Fiji's War of the Ribbons

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

A committee of the Fijian Parliament has been receiving submissions this week on its controversial legislation aimed at establishing a Commission with the power to compensate victims and pardon perpetrators of the civilian coup d'état led by George Speight, which deposed the elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry in May 2000.

Few pieces of legislation in Fijian history have generated such passionate support and opposition from different quarters. Public opinion polls show that the great majority of Indo-Fijians are opposed to the legislation, along with a large minority of indigenous Fijians. Supporters of the bill, being promoted by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and Attorney-General Qoriniasi Bale, argue that it will bring closure to the wounds of the 2000 coup and allow the country to move on. Opponents say that it is just a legal mechanism for releasing from prison supporters of the present government, who were convicted of coup-related offenses. For its parliamentary majority, the government relies on its coalition partner, the Conservative Alliance, several of whose senior members have been found guilty of involvement in the coup.

Opponents of the bill include Roman Catholic Archbishop Petero Mataca, who shocked many people last week with his claims that a delegation of church leaders, representing a variety of denominations, had been misled by Prime Minister Qarase about what the bill contained. At a meeting on May 2, Mataca said, the Prime Minister had told them about its compensation provisions, but had kept them in the dark about its amnesty clauses - which they learned about only later through the media. The clergymen had supported the bill at the time, he said, because they believed in reconciliation and forgiveness. The later revelations about the amnesty provisions had come as a complete surprise to them, he said. Archbishop Mataca condemned what he said was "a politically motivated bill" and called on the government to withdraw it. Rev. Josateki Koroi, the former president of the Methodist Church, which claims the membership of some two-thirds of indigenous Fijians, has also expressed grave reservations about the bill, saying that reconciliation cannot be legislated and must begin with true repentance on the part of the wrongdoer - something he believes has not happened.

Politicians opposed to the bill include the leaders of all of the Indo-Fijian dominated parties, including former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. Indigenous politicians to have spoken out against the bill include Senator Adi Koila Nailatikau (the daughter of former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who was deposed in the coup) and her brother-in-law, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, founder of the National Alliance Party and son of former President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. Ganilau, a former military commander, has called it "an insult to the intelligence of ordinary people" and has warned that the armed forces could use it as a legal mechanism to remove a present or future government, while Nailatikau, who was kidnapped and held as a hostage by the insurrectionists, has said that if her father were alive, he would not approve of tampering with the course of justice.

One of the most strident voices raised against the legislation is that of the Military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Bainimarama, who organized a counter-coup to quash the Speight rebellion in 2000, has been making press statements on almost a daily basis since the middle of May, condemning the legislation as undermining the integrity of the military and the judiciary. He has made a number of veiled statements, interpreted by some politicians as threats, about what the military might do if the bill is passed. Last week, the Fiji Times, Fiji's oldest daily newspaper, quoted an anonymous source, which it claimed was reliable, that President Ratu Josefa Iloilo (who is rumoured to be against the legislation) had refused a government request to "discipline" Bainimarama. Under the Constitution, the President has very little political power but is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Supporters of the bill include former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and some traditional chiefs.

Many Fiji citizens have been showing their support for the bill by wearing blue ribbons, or their opposition by wearing yellow ones.

Qoriniasi Bale said two days ago that unless opponents of the bill could make more constructive suggestions for improving it, parliament would most likely pass it without any changes.


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