Press Release – University of Canterbury
As the University of Canterbury’s conference on democracy on the Pacific approaches, former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon says Fiji continues to worry a lot of people.McKinnon concerned about Fiji: Pacific issues under the microscope in UC conference this month
October 2 2012
As the University of Canterbury’s conference on democracy on the Pacific approaches, former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon says Fiji continues to worry a lot of people.
For 25 years, racial and political tensions in Fiji have been a steady source of instability and international isolation.
In 1987 a coup by indigenous Fijians overthrew the elected, Indian-dominated coalition.
A further coup in 2000, led by businessman George Speight, saw the country’s first ethnic Indian prime minister, his cabinet and several MPs held hostage for several weeks. Rancour persisted, resulting in a bloodless military takeover in 2006.
Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth three years ago but Fiji has promised to hold free elections in 2014, prompting Australia and New Zealand to restore diplomatic ties.
“What worries us most about Fiji is the principal lack of democracy,” said Sir Don, who will attend the Pacific conference on democracy at the University of Canterbury (UC) on October 18 and 19.
“Countries survive for a while in dictatorial way but in the end people want a say who represents them. They have no formal structures it is that much harder to get them functioning again.
“The balance of power between indigenous Fijians and Indian Fijians has proven to be a real problem since the first coup back in 1987.
“Fiji is not dissimilar to Mauritius, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago with split populations. It is not a point of tension but the fact is always there. They are not always the same in views,” Sir Don said.
With sanctions, Fiji has been hampered by persistent trade and budget deficits, making it one of the world’s largest per capita recipients of aid. Prime Minister John Key has said New Zealand would not take it for granted Fiji would hold elections in 2014.
Sir Don said Fiji was not the only Pacific island with political challenges. The Solomons was fairly fragile in its governance facing all sorts of pressures while it recovered from a civil conflict that brought it to the brink of collapse.
More than 90 percent of the islanders are ethnic Melanesians, but there has been intense and bitter rivalry between the Isatabus on Guadalcanal, the largest island, and migrant Malaitans from the neighbouring island. Australian military intervention restored calm in 2003 and their troops are likely
to withdraw in 2013.
Civil war left the country almost bankrupt, and post-election riots in April 2006 sent the country backwards financially. According to the World Bank, the Solomons are one of the poorest countries in the Pacific.
Sir Don said Vanuatu could surprise from time to time and Papua New Guinea (PNG) always surprised. Up to 20,000 people were killed in the nine-year conflict which ended in 1997 on the PNG island of Bougainville in the 1990s.
Sir Don said poverty was a serious issue in the Pacific, with a lot of poor people behind all the tourist areas.
`Despite encouragement to take holidays in these places, behind these lovely beach resorts a lot of people are really scratching a living. These are our Pacific neighbours and we need to care for them where we can.
“New Zealand aid was constantly looking at programmes to alleviate Pacific poverty when I was the Commonwealth Secretary-General. While these people live in comfortable climate with good growing conditions, many face subsistence living.”
Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, who led two military coups in Fiji, will be one of the key speakers at the conference. Rabuka, who went on to become the country’s elected prime minister, is one of a many Pacific leaders who will be attending the conference.
Other speakers at the conference in October include Sir Don McKinnon, Deputy Tongan Prime Minister Sam Viapulu, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, Samoan Justice Minister Fiame Mataafa, Greens’ MP Catherine Delahunty, Labour MP Phil Goff, the Premier of Niue, NZ’s Indonesian Ambassador, the Australian High Commissioner, the US Consul General, the Ulu of Tokelau and the Kiribati Speaker of the House.