Friday, April 10, 2009

SUVA, Fiji | This Pacific Island nation, more than two years after a coup installed a military regime, stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in aid if its rulers continue balking at international demands that it hold democratic elections.

Since Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power in December 2006, Fiji’s tourist industry has taken a hit. Compounding that setback, the European Union is threatening to withdraw a $170 million aid package if Fiji doesn’t move toward democracy.

South Pacific leaders also have given the island nation until May 1 to set a date for elections in 2009 or face possible suspension from the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum.

In the Obama administration’s first comments on Fiji, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Fiji should abide by the forum’s timetable.

“We share a common determination that democracy must not be extinguished there,” Mrs. Clinton said during a joint appearance in Washington with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, the Associated Press reported.

In addition, the Commonwealth — a group of 53 countries, most of them former British colonies — recently gave Fiji a six-month deadline to make progress toward democracy and hold elections, or face full suspension from the organization.

Fiji has been provisionally suspended from the Commonwealth since the 2006 coup, but now a final deadline in September has been set for the country to act.

Losing Commonwealth membership would cost Fiji access to the organization’s aid programs, which were close to $1 million between 2000 and 2006. It would also bar Fiji from participating in major regional economic and political meetings.

Commodore Bainimarama explains the continuing delay in returning the island to democratic rule by saying he wants to make the country’s voting system fairer to the island’s minority from the Indian subcontinent.

The commodore resigned from his self-appointed post as prime minister Thursday in response to a court ruling declaring his military government illegal, but said he would continue his role as military ruler.

“The ruling of the Court of Appeal and its refusal to grant a stay pending the appeal means, in practical terms, that we effectively do not now have a prime minister or any ministers of the state,” he said in a televised address to the nation.

“In other words, we do not have a government in place,” he said, the AP reported.

Indians were not always a minority. The country’s population was evenly split until 1990, when a heavy Indian exodus made Melanesians the island’s majority.

The Indians left as a result of two military coups in the late 1980s, which were prompted by perceptions that the government was dominated by the Indian community.

Years of political turmoil followed, until a 2001 election installed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. He was re-elected in 2006, but then ousted by Commodore Bainimarama’s coup.

The international community has called on Fiji to hold democratic elections ever since. Today, Commodore Bainimarama remains defiant, saying that if the Commonwealth wants to suspend Fiji, it should act now.

“No one is going to interfere in what we are trying to do here, not New Zealand, not Australia, not anybody else. Nothing is going to be done. There is going to be no election,” he said recently.

Before the latest coup, Fiji had lots of tourists, mainly from Australia located about 3,000 miles to the West. But tourist arrivals to Fiji were down about 6 percent in 2007 over the previous year, with substantial job losses in the service sector. The global economic slowdown is further shrinking tourism, as political turmoil reaches new heights.

Last month, the military government threatened to shut down the biggest local newspaper.

Fiji’s Land Force Cmdr. Pita Driti called the Fiji Times biased and said the paper did not give adequate coverage to the military’s grievances or its achievements. He threatened to shut down the paper, although no action was taken.

The threat came just weeks after the newspaper’s editor nearly had his house burned down by unknown attackers. Since the start of the year, similar attacks have been held against a trade unionist, a lawyer representing two men charged with planning to assassinate Commodore Bainimarama, and against prominent businessmen who have spoken against the military leadership.

Three Australian reporters have also been deported since January.

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