(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.