There has been a fascinating response to my Dominion Post column last week (reproduced on this site) about the Bainimarama regime in Fiji.To recap briefly: I described Commodore Bainimarama as the Pacific’s only military dictator and said his regime had many of the hallmarks of the despot, including such appealing characteristics as nepotism and suppression of dissent. I also said that Bainimarama had been promising elections since 2007 but no one was holding their breath.
Cameron Slater, on his Whale Oil blog, was quick to respond. Improbable as it may seem, it turns out that Whale Oil is a friend of the repressive Bainimarama government. He wondered whether I’d been to Fiji recently and suggested all I needed to do to find out what was really going on there was to pick up the phone and have a friendly chat with the benign Frank or one of his minions.Whale Oil also pointed out, as proof of Bainimarama’s beneficence and good intentions, that Fiji will be having elections later this year. (I’m having to quote this from memory because the Whale Oil site is down today, having been subjected to a cyber attack, according to Cameron, by people upset at his description of a young man killed in a car crash near Greymouth as “feral”. Actually, I suspect that what offended West Coasters more was his statement that the young man had done the world a favour by dying – an unfortunate example of Cameron succumbing, as he sometimes does, to the urge to indulge in gratuitous shock-jock tactics, although that hardly justifies death threats in retaliation.)
Several aspects of Cameron’s response to my column intrigue me. The first is the naivety of his apparent belief that Bainimarama is unfairly misrepresented by left-wing journalists and would happily give us the true story if only we asked him nicely. This touching faith in Bainimarama’s goodness and honesty sits oddly with the tough, don’t-believe-the- bastards scepticism that normally characterises the Whale Oil blog. Perhaps if we phoned Robert Mugabe or President Bashir al-Assad we would discover that they too are simply misunderstood by the bleeding heart liberal media.Then there’s the implicit notion that if only I’d been to Fiji recently I would see things differently. While it would certainly help me get a better understanding of the situation, I reject completely – and always have – the idea that you have to experience something first-hand before forming any judgment. I’ll die waiting for someone to suggest that if you didn’t live in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or experience one of Hitler’s concentration camps, ithIyou have no right to judge them.
The thing is, we have to form views based on what we know – which is where the much-criticised Michael Field comes in. In much of the Pacific, the media are so tightly controlled that journalists are unable to report what’s going on. It falls to outside reporters like Field, who are operating in a free environment, to expose stories that bullies like Bainimarama would prefer to suppress.But back to Whale Oil. He points out that Fijian elections are scheduled for September, as if all will be put right then and everyone will live happily ever after. What Whale Oil doesn’t mention is that elections have been repeatedly promised and then postponed since Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that even if they finally take place, they will be free and fair. On the contrary, Bainimarama has given repeated signals that they will happen on his terms. He may well decide who’s allowed to stand and what they might be able to do if elected. And whoever is elected will run the risk of yet another military coup if they displease him.
Moreover, there can be no prospect of free and fair elections while the Fiji media remain under stifling government control. An election requires an informed electorate – one able to hear freely from competing candidates and make their choices accordingly. There seems no chance of that happening as things stand.One other point about Whale Oil. I wonder how long an inflammatory stirrer like him would last in Bainimarama’s Fiji. I’d say a couple of days, tops.
Bainimarama’s apologists were also active on the Stuff website, though of course none identified themselves. One commenter pointed out all the good things Bainimarama had done: free education, free buses to school, better roads and hospitals, freer trade, more jobs, better working conditions and so forth. All of which might be laudable, assuming it’s true; but dictators often seek to justify themselves by their positive achievements. Hitler was greatly admired, by many outsiders as well as his own people, for restoring German pride and revitalising Germany’s infrastructure and economy; Mussolini, according to legend, won the undying gratitude of Italians for getting the trains to run on time. Even the monster Stalin still has his admirers in modern Russia. (He was a brutally effective wartime leader largely because it didn’t matter to him how many of his people died.) People like Mugabe understand that even despots are more secure if they earn the loyalty of at least some of the people by looking after them. On a much less malignant level, our own Robert Muldoon grasped that you could prosper politically by patronising one section of the community; even better if you could then persuade your supporters that they needed your protection against other sections of the community that might threaten their interests.So yes, Bainimarama might have done some good things. That’s not to say a legitimately elected leader might not have done the same, but it’s harder in a democracy. Democracy’s messy. One reason dictators often look forceful and effective is that they can override all opposition. They don’t have to worry about democratic niceties like free speech, property rights, elections or consultation. They just do it. People who get in their way are likely to find themselves banged up in prison, or suddenly out of job.
This particular commenter – obviously someone in Fiji – urged me to write another piece after the elections. I would be happy to do so, and to eat humble pie if I’m proved wrong. But the commenter rather blew it at the end when he or she said it was a shame I probably wouldn’t be allowed in to Fiji to cover the election. I rest my case. If Bainimarama is confident that he’s doing the right thing and has the support of the Fijian people, he would have no need to be so paranoid about outside scrutiny that he bars visits by all but the most compliant journalists.It comes down to this: we either believe in democracy or we don’t. It’s either the starting point for good governance and a fair and free society, or it’s an optional accessory that we can tack on if it happens to suit us. I unapologetically believe the former; my critics are clearly happy with the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence that the freest and most prosperous countries are all democracies.
Finally to Brendan, who is a frequent commenter on my blog. (It’s just occurred to me that I have no idea who Brendan is, but I’ll set aside my usual objection to engaging with people who don’t identify themselves.) Brendan is normally in broad agreement with me, but we part company here. He thinks it’s arrogant to impose our norms on societies with no democratic traditions. To me this means we should enjoy all our rights and freedoms but not bother ourselves worrying about the billions of people who live under repressive, despotic regimes. Not our problem. Let them stew in their own juice.By implication, we shouldn’t attempt to do anything about butchers like Assad. After all, they’re operating within their own cultural traditions. We should cut them some slack. Perhaps if Hitler hadn’t been rash enough to invade Poland, we could have left him alone too; never mind that millions of Jews would have been exterminated in the process. I’m not comparing Bainimarama with Hitler, obviously, but it’s only a question of the degree to which we’re prepared to accept intolerable behaviour by the leaders of other countries.