Fiji’s neighbours disagree on how to deal with its military regime


Wellington : Differences among Fiji’s Pacific neighbours over how to deal with the island’s military regime emerged Tuesday following top-level talks between New Zealand and Tonga.

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Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele said at a news conference in Wellington that he favoured giving military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama, whose military regime has ruled Fiji since a coup in December 2006, more time to restore democracy.

New Zealand Premier John Key called Bainimarama’s pledge not to hold elections before September 2014 unacceptable to New Zealand.

Both Tonga and New Zealand belong to the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, which suspended Fiji’s membership May 1 for failing to organise elections this year as Bainimarama had promised his fellow leaders a year ago.

What to do about Fiji, which Sevele described as “the hub of the Pacific”, was expected to dominate the organisation’s annual meeting to be held in August in Cairns, Australia.

Fiji has been under a state of emergency with all media outlets forbidden to criticise the government since April 25, when President Josefa Iloilo sacked all the country’s judges after a Court of Appeal ruling that Bainimarama’s regime was illegal.

Sevele said that what had happened in Fiji was the opposite of what forum leaders had been intending to achieve – “so maybe it’s time for us to reconsider our approach”.

He said the forum should stand back and give Bainimarama time.

“I think in these troubled times, reason and calm is the way to go,” the prime minister said. “And if it takes another year or two to get Fiji back to the negotiating table and together work our way forward, then that’s the way we’re going to go.

“Sooner or later, we’ll have a government in Fiji that is more acceptable to the international community.”

Sevele said that to ostracise Fiji would not be in the interests of Fiji or the forum as a whole, given the country’s importance as a regional trade and communications centre.

Key said of Bainimarama: “We don’t want to leave him out in the cold but nor do we want to sanction an illegitimate regime.

“We are not out to punish Fiji, but we want to see democracy restored.”

Key said New Zealand was ready, willing and able to engage with Fiji and support its return to democracy but such a development remained in the hands of Bainimarama.

The European Commission announced Monday that it had cancelled a scheduled 24-million-euro ($32 million) aid package to Fiji to help restructure its sugar industry, which is critical to the economy, “in the absence of any indications that a legitimate government will be in place in 2009”.