A gorgeous tropical paradise ruined by a cruel regime
While the rest of the world is throwing off the shackles of authoritarian regimes and taking the first steps towards democracy, one country is slipping further into military rule.
Fiji is not on the other side of the world, it’s in Australia’s neighbourhood. Many of us have visited as tourists and it’s a place where our Government has real influence.
Behind the smiles of the tourist industry it’s a place where citizens have few human rights, where the media are oppressed and where trade unions are targeted. Its economy is stagnating and Fijians are leaving in droves.
Just as union members were active in pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, they have been on the frontline of the push for democracy in Fiji. As a result unions and union members have been intimidated and punished by Frank Bainimarama’s military regime.
Today, I will be flying to Fiji at the head of a delegation from Australia and New Zealand to further investigate first-hand the state of human and labour rights there. We plan to meet with workers, unions, church and civil society groups, business leaders, and – hopefully – with Prime Minister Bainimarama himself. We want to find out more about the situation on the ground in Fiji, but importantly, we would like to see this visit as the start of a dialogue with the regime about the restoration of basic rights.
There is a good chance we will be refused entry to the country – even though we are responding to an open invitation from the regime – but we are determined to go anyway because Fijian workers have asked us to.
I have written about the death of democracy in Fiji before, but in the last few months the attacks on unions and workers have increased.
At the end of October, Daniel Urai, the President of the Fijian Trades Union Congress, was arrested as he stepped off the plane back from Perth where he had been attending the Commonwealth Trade Union Group meeting. A week later the General Secretary of the FTUC, Felix Anthony, was arrested.
Neither has been tried or convicted of a charge, and it clear that the regime is just trying to intimidate anyone who challenges it.
Minimum wages have been abolished and collective bargaining and union representation have been effectively banned.
The regime has implemented a set of Public Emergency Regulations that limit freedom of speech, expand police powers and curb media freedom. Interim administration personnel accompanied by police have been placed in all major news outlets, which may be shut down if they publish stories deemed ‘negative’.
Earlier this year they also banned the annual conference of the Methodist Church - simply because the church refused to make pro-democracy church leaders step down from their positions.
US diplomatic cables, obtained through Wikileaks, record that beatings and intimidation of the regime’s suspected opponents are reported to have taken place with the knowledge of military commanders and included the direct participation of Bainimarama himself.
The economy is stagnating and the wealth of the country is being concentrated in the hands of a few.
Many Fijians with the ability to leave have chosen to emigrate, taking their skills and money with them. The victims of all this are ordinary Fijians, 40 per cent of whom live on less than $1.25 a day - and for them the role of trade unions has never been more important.
Stopping unions from representing ordinary Fijians will only make their situation worse, while the wealth of the country goes to cronies of the regime.
Although Colonel Bainimarama has promised elections in 2014, it is clear that he has no intention of giving up power. In fact, if he was committed to democracy, there is no reason why elections could not be held next year.
So what can we do about this? Imposing economic and tourist sanctions should remain a a very real possibility.
Australia has already stopped defence co-operation with Fiji, and introduced high-level sanctions against members of the military regime in Fiji, preventing them from travelling to Australia.
I want Australia to renew diplomatic and political pressure on the Fijian Government and hold it up to the scrutiny of the world – and a resolution to do this passed at last week-end’s ALP conference was a good start
In particular I want Australian companies that do business in Fiji – in particular the airlines and banks - to demand respect for human rights, and to use their influence to push for democracy in the country.
These companies are making money from the work of the people of Fiji, and can not be blind to the repression that is making their profits possible.
Since 1989 we have seen democracy and human rights spread across Eastern Europe, South America and now the Arab world. Other countries such as Burma have also begun making moves towards democracy.
For some reason Fiji has remained a stubborn exception. It’s time we showed our support for the people of Fiji and their struggle for democracy.
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