Q: You do?

B: Yes.

Q: And if he wins, will you make an attempt to reach out to him?

B: Yes, we’ve already reached out to everyone in the region, irrespective of they’re in government or not. But I would love him  … we would love to have him bring about some change in policy in the way we conduct our business.

Q: These guys are welcome in Suva any time?

B: Yes.

Biggest democracies
Q: The most puzzling thing about this standoff is that some of the world biggest democracies have engaged with you – India, the biggest democracy in the world, Indonesia, the third biggest democracy in the world, and most surprising of all, the United States which is the standard bearer for democracy in the world. What’s the current state of your relationship with the US?

B: Good.

Q: Good?

B: Yes, good. We’ve got Australian business, sorry, American business community here starting businesses, so we have no problems with our relationship with the US.

Q: You’ve got some FBI people here at the moment helping your police force.

B: Yes.

Q: That indicates a level of engagement that we’re not seeing from Australia and New Zealand.

B: I agree.

Q: And what does the American ambassador tell you when you see her about America’s attitude?

B: Well, she really doesn’t talk politics with me.

Q: She’s just being friendly, is that what.

B: Yes.

Q: And that’s been going on for how long?

B: Since she got in.

Q: Because her predecessor, Steve McGann, was much more combative, wasn’t he? Has there been a change in American policy?

B: There’s been a change. I know from speaking to a lot of people, government and the private sector, there’s been a lot of change between McGann and Frankie Reed.

Q: For the better for you.

B: For the better.

Q: From your point of view?

B: Yeah.

Q: But this indicates, doesn’t it, the about face of American policy?

B: Exactly.

Q: You can’t visit Australia and New Zealand because they’ve banned you, but you can visit the United States?

B: Yes.

Q: Last year you went to Connecticut, you went to Florida, you even visited the Gibson Guitar Factory in Nashville.

B: In Nashville.

Q: So you’re allowed into America, you’re not allowed even a transit stop in Australia and New Zealand?

B:  Mmm, well you can tell the difference between the policies of the US government and that of Australia and New Zealand. It seems odd, but I’ve come to accept it.

Q: How worried are the Americans about your burgeoning relations with China? Because a lot of people think this is, this is at the heart of their change of policy?

B: Well to tell you the truth, I don’t know. Is that why they’re changing their policies? I don’t know. Is the change in the policy because they just want our relationship to recover? I don’t know.

Chinese foothold
Q: But given the geopolitical politics which governs everything in international affairs, it’s fair to say, isn’t it, that the Americans would be concerned that China has got a much more, a much stronger foothold in Fiji?

B: Well, China has been here since 1975. It’s just that our relationship has strengthened over the last few years.

Q: Can I ask you what they’re giving you and what they want in return?

B: What are we getting from China? It’s a lot of loan for construction work on our roads, on our bridges. That’s it.

Q: I gather it’s a huge amount of money you’re getting from them?

B: Well for loan facilities maybe about 200 million.

Q: 200 million, which in Fiji is a lot of money, isn’t it?

B: It’s a lot, it’s a lot of money.

Q: And politically, are they giving you support?

B: They’re giving us support politically because everyone in Australia and New Zealand has withdrawn from our side of the world. So yes, they’ve recognised our sovereignty which is very important for us.

Q: Have you developed a friendship with the Chinese?

B: We have.

Q You personally?

B: I have personally. In fact, I’ve I’ve talked to the Chinese hierarchy and they visit Fiji regularly.

Q: You’ve had the Chinese Vice Premier here, haven’t you?

B: Yes.

Russian Foreign Minister
Q: And then recently you have the Russian Foreign Minister, who’s never been to this region before.

B: That’s the first, huh.

Q: To meet you and the other Pacific states here in Fiji. Why would somebody that senior in global affairs be coming to Nadi to meet with you?

B: Maybe he’s recognised that we in the Pacific Islands, small island states, need support.

Q: Australia’s Pacific Islands Minister, Richard Marles, talked about chequebook diplomacy and Russia exploiting small Pacific states. What did you think of that statement of his?

B: He’s talking about chequebook diplomacy?

Q: Are you saying he’s a hypocrite?

B: [Laughter] Of course he is a hypocrite. I mean hasn’t he been giving money to the Pacific Island nations in the last five, ten years?

Q: So what you …

B: So what’s what’s the difference?

Q:  Did Mr Lavrov do what the Australians feared he would, and offer you money to recognise their puppet governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

B: No, he gave us a donation to help us in our flood appeal.

Q: And that was it?

B: That was it.

Q: Why do you think Russia is so interested in this part of the world?

B: As I’ve said, maybe thinks everyone’s backed off and this part of the world needs assistance.

Q: So these guys, the Russians and the Chinese, are seeing an opportunity because of the withdrawal of Australia and New Zealand?

B: Yes. But I don’t think they’re taking it very seriously.

Q: They should be worried?

B: They should be worried.

Melanesian Spearhead Group
Q: You’re the current chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group which represents 95 percent of Pacific Islanders.

B: Only Canberra and Wellington see me as an outcast. Nobody else sees me as an outcast.

Q: How important has that chairmanship of the MSG been in terms of of establishing your mana in the rest of the region and the world?

B: Well, for the next two years I’ll be chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and before I give it back we have a lot of things to do. So I guess that doesn’t go down well with the Australians and New Zealand.

Chequebook diplomacy
Q: And of course while the Melanesians accept and acknowledge you, some of your Polynesian neighbours don’t. Why is there this division, and what impact do you think that’s having on regional relationships?

B: Well, all you have to do is find out where they’re getting – why they’re making these opposing remarks about Fiji. It’s because they’re getting their funds from New Zealand and Australia.

Q: You’re talking …

B: The chequebook diplomacy that Marles is talking about.

Q: Right, so you’re talking here about Tuila’epa, the Samoan leader, who says you’re a liar and leading everybody down the cassava patch, right?

B: I haven’t said anything bad about Tuila’epa, so I really don’t have time for him.

Q: He doesn’t have any problem about saying the most . . .

B: . . . Exactly . . .

Q:  . . . insulting things about you.

B: Well, exactly because of the chequebook diplomacy that you talked about earlier on.

Q: Is he a puppet of the Australians and New Zealanders?

B: Of course he is. And he should be … he should look at himself and look at what he needs to do for his own nation, before throwing stones at Fiji.

The elections
Q: Assuming the election takes place, which you say it will, the big question is what form it will take. Will it be a democracy as Australia and New Zealand understand it? In other words a level playing field where everybody can stand? Or will it be more like an Indonesian style democracy with a high level of military control?

B: To tell you the truth, Graham, I really don’t know at this stage. But I presume that we will continue where we left off.

Q: Who will be able to stand and who won’t be able to stand?

B: Anyone is able to stand.

Q: Even [Former elected prime minister] Laisenia Qarase?

B: Even Laisenia Qarase . . .

Q: . . . The guy you removed?

B: Yeah, even Laisenia Qarase.

Q: I mean you’ve told me once before, no-one will be allowed to stand on behalf of any one race in Fiji. Is that how you envisage it?

B: Yes. It’ll be equal suffrage, one man, one vote. That is definite, that everyone has accepted that. And that is the way we’re going to go.

PM standing?
Q: Are you going to stand for election?

B: Right now I’ve not made up my mind because I want to do the constitution and the election process first.

Q: Are you saying you’re not ruling out standing?

B: I’m not changing.

Q: You’re not saying you’re ruling it out, or are you ruling it in?

B: I’m ruling it in.

Q: You’re ruling it in?

B: Yeah, I might stand. I don’t know.

Q: You’re gonna consider it close to the event . . .

B . . . I will consider it, yeah.

Q: All the indications are that if you did decide to stand you would win. The Lowy poll gave you 66 percent popularity in the country, which would be the envy of Julia Gillard and John Key.
So is it your feeling that if you did stand that you would win?

B: I would win.

Q: No doubt about that?

B: No doubt about that.

Q: Well, why not announce that you’re going to stand?

B: [Laughter] Because I’m …

Q: Why are you delaying that?

B: I guess what I want, I  want to concentrate on what I’m doing now. If I, if I start, if I tell people I’m going to stand, the concentration will be diverted to politics and standing for election instead of just continuing what I need to do now and that is bring about a credible constitution and then of course the election.

Multiracial agenda
Q: You’ve also got this multiracial agenda. Everybody is called a Fijian.

B: Yes.

Q: How important do you think that’s been for the psychology of the rest of the population in Fiji?

B: It is very important because years past there’s been a division in the races, division in the religion, and we want to bring that together. Not that we want Christians to be Muslims or Muslims to be Hindus, but we want people to accept each other’s religion.

Trade unions
Q: There are very negative things said about you as well. You’ve cracked down on elements of the trade union movement. Why was that necessary?

B: We have no qualms over the trade unions. We have a lot of trade unions here going about doing their own thing in their own way and there’s no interference. What we’re worried about is a group of people who think they have, that they can influence what we do, especially in terms of economy.

Q: They’ve done some damage to you, haven’t they? They’ve got the Australian Council of Trade Unions, for instance, to to suggest to Australian holidaymakers that they not come here.

B: It didn’t make any difference, did it?

Q: You mean people kept coming?

B: Yes, and in bigger numbers than before.

Q: I mean how much of a threat are they under those circumstances to the country? Because some people might suggest that this is economic sabotage.

B: Well it is, and that’s exactly what we tried to do, to remove their hold over our economy. And guess who’s helping them? The Australians and the Kiwis. It says a lot about these two countries.

Religious persecution
Q: The other problem area for you in terms of international perception is this notion of religious persecution. Why have you targeted the Methodist Church in the way that you have?

B: I have not targeted the Methodist Church. I’m a member of the Methodist Church.

Q: You stopped them from having their annual conferences and you’ve stopped them from having certain meetings and all of that.

B: We we are on the path of equal suffrage. No race, no creed difference. We want to bring about Fiji for everyone. There are some groups of people who want to take us- continue to take us back.

Q: And that includes some Methodist Church clergymen?

B: And that include some hierarchy.

Q: So there were certain Methodist Church clergymen who were exploiting racial differences?

B: Yes.

Q: And you’re not going to tolerate that?

B: That’s not going to be tolerated, not in in the direction that we’re taking now. Nor are we tolerating unionists who go about trying to sabotage our economy.

Q: You’re gonna be tough with these people and and that’s just the way it’s gonna be?

B: Yes.

Freedom of expression
Q: There’s still a lot of concern about freedom of expression in Fiji. You lifted censorship but then imposed controls on the media. You’ve brought in a decree that gives you protection from the defamation laws, but nobody else. Can you understand your critics being concerned about this, that it’s free speech for you but not for them?

B: The laws that we put in place is no different from what you have in Australia, from what they have in New Zealand, from what they have in America – no difference. The people who are making a big deal out of this are the same people that we removed because of corruption, because of lack of action, because of inefficiency.

Defamation decree
Q: In the case of the the defamation decree though, in Australia you can, you can say whatever you like in the parliament, but in Fiji you’re going to be able to say whatever you like outside the parliament too. Do you think that’s fair?

B: Well for what we, for the next couple of years that that needs to be put in place so we don’t get targeted by some people who are part of the people that are going against the government right now. Now …

Q: So this this is unashamedly to protect you against the forces you removed?

B: Yes.

Ratu Tevita Mara
Q: Okay, and this is the first interview you’ve done for about 18 months, and if you’ll excuse me there’s a lot of water under the bridge, so a couple of other points for the record. What caused the falling out between you and your fellow officer, Ratu Tevita Mara, the son of the former Prime Minister, who’s been campaigning against you ever since he fled?

B: We have a vision and a path and we should go down this path to get to where we want to go, which is building a better Fiji. He didn’t actually come on board that path. His was, his was his own agenda.

Q: He wasn’t part of the programme?

B: No.

Q: What was his agenda.

B: Himself.

Q: Okay, so this was a a personality thing, or did he try to organise a coups against you? Or what was it?

B: Well he couldn’t. There is no way anybody can organise a coups against me, because for the simple reason the soldiers of RFMF are tired of people trying to organise coups.

Q: Are you suggesting that Tevita Mara wanted to replace you?

B: No, he’s not good enough to replace me.

Q: Was he organising something?

B: He tried to.

Q: He did try to?

B: He tried to.

Q: What did he try to do?

B: Oh well he tried to organise people, some soldiers and some in the civilian community.

Q: To remove you?

B: Yeah.

Q: How did you find out about it?

B: Through intelligence.

Q: Can you explain further?

B: No.

Q: What sort of intelligence?

B: No, because this case is with the police, so I really don’t have much ?

Vision for Fiji
Q: Okay, and finally, you told me a couple of years ago that your vision for Fiji was a country free of race. Do you remember that? A prosperous, multiracial Fiji, not coup coup-land, as some people call it, but the way the world should be again.

B: Yeah.

Q: How close are you now to achieving that aim?

B: Very close. Very close. As I, as I said, the election is very important to us, election in 2014. But what is more important is the constitution that we’re going to put together. We will leave that as our legacy for our children and our grandchildren. We have said that we are not going to entertain any any interference in in the making of our constitution, and especially, most especially, in the election process. That’s the bit that we’re worried about. We are not going to entertain any interference from any countries.

Q: So it’ll be a clean election?

B: Clean election.

Q: There will be no hanky-panky?

B: None.

Q: None?

B: None.

Q: And it will be the will of the people?

B: It will be the will of the people.

Queen of Fiji
Q: You also said to me a couple of years ago you wanted to have the Queen back as Queen of Fiji when democracy was restored . . .

B: . . . Well that was two years ago.

Q: Yeah. Do do you still want that?

B: Well there’s no doubt after the 2014 election the commonwealth nations will accept us back as a member of the commonwealth. And then we’ll have the Queen back.

Q: So the Queen will be Queen of Fiji again after the next election?

B: After the next election. But we have the President.

Q: But you still regard her as Queen, don’t you?

B: Everyone does.

Q: Everyone does?

Q: So she’s Queen of Fiji in your heart?

B: She is still, yeah.

Q: Prime Minister, thank you very much.

B: Thank you, Graham.

Graham Davis is an independent Fiji-born Australian journalist. This transcript is of his interview with Fiji regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama broadcast by Sky News Australia and on FBCTV in Fiji at the weekend.