PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
IRONY UPON IRONY: FIJI DEMOCRACY’S NEW APOSTLE
By Graham Davis
The star speaker was Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara - the renegade Fijian military officer also known as Roko Ului-who’s been warmly embraced by Commodore Bainimarama’s opponents even as he stands accused of personally abusing democracy activists in the wake of the military coup he helped stage in 2006.
The anti-Fiji Government forces see Mara - who escaped by sea to Tonga last month after being charged with sedition - as a credible figure around which to base a serious challenge to Bainimarama.
That attempt seems to have the tacit support of both the Australian and New Zealand governments. Canberra lifted its travel ban on Mara to enable him to attend the Queanbeyan gathering despite the fact that he’s a fugitive from Fijian justice and was on a list of Fijians excluded from Australia because of their roles in the 2006 coup.
At first, New Zealand indicated that it was keeping Mara more at arm’s length, saying that it was in no hurry to admit him. But foreign minister Murray McCully has since announced that Wellington will grant Mara a one-off visa to attend a similar gathering of regime opponents in the coming week.
Tevita Mara began his Queanbeyan speech by pressing the one button that he knows makes him a far more consequential figure in Australian eyes than any other potential Fijian leader-in-exile. This is the fact that he’s the son of the country’s respected founding father, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Tevita described his father to the gathering as "revered" and seems intent on using the Mara moniker to maximum effect. The problem is that some of his new acolytes are people who Mara senior loathed and blamed for the destruction of his own presidency in 2000 and the destruction of his attempts to forge a thriving multiracial nation in Fiji.
From this gathering there is what the Americans would call "the smoking gun" photograph that demonstrates a startling link between the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement in Australia and the indigenous extremists who brought the country to its knees in the George Speight coup of 2000 and drove Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara from office.
On the left is Dr Jon Fraenkel of the Australian National University, who regularly spars with Grubsheet in these columns and in those of The Australian. Fraenkel is a British-born former lecturer at the University of the South Pacific who is married to an indigenous Fijian. In the middle is the Indo-Fijian historian Brij Lal - also of the ANU - who is a regular commentator on Radio Australia and its influential Pacific Beat. Both are fiercely anti-Fiji Government and described as co-authors of a 10-point plan presented to the Queanbeyan gathering to return Fiji to democracy at the earliest opportunity.
So far so good. But on the right of the photo is a man called Simione Kaitani, who happens to be one of the alleged supporters of the 2000 coup who went on to become a minister in the government of Laisenia Qarase, which Commodore Bainimarama removed at gunpoint in 2006.
Grubsheet investigated the circumstances of the 2000 coup just before Commodore Bainimarama’s coup six years later when we worked for the Nine Network’s now defunct Sunday programme.
One of the 2000 conspirators, Maciu Navakasuasua, blew the whistle on the people around him who’d seized power at gunpoint and held the then prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and his cabinet hostage in the parliamentary complex for 56 days. One of those he fingered was Simione Kaitani, who he alleged was one of the indigenous extremists who’d encouraged George Speight to carry out his coup and was with him in the parliamentary complex. Navakasuasua’s allegations were one thing. But in the vaults of Channel Nine, Grubsheet also found archival footage of the coup clearly showing Simione Kaitani before several hundred people in the parliamentary forecourt calling for a round of applause for George Speight. That evidence is undeniable.
Kaitani was subsequently charged with treason for allegedly taking an illegal oath of office as one of George Speight’s ministers. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted because of a lack of concrete evidence that he’d actually taken the oath, in the form of photographs or video footage of the event. But this does nothing to alter the fact that he was an enthusiastic Speight supporter, was identified as one of the alleged supporters of 2000, and was present during the parliamentary siege when the legally-elected prime minister of Fiji was held against his will for nearly two months and was also badly beaten. Mahendra Chaudhry told Grubsheet in a televised interview: "He (Kaitani) was very prominent during our incarceration.
"I believed him to be, you know, one of the mob".
Kaitani went on - in highly controversial circumstances - to be appointed a minister in the Qarase government, not just in some minor role but as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. In this capacity, he sat at Laisenia Qarase’s right hand and was a key figure urging Qarase to strengthen the position of indigenous Fijians over other races in Fiji.
This influence led to what was called the Qoliqoli Bill, which would have extended indigenous land rights to include dominion over coastal waters. And to what was cynically called a "Reconciliation and Unity Bill" that would have freed George Speight and other convicted 2000 coup-makers from prison and allowed them to stand for public office. Surprise, surprise.
All this enraged the military commander, Commodore Bainimarama, who had jailed Speight in the first place and appointed Qarase as civilian prime minister on condition that he put Fiji back on the multiracial path set by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Instead, he put people like Simione Kaitani in positions of power and set about entrenching indigenous rights. Bainimarama warned Qarase to back off but he refused. So in December 2006, Bainimarama staged his own takeover with the stated intention of restoring racial equality and ending what he called the corruption of the Qarase years.
After his trial, Simione Kaitani moved to Australia. But why was he given residency when there’s clear allegations of his active involvement in the events of 2000? Australians also deserve some urgent answers as to why they should give any Fiji "pro-democracy movement" credence when it has coup-supporters at its heart.
What was Kaitani doing at Tevita Mara’s Queanbeyan talkfest? What is his role in the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement? Why are Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal - academics on the Australian public payroll - being photographed with an alleged 2000 coup-supporter? Are they willing to explain this remarkable picture and their relationship with Kaitani?
All this goes way beyond the concept of odd bed-fellows to strike at the heart of the nature of this movement, which Australia is evidently supporting. What steps has the Australian Government taken to establish the bona fides of these individuals? What steps have media organisations like the ABC taken to establish their backgrounds and the veracity of their motives? These are some of the questions that need to be answered as Tevita Mara begins what he says will be a global campaign to dislodge the Bainimarama Government.
Grubsheet has been at the receiving end of a stream of invective from Jon Fraenkel about our attempts to encourage Australia to engage with the Bainimarama Government and help it keep its pledge to hold one-man, one vote elections for the first time in Fiji in 2014. He’s castigated us as "coup supporters" - which we deny - yet is prepared to be photographed with a proven coup-supporters in Simione Kaitani. So, Jon, let’s hear your explanation. You tout a blueprint for a return to democracy with someone like this by your side?
Tevita Mara also needs to explain to those who may be persuaded to see him as Fiji’s new best hope to explain the presence of proven coup-supporters at his "pro-democracy" gatherings. He’s already under fire for allegedly dog whistling to indigenous extremists.
He accused Fiji’s Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, of giving a fellow Muslim a job but only in a Fijian language Youtube broadcast. Is the presence of a prominent indigenous extremist at one of his rallies a sign that he’s not only repudiated his father’s multiracial legacy but also embraced someone who helped destroy his father’s presidency?
The destruction of the "Mara-Ganilau dynasty" was a stated centrepiece of the Speight coup and something Simione Kaitani presumably supported. Now he evidently sees Mara the son as Fiji’s potential saviour. Ah, irony upon irony. The story of modern Fiji. And of Australia, for that matter - a country that gives refuge to coup-supporters who are avowed racial supremacists and does everything it can to destroy others pursuing racial equality.
Graham Davis is a Fiji-born independent journalist based in Australia who publishes the blog Grubsheet.Pacific Media Center
By permission from Pacific Media Center