Military unrest since the 2000 Fijian coup d'état

Military unrest since the 2000 Fijian coup d'état

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Following the quashing of George Speight's civilian coup d'état in 2000, the Military handed power over to a civilian administration led by the banker, Laisenia Qarase, who won the parliamentary election held to restore democracy in September 2001. Despite the role of the military in the rise to power of the Qarase government, relations between them have noticeably deteriorated since, to the extent that by July 2004, the Military was threatening to overthrow the government.

The Military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has kept a high profile since the coup. Throughout 2003 and 2004, and into 2005, he repeatedly entered the political arena to criticize government policy - especially its policy of lenience, as he saw it, towards persons responsible for the coup. Politicians countered with charges of inappropriate interference in political affairs, and some accused him of hypocrisy, saying that he himself had a case to answer for his role in Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's resignation from the Presidency on 29 May 2000.


Another coup ruled out (2003)

Major differences between the government and the Military first became public early in 2003, when the Military protested government attempts to reduce the sentences of soldiers who had been convicted of having committed acts of mutiny at the Sukunaivalu Barracks in Labasa while the coup crisis was at its height in 2000.

On 15 April 2003, Bainimarama publicly ruled out a coup against the Qarase government, but condemned calls from some government members for the release of George Speight and his accomplices, saying that they had been tried and sentenced by a court of law and should serve their sentences.

Controversy over Bainimarama's contract

A standoff occurred between the government and the Military in 2004, over whether or not to renew Commodore Bainimarama's contract. Four Colonels - Ratu George Kadavulevu, Alfred Tuatoko, Samuela Raduva, and Akuila Buadromo, and one naval Commander, Timoci Koroi, were asked to resign for refusing to pledge personal allegiance to Commodore Bainimarama.

Fiji Week controversy, 2004

In 2004, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo turned down a government request for a Commission of Inquiry to try Bainimarama over allegations from five senior officers that he had approached them about organizing a coup d'état. Iloilo said that he was satisfied Bainimarama's assurances that the military had no intention of overthrowing the government.

On 25 October 2004, Bainimara entered the political fray to criticize the organizing of Fiji Week, a week of religious services and cultural ceremonies that had been held from the 4th through the 11th of October. He said he found it "baffling" that individuals implicated in the 2000 coup took part in the ceremonies to apologize and ask forgiveness for their actions, only to turn up in court later and plead innocent. He said that according to Fijian culture, an apology was tantamount to a public admission of guilt, and that the "not guilty" pleas later entered by the same people in court raised justifiable questions about whether their apologies were sincere.

Bainimarama strongly criticized Senator Ratu George Cakobau for saying that citizens unhappy with the government-organized apology and reconciliation ceremonies should leave Fiji. Bainimarama declared that Fiji belonged to all of its citizens, and that no one should feel intimidated by politicians who spit out racist remarks, adding that the Senator would be shocked to find that many of those who refused the apology were ethnic Fijians. He said that democracy and the rule of law were the rule of the day in the 21st century, and that the military would uphold it.

His comments drew criticism from government politicians who accused him of meddling in politics, but he would not be silienced. He upped the ante in December 2004 by condemning the early release of Vice-President Ratu Jope Seniloli, who had served less than four months of his four-year treason sentence, for his role in the 2000 coup. Reiterating comments made by other senior officers earlier in the week before, Bainimarama said that Seniloli's release had threatened national security, which the military was determined to protect. He said that he would give more details later in the week as to how national security had been undermined by the release of the Vice-President (who immediately resigned from office).

In a separate statement, Bainimarama endorsed calls by Ratu Epeli Ganilau, the former Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs, for a non-Fijian to be appointed to fill the vacancy caused by Seniloli's resignation. "I support the idea for someone with excellent leadership skills to take up the post regardless of race," he said, accusing those who opposed the idea of a non-Fijian's appointment of trying to instigate racial instability for their own selfish gain.

Opposition to releasing political prisoners

In a further statement on 8 December 2004, Bainimarama issued a further warning to the government that the military "would put pressure on anyone" who tampered with national security, and condemned the inclusion in the government of persons implicated in the 2000 coup, saying that their presence justified his earlier criticism of the Fiji Week reconciliation ceremonies. "That's why we've always said the reconciliation process was a farce," Bainimarama said. "The 2001 Elections brought back all of George Speight's group except him." He went on to issue a veiled threat to the political establishment: "If we don't act, this country is going to go to the dogs and no investor will want to come here." He reiterated the threat on 4 January 2005, when he likened the military to a tiger sitting in the corner. "You have to give it (the tiger) room," he said. "If you don't give it room, it will bite you," he told The Review, a prominent newspaper. His remarks were taken as a clear signal that he would not be silenced. In the same interview, he condemned what he saw as the Qarase government's policy of letting people implicated in the 2000 coup get off "scott free," warning that it will lead to "a criminal generation" as children will be raised "without recognition of the law." This will lead, he said, to a security threat. He said that political interference in police investigations into the coup, together with the government's lenience towards its perpetrators, was making a mockery of the judicial system. "If we don't put our foot down, they will release every man and his dog," he said on 6 January 2005.

On 17 April 2005, Bainimarama harshly attacked the government's decision to release on parole Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu and Senator Ratu Josefa Dimuri, who had served only eleven days of their eight-month prison sentences for their role in the 2000 coup. Bainimarama said he was "frustrated, disturbed, and disappointed" at a decision which he said "made a mockery of the military, police, and the judiciary." Bainimarama's latest outburst provoked an immediate angry reaction from Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola, who warned that Bainimarama would be disciplined if he spoke to the media again without consulting him. The row escalated, with Bainimarama saying on 19 April that he would not be silenced. Army spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni also issued his own statement supporting Bainimarama's criticism of government policy.

On 20 April, Vosanibola said that he would not be "intimidated" by Bainimarama's comments to the media, and reiterated his threat to take unspecified disciplinary actions against him if he did not cease making public statements without consulting him.

Military criticism of the expulsion of Ridgeway

On 25 June, Bainimarama reacted angrily to the government's decision not to renew the contract of Peter Ridgeway, the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, who was ordered on 20 June to return to his native Australia. "The Government claims that the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill will hasten the process of reconciliation and investigations, however, they decide to remove the person that they brought in to do exactly this," said Bainimarama, who predicted that investigations into the coup would be severely affected by the expulsion of Ridgeway, and would have to start all over again. He refused to be drawn on whether there could be another coup if the controversial legislation is passed.

Opposition to the proposed Reconciliation and Unity Commission

Commodore Bainimarama has been one of the most vociferous critics of the government's proposal to establish a Reconciliation and Unity Commission, with the power to grant compensation to victims of the 2000 coup, and amnesty to perpetrators of it. Among other objections, the Military claims that its integrity and discipline would be undermined if soldiers who mutinied in the 2000 upheaval were to be pardoned.

Allegations of a plot against President Iloilo

  • See main article:Investigations since the Fiji coup of 2000

On 24 August 2005, Commodore Bainimarama went public with allegations that a number of politicians, including the nationalistic Senator Apisai Tora, had approached him at a meeting held in the boardroom of the Fijian Holdings company during the 2000 crisis and asked him to depose the newly appointed President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, barely a week after Iloilo's inauguration. Tora angrily denied the allegations, and called on Bainimarama to resign. A police investigation, headed by Kevueli Bulamainaivalu, got underway on 5 September.

Military alleges immigration scam

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Orisi Rabukawaqa alleged on 4 October that almost seven thousand Chinese nationals had entered Fiji illegally since 2003. He alleged that bribery in the office of the Registrar General had resulted in massive falsification of documents, with Chinese immigrants being falsely identified as ethnic Fijians. Military investigations showed that illegal immigration was related to increasing rates of prostitution, gambling, money laundering, and illegal fishing.

On 6 October, Justice Ministry Chief Executive Sakiusa Rabuka challenged the Military to substantiate its allegations. He said he had written to Rabukawaqa to seek his cooperation. On 9 October, Rabuka told the Fiji Village news service that the allegations made by the Military were "baseless." Only one case had been found, he said, of an Asian national trying to change his birth certificate.

Opposition to budget constraints

On 5 October 2005, Commodore Bainimarama joined Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes in opposing interference in the budgets of the two security services by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Bainimarama supported Huge's protest that any attempt to control the police and military budgets would undermine the constitutional independence of the services. "Once money goes into CEO's (Home Affairs) pocket, everything is politicised and somebody will dictate our operations," the commander said. "The CEO then becomes the commander of the RFMF and the Commissioner of Police." The next day, it was reported that the military and the police were considering legal action to assert their own control over their financial operations.

Parliamentarian Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi of the Fiji Labour Party spoke out in support of the Military and police on 7 October. "Their comments are fair because they are the two main institutions which deal with security, so it is only fair they be given total control of their finances," Vayeshnoi said. "These two institutions deal with security matters therefore they would need to have finances ready when they need it instead of having to ask for it."

On 8 October, Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni publicly alleged that attempts to bring the Military under the financial authority of the Home Affairs Ministry were a deliberate ploy to undermine the Military.

The same day, Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola condemned recent protests from the Military and Police about political controls on their budgets. Speaking to the Fiji Village news service, he called on the Military Commander and Police Commissioner to be more "responsible" and to respect the laws of the country.

In a move apparently linked to expected politically-imposed budget restrictions, Leweni said that the Military was taking steps to save money. Only Commodore Bainimarama, Captain Leweni, and Bainimarama's bodyguards would use cellphones from now on, he said. Other soldiers had their cellphones disconnected on on 3 October. There would also be cuts in non-essential military operations, such as maritime patrols, search and rescue, training and exercises, territorial force training, school cadet training and deployment of engineers to rural areas, Leweni said.

United Peoples Party leader Mick Beddoes came out in support of the security services on 10 October, saying that the government was "stupid" to try to control the budget of the Military and police forces. He alleged that the move was a ploy to manipulate the security services into conforming with government policy by cutting off their financial supply. There was already too much interference with the independence of the police, he said.

On 11 October, Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni said that relations between government and military officials had deteriorated to the point where they were no longer on speaking terms. He reiterated his earlier claims that government attempts to control the Military budget were a ploy to weaken the Military, and he vowed to challenge the government in the courts. He pledged, however, that the Military would protect the Constitution, despite its disagreement with the government.

Bainimarama and Leweni expressed mixed feelings after the government's decision to increase its budget allocation to the Military to F$76.4 million was announced on 4 November. The figure represented a considerable increase on the F$67 million allocated in 2004, but fell short of the F$84 million the Military had been seeking. Because the Military had not been allocated all that they had been seeking, they would continue with their cost-cutting measures, Leweni said.

Earlier, Bainimarama had told the Fiji Live news service that there was no way he would allow the government to control the Military's budget. He and Police Commissioner Hughes both reiterated their intention to take joint legal action if talks with Home Affairs Minister Vosanibola failed to resolve the problem. "If you control the finances of an organisation, you effectively control the organisation and its operations," Hughes said. He said that his role would be compromised if the police purse strings were subject to political control.

Auditor-General charges Military with Contempt of Court

The Fiji Times reported on 30 January 2006 that Auditor-General Eroni Vatuloka had accused the Military of contempt of court for defying a Supreme Court order to allow him and his office access to trust funds. He criticized the Military for engaging a private auditor, Ioane Naiveli, to audit the accounts without his knowledge in the late 1990s, and said that some accounts had not been audited since then.

Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni said that the Military would not comment on the matter publicly.

Vatuloka reiterated on 4 February his claim that the Military refusal to allow his office to audit its regimental fund was indeed a contempt of court, and that state solicitors would need to ask the Supreme Court to declare it so.

Taniela Senikuta, spokesman for the Fiji Peacekeepers Association, said on 15 February that the association wanted to know about the status of the fund because they made compulsory contributions to it, and called on the Military to allow the fund to be audited. The fund was taxpayer-funded, not privates, Senikuta told the Fiji Village news service, and was therefore subject to auditing.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Orisi Rabukawaqa told Fiji Live on 16 February that the Military had, in fact, complied with the Supreme Court order by allowing state auditors to audit the trust fund over a period of three months in 2005. He asked the office of the Auditor General to specify the type of accounts its auditors did not have access to. The Military had already made a statement about the issue in August 2005, Rabukawaqa said.

Commander surcharged

Meanwhile, High Court Justice Jiten Singh ruled on 14 October that an earlier decision of the Ministry of Finance to surcharge Commodore Bainimarama for blowing his 2003 budget was unconstitutional, and ordered the Minister to pay F$800 to cover Bainimarama's court costs. In July 2004, the Ministry had accused the Commander of overspending by a total of F$116,379.95, and announced on 13 January that he would be required to repay F$49,590.11 of it. The money would be recovered by docking his salary by F$300 every fortnight.

On 15 October, Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry called on the government to apologize to Bainimarama. He said that the surcharge had been politically motivated. "Obviously Commodore Bainimarama has been targeted by the Government and that is why they are harassing him," Chaudhry said.

On 12 December, Military lawyer Major Kitione Tuinaosara announced a decision to sue Finance Minister Ratu Jone Kubuabola for contempt of court, after a government decision to disregard the court order to drop the surcharge and refund money already docked from Commodore Bainimarama's pay. The Ministry claimed that the court order applied to the 1971 Financial Regulations Act, but not to the 2004 Finance Management Act or the 2005 Finance Instructions Act, and has invoked the new laws. Bainimarama will continued to be surcharged at a rate of F$381 a fortnight.

Bainimarama said on 19 December that the continuing defiance of the court order by the Finance Ministry would only worsen relations between the government and the Military. He reiterated his intention to sue the Finance Ministry on 21 December, saying that a senior official in the ministry had admitted to him that they had no grounds to levy the surcharge. "If people can treat me like that, just imagine how they are going to treat the public," the Fiji Sun quoted him as saying. He accused the ministry of displaying "a blatant disregard for the rule of law."

In a ruling delivered on 23 December, High Court Justice Jiten Singh ordered the Finance Ministry to halt the surcharge and to refund the F$6000 that had been deducted from the Commander's salary. Singh gave the Ministry till 31 January 2006 to complete the refund, and Doko Turaga, the lawyer for the Ministry of Finance, promised to comply. Singh expressed serious reservations about the independence of the proceedings that had led to the surcharge.

It was reported on 17 January 2006 that the office of the Attorney-General had advised the Finance Ministry to comply with the High Court directive. This followed a threat from lawyer Tuinaosara that any refusal to rescind and refund the Commander's surcharge would be held as a contempt of court, an offence carrying a prison term. On 26 January, however, Finance Ministry Chief Executive Officer Paula Uluinaceva said that the matter was far from resolved and that the ministry was seeking legal advice. The Commander, meanwhile, had confirmed the previous day that his pay was still being docked.

On 30 January, Fiji Live reported that following a meeting with state lawyers on the 27th, the Finance Ministry had decided to refund the surcharge that had been deducted from the Commander's salary. On 1 February, however, the Fiji Times quoted Uluinaceva as saying that the ministry was awaiting further legal clarification, and would make its decision by the end of the week. On the 7th, Tuinaosara claimed to have received a letter from Uluinaceva the previous week, promising to refund the deduction, but that no payment had been made. Finance Minister Ratu Jone Kubuabola reacted by denying that the courts had, in fact, ordered the deductions to be discontinued and refunded. "There is no such order for a stop to the deductions," he claimed, "so we will continue to make deductions until a decision has been made and at this point, no decision has been made."

Tuinaosara announced on 13 February that on the 9th, the Military had filed contempt of court proceedings in the High Court against the Finance Ministry for defying the court order to stop surcharging the Commander. The Ministry was displaying a "blatant disregard" for the court order, which reflected poorly on the government, Tuinaosara said, and he had no confidence in assurances from Uluinaceva that the Ministry would reimburse the Commander later.

On 15 February, Finance Minister Kubuabola denied that there had been any court order to stop the deductions or to refund the salary already deducted. "The court only said that the relevant legislative provision we used to impose the fine was wrong and nothing else," Kubuabola said. He claimed that the government had had to borrow the money that the Military overspent, and that interest payments had amounted to F$400,000.

Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni reacted on 17 February by claiming that the overspending had been forced by politicians' orders requiring the Military to provide security for prisoners held on Nukulau island, and to guard the Monasavu Dam. These were costly, but unbudgeted, activities, he said. Leweni accused the government of twisting the court order to stop and refund the surcharge. "The ignorance and the total disrespect for the rule of law displayed in 2000 is still very much alive as it is now being manifested in the hearts of people whom we have entrusted to oversee the affairs of the nation," Fiji Live quoted him as saying.

Military monitoring hate speeches

Leweni spoke out on 13 October to endorse Police Commissioner Hughes's condemnation of hate speeches by certain politicians. Leweni said that the Military was monitoring such speeches, and said that ordinary people were being "misled." In addition he rubbished claims that Fiji would not be ready for a nonindigenous Prime Minister for another twenty years. The Bavadra and Chaudhry governments had not been put to the full test, he said, and should not have been judged on racial grounds. He emphatically denied, however, that the Military supports the Labour Party.

Court martial dispute

On 20 December 2005, Bainimarama demanded the resignation of Lesi Korovavala, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs. This demand came in the wake of repeated adjournments in the courtmartial retrial of 20 soldiers convicted of involvement in the mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva on 2 November 2000. The adjournment was said to be due to obstacles to the appointment of lawyer Graeme Leung as Judge Advocate, but Bainimarama alleged that it was a case of political interference to make the Military toe the government line.

Clash with Home Affairs CEO

  • See main article: Military unrest in Fiji, December 2005

The tension between the government and the Military appeared to escalate in late December, with Bainimarama stating his intention to commandeer Korovavala's office, and saying that he had already ordered Army engineers to secure it. He challenged Home Affairs Minister Josefa Vosanibola and his Chief Executive to visit the Queen Elizabeth Barracks and dismiss him.

Fiji's highly respected Vice-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, stepped in on 28 December to mediate in the dispute.

Opposition to government legislation

The Unity Bill is not the only piece of legislation to have aroused the opposition of the Military. Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Orisi Rabukawaqa was quoted in the Fiji Times on 22 February 2006 as saying that the Customary Fisheries Bill, which proposes to guarantee indigenous Fishing rights, was a threat to national stability. His comment came in the face of a threat from the Viti Landowners and Resource Association to sue the goverinment if it failed to pass the legislation.

Counter criticisms

Bainimarama's detractors have accused him of hypocrisy for vehemently opposing what he sees as the government's policy of leniency towards perpetrators of the 2000 coup, when there are unanswered questions about his own role in it. They have also condemned his public opposition to certain government policies.

Attempts to counter his opposition to government policies

On 23 December 2003, Conservative Alliance parliamentarian Samisoni Tikoinasau, a brother of George Speight, condemned Bainimarama for his attacks on the government's handling of coup prosecution cases while himself allegedly ignoring murder accusations against his own men. He accused Bainimarama of having sent several such suspects abroad. He said that the government would not be "intimidated" by Bainimarama's threats, and called on him to resign if he was dissatisfied with government policies. "No one is indispensable," he said.

Peni Lomaloma, a spokesman for the Minister for Home Affairs, appeared to concur with Tikoinasau, saying that it was not the business of the military to prosecute those responsible for the coups. That, he said, was the prerogative of the government and the police.

Alleged role in 2000 coup

On 25 April 2004, then-Opposition Leader Mick Beddoes called on the army to answer for its failure to protect President Mara while the country was in crisis. He called this "a fundamental failure" on the part of the army.

On 5 January 2005, Joji Kotobalavu, a spokesman for Prime Minister Qarase, reminded the public that Bainimarama himself was currently under investigation for his role in the apparently forced resignation of President Mara. On 6 January, Bainimarama defended his role in Mara's resignation, declaring that the President had resigned voluntarily. His version of what happened, however, appeared to contradict Mara's understanding of it, expressed in his last interview before he died. On 10 January, however, Adi Ateca Ganilau, Mara's daughter, appeared to support Bainimarama's claims, saying that her father had resigned and had refused reinstatement because he was upset by the abrogation of the Constitution. "He did not agree with the abrogation of the Constitution. That was probably why he refused to return to office. It was not that the military pressured him to move out," Ganilau said. She called for a thorough investigation into the abrogation of the Constitution, and for those who were legal advisers at the time to be answerable for their actions.

On 14 April 2005, Court martial president Colonel Ilaisa Kacisolomone called on Bainimarama to name those who had advised him to abrogate the constitution, saying that it was his duty to the nation to reveal all that he knew. Bainimarama refused, saying that was a matter for the police to investigate.

Another accusation was made on 15 April by Lieutenant-Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini, who alleged in an affidavit against Bainimarama, President Iloilo, and Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale that Bainimarama had prior knowledge of the coup.

On 2 May 2005, Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes announced that Bainimarama had volunteered to make a statement about his own role in Mara's resignation. To lay any charges, Hughes had earlier said, it would have to be proven that Bainimarama actually forced the President to resign.

Clash with Australian Foreign Minister

On a two-day visit to Fiji, from 28–30 September, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called on the Fijian Military to respect the authority of the government and back off from its strident opposition to the controversial Unity Bill. Downer said that while the Australian government had reservations about the legislation, it was even more opposed to the notion of the Military playing politics. Downer's comments provoked an angry reaction from Commodore Bainimarama, who said that Australians have never had to live through a coup and cannot understand what it is like.

On 7 October, Home Affairs Minister Vosanibola told the Fiji Village news service that Bainimarama had been asked to explain, his recent statements. If he could not do so satisfactorily, he could be disciplined, Vosanibola said. Fiji Village also reported that the government was seeking legal advice from the office of the Solicitor General on what measures to take. Military spokesman Captain Neumi Leweni countered by saying that the Minister had no authority to discipline the Commander, as it is the President, not the Minister, who is Commander in Chief of the Military. By 9 October, Vosanibola had apparently adopted a more conciliatory position, telling Fiji Village that the disagreement between the commander and the Australian Foreign Minister was personal in nature, and that no disciplinary action would be taken.

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