Fiji: Franksta’s paradise hides a dark side
When it’s this cold many of us think of escaping to a warm island paradise, but when it comes to Fiji the postcard images of warm water lapping pristine beaches mask an uglier picture.
Many travellers have been able to ignore the fact that Fiji is under a military dictatorship, but when the government is using their absolute power to stifle free speech and attack the rights of the workers who are serving you, it’s time to ask some serious questions.
The problem is what do we do? Making calls on how we treat developing nations, especially our neighbours, is always tough. Tourism keeps the Fiji economy afloat and is vital to the living standards of all its people. Fiji is far from being North Korea with palm trees – there is still some civil society and freedom left.
But the military regime that has been in power since 2006 is steadily eroding basic freedoms and crushing any democratic opposition, in particular journalists and unions.
The regime pays lip service to democracy with a vague promise that elections will be held in 2014. There is no reason why elections could not be held earlier than 2014, even this year, and I have no faith that the regime intends to deliver on its vague promise.
Military strongman Commodore Frank Bainimarama heads a government that has no democratic legitimacy. At a time where people across the globe are embracing democracy, most recently seen in the uprisings in the Arab world, it is tragic that a nation like Fiji is sinking into this type of dictatorship.
Fiji is not the worst dictatorship in the world, but it is in our neighbourhood and the one where Australia and Australians have the most influence.
Bainimarama may sound like an 80s all-girl band but he is guilty of human rights violations in the first degree. In May this year proposals surfaced for new laws which would effectively outlaw unions and neuter any effective representation of Fijian workers.
A report released last week by the International Trade Union Confederation has found that repression of unions in Fiji is worsening.
The regime had already adopted tactics to intimidate union leaders. Earlier this year the head of Fiji’s trade unions was detained twice and assaulted once by the military. Senior union members in Fiji have been harassed, arrested or threatened with the sack if they maintain involvement in their union. Other critics of the military regime have been detained and beaten.
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’.
Courts are increasingly biased and cowed by the military regime and many judges owe the positions to the military.
Military personnel have the power to use arms to break up gatherings and have detained individuals without charge.
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.
The Australian Government has introduced high-level sanctions against members of the military regime in Fiji, stopping them from travelling to Australia. We have also suspended defence co-operation with Fiji.
And this is where it gets tough: should we call for a tourism boycott? While I know it would cause pain to the regime, further sanctions would also hurt ordinary Fijians who rely on tourism or sugar exports as their main source of income.
Instead I want Australia to renew diplomatic and political pressure on the Fijian Government and hold it up to the scrutiny of the world. In particular I want Australian companies that do business in Fiji to demand respect for human rights.
But we must keep the idea of a tourism boycott in our back pocket if all else fails.
And if you are still tempted to travel to a resort in Fiji this winter, talk to the locals working there, find out what they are going through – and know that although the smiles are real there is pain in this island paradise.
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