Monday, January 27, 2014

All that's missing is megalomania

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 24.)

WE DON’T seem to hear a lot about Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama these days. Perhaps that’s because we prefer not to think about him.

Our near neighbour – the Pacific’s only military dictator – presents a big problem.

What he’s doing in Fiji, namely suppressing democracy and silencing opponents, is repugnant. We don’t approve.

But what can we do? Economic sanctions, such as isolation, would inevitably punish innocent, ordinary Fijians. Besides, many New Zealanders like their cheap Fijian holidays and wouldn’t take kindly to being told they can no longer fly there.

The net result is that we find it easier to look the other way. Bainimarama is just too difficult.

He was back in the news recently when Fairfax Media’s Michael Field, who has made it his mission to keep an eye on dodgy goings-on around the Pacific, reported that Fiji might be barred from the forthcoming Wellington Rugby Sevens because the International Rugby Board had suspended its annual grant to the Fiji Rugby Union.

The story caught my eye because Field (who is banned in Fiji, along with two other New Zealand and Australian reporters) described the FRU as being effectively controlled by Bainimarama, a rugby enthusiast. It also turns out that the Fiji Sports Commission, which has come to the FRU’s rescue, is run by Bainimarama’s daughter.

There you have it: nepotism, one of the defining characteristics of the despot. This can be added to the various other aspects of his rule that qualify Bainimarama for the classic definition of the petty tyrant.
These include, in no particular order:

● The conviction that only he knows what’s best for his people. It may start out as a sincere desire to do the right thing, but over time it gets warped into a sense of omniscience. The tyrant in the making begins to enjoy the feel of power and convinces himself that he needs to keep exercising it a little while longer.

● The promise that repressive controls are only a temporary measure, regrettably made necessary by the need to ensure social and economic stability. Those controls have now been in force in Fiji since 2006.

● An absolute intolerance of opposition which justifies control over the media, trade unions and anyone else who might be a source of dissent.

● Approval, even if only tacit, of state violence.  Military regimes need to show who’s in charge and that defiance will be severely punished, as happened to recaptured Fijian prisoners who were subjected to police beatings in 2012.

Endless promises that democracy will be restored when the country is deemed ready. Bainimarama has been promising elections since 2007. It’s not clear what elusive set of conditions he insists on before having them, but no one’s holding their breath.
The only trait missing from the above list is megalomania. That will become apparent if and when Bainimarama starts awarding himself grandiose titles – perhaps emperor or field-marshal, with all the commensurate Idi Amin-style medals, sashes and other trappings – and ordering that large portraits of him be erected in prominent places.

The tragedy is that when he seized power in 2006, Bainimarama seemed to have honourable intentions. He appeared determined to break the power of the chiefly elite and ensure fair treatment of Fiji Indians.

Somewhere along the line his good motives were corrupted by power and personal ambition. Shakespeare would have loved it.

SADLY, things don’t seem a whole lot better in Tonga.

Once again we had Field to thank for revealing that even as the people of Tonga’s Ha’apai islands were reeling from the most destructive cyclone in living memory, their rulers were more concerned with political infighting over who should be finance minister.

As international aid agencies scrambled to provide assistance, the Tongan government maintained an aloof silence. It seems it didn’t want to give the impression that Tonga couldn’t cope on its own.

Saving face was obviously more important than helping their own devastated people. The only public statement issued was one naming a new finance minister to replace one who had upset the ruling elite.

In Tonga, unlike Fiji, there’s not even the pretence of democracy. Commoners have limited power to elect members of parliament but real power resides with the royal family and nobility.

The government’s casual disregard for the welfare of its people was never more tragically exposed than when the rust bucket masquerading as the ferry Princess Ashika sank in 2009. Any other country’s citizens would have risen in outrage over the tales of official negligence, complacency and indifference that emerged following the sinking, in which 74 people – mostly women and children - drowned.


Sadly the Tongan people remain deeply respectful of their monarchy for reasons that, to any outsider, are a mystery.  

4 comments:

Brendan said...

Karl

Do we presume to know what's best for our neighbours who live just down the road? Do we expect them to conform to our ways of doing things just because it's our preference?

Would you appreciate the imposition of 'their ways' on you, just because they felt you would be better off?

No?

Why then do we presume to know what's best for Fiji, or Tonga? Why do we want to impose our system of Government on them, even to the extent of applying sanctions if they don't conform to our expectations?

How's that policy working for the USA in the Middle East?

And why are we so selective in our moralising? I see no desire to impose trade sanctions on China, Our Government is not rushing to give them lectures on democracy, or banning their sports people from competing in New Zealand.

???

Best to leave them to sort it out for themselves, and to offer assistance only when requested. We might be surprised with the respect that approach engenders.

Karl du Fresne said...

Let me get this straight, Brendan. You seem to be suggesting that it's no concern of ours when a near neighbour, with which we have had a close association for decades, becomes a military dictatorship (because effectively that's what Fiji is). I agree there's a discussion to be had about whether some cultures take readily to democracy, but I also think the evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible that wherever you go in the world, the freest and most prosperous countries are democracies. It strikes me as almost a reverse form of cultural conceit that anyone can complacently sit back in New Zealand, where we enjoy rights and freedoms undreamed of by most of the world's population, and tell ourselves that it doesn't matter if other countries in the Pacific don't share those benefits because that would be imposing our ways on them. It would take more time and space than I've got right now even to begin exploring the full implications of that, but it occurs to me that it has parallels with what sociologists called the Kitty Genovese syndrome - where we know something bad is happening, but look the other way because we don't want to get involved.

Taken to extremes, your approach suggests we should give Robert Mugabe and President Assad a break because they know what's best for their own people. Tell that to the Zimbabweans and Syrians.

As for your suggestion that this is selective moralising, I would simply say that as a relatively tiny country in a far corner of the world, New Zealand can make little impression on a major power such as China; but we have had a long and close relationship with Fiji and probably can exert a positive influence there. Horses for courses, as it were.

Incidentally, I didn't advocate sanctions against Fiji. But I do think there's a sound case for applying sanctions in certain instances - for example, against white South Africa in the 1980s, where international pressure was undoubtedly effective in ending white minority rule. Should we have kept our noses out of their business too? (There's your cue, Rivonia Boy.)


Brendan said...

Karl

Thank you for responding to my questions.

You say:

“but I also think the evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible that wherever you go in the world, the freest and most prosperous countries are democracies.”

Well, yes of course, that is absolutely true. But democracy is the fruit of a thousand years of a people influenced by Christianity, the enlightenment, and Roman and Greek thought and culture.

Experience tells us that you cannot simply impose elections on any people and expect the same results as seen today in Britain, Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

For example, how did democracy work out recently for Egypt? How did it work out for Iraq?

Not all cultures are ready for democratic rule.

“It strikes me as almost a reverse form of cultural conceit that anyone can complacently sit back in New Zealand, where we enjoy rights and freedoms undreamed of by most of the world's population, and tell ourselves that it doesn't matter if other countries in the Pacific don't share those benefits because that would be imposing our ways on them.”

I don’t suggest that it doesn’t matter, but what action do you recommend? – More sanctions or perhaps we send in a frigate, assuming we still have one? I ask again, do we have the right to mandate by economic or military force a form of governance on a sovereign nation state we think is best for them?

Tell me again, who is conceited here?

“where we know something bad is happening, but look the other way because we don't want to get involved.”

Karl, tell me where have we ‘got involved’ by means of sanctions and/or military intervention and have produced an excellent outcome, and I’ll show you a dozen examples of failure and a potentially worse outcome than if we had stayed away.

“for example, against white South Africa in the 1980s, where international pressure was undoubtedly effective in ending white minority rule. Should we have kept our noses out of their business too? “

Great example there Karl, Wikipedia presently rates South Africa as the ‘rape capital of the world’.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_violence_in_South_Africa

Their murder rate is 4.5 times the global average:

https://africacheck.org/factsheets/factsheet-south-africas-official-crime-statistics-for-201213/

By any measure democratic South Africa has descended into a violent basket case of rape, violence and crime. But it’s democratic hellhole, so I suppose that makes it all right, and all the protesters of the 1980’s can rest easy in their beds because they have made the world a better place?

Here is a reality check. You personally have a better chance of brining behavioral change to your feral neighbors than we as a nation have to a remote sovereign nation state like Fiji or Tonga or South Africa for that matter.

But it is easier for us to righteously pontificate about Fiji than it is to go next door.

Karl du Fresne said...

You seem to be saying that because South Africa is a mess (which I don't dispute), it was fine that a racist white regime kept the black majority in subjugation. That's an interesting view. And please show me where I advocated military intervention, or even sanctions. I don't pretend to advance any pat remedies.

While you're about it, you might do me the courtesy of identifying yourself.