The following, by Byron Clark, was first published in the July issue of The Spark
“Can we manage the tensions between Fiji and Tonga?” that was the question posed in the press release promoting the interview journalist Guyon Espiner was conducting with Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully on the June 12 episode of TVNZ’s Q&A. The question is loaded with political assumptions; first of all the term ‘we’ assumes that there is some universal ‘New Zealand interest’ shared by both the audience of Q&A, and those that McCully and the government he is part of represent. Second, it is assumed that ‘we’ have the right to intervene with the affairs of two other sovereign nations.
The diplomatic dispute between Fiji and Tonga began when Tonga granted citizenship to Tevita Mara after he fled Fiji. Mara was the Army Chief of Staff -the fourth highest position in the Fijian military- and controlled an infantry of approximately 500 soldiers. In May he was charged with mutiny and accused of attempting to overthrow the government. He has been declared a fugitive under Fiji’s Extradition Act. He was taken out in a boat by an Estonian national and picked up by a Tongan vessel in Fijian waters. Its been noted in the media that Mana has ‘ties’ of some sort with the royal family in Tonga. Since receiving a Tongan passport he has been granted a visa to enter Australia and successfully gained an exception to sanctions that ban him from New Zealand as a member of the Fijian military.
Since fleeing Fiji Mara has called interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama a “little kid who doesn’t know what’s happening” and referred to him as a puppet of attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. “Over the coming weeks, I will travel the region to discuss with the Pacific leaders the real situation in Fiji and I will discuss the road map on how we will return Fiji to democracy in the shortest time” Mara stated in a video posted to Youtube. He claims the 2014 elections are not going to happen and the regime has no plans for bringing democracy to Fiji.
Tevita Mara is either a genuine democrat, a failed coup leader, a conspiracy theorist, a political opportunist, or some combination of the above. He has been supported by the Australia based ‘Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement ‘ who’s members include academics Jon Fraenkel and Brij Lal, who have between them a significant voice in Pacific issues in the Australian media. However the lesser known New Zealand group, Coalition for Democracy in Fiji strongly condemned Mara in an open letter to John Key and Murry McCully.
“[Mara] was directly responsible for the illegal arrest, detention, torture, sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of people. He is feared by people in Fiji and is known for his use of violent and inhuman sexual, physical, emotional and psychological torture techniques” the letter states, and it should be noted these accusations are backed up with reports from Amnesty International. “We have been in touch over the past few weeks with our associate pro-democracy support groups and people in Fiji and the unanimous view is that New Zealand must not allow entry for people such as Mr Mara.”.
How New Zealand orientates to him will be determined by how it can best advance New Zealand interest (which of course, are as universal as Q&A would imply). The government granting entry to Mara, with John Key making a point that neither key nor any of his ministers would meet with him, appears to be an attempt to hedge bets.
It won’t win the Key regime any sympathy in Suva however, Frank Banimarama has been clear on this point; “It would be a matter of concern for everyone if John Key was to allow him into New Zealand.” he told Radio Tarana. “In the first instance John Key will be reneging on his public announcement that he wants to review his relationship with Fiji, obviously he’s not very serious about that,”.
While its true that New Zealand has in recent times tried to engage more with the regime in Fiji, should relations between Fiji and Tonga sour further recent history suggests New Zealand would side with the latter. While maintaining harsh sanctions against Fiji New Zealand has remained a support of Tonga’s monarchy, going so far as to send troops to help quell a rebellion by pro-democracy activists in 2006. This shows that whatever is behind New Zealand’s attitude toward Fiji, its not a desire to see democracy.
As Fiji attempts to overturn the legacy of colonialism, one which has maintained an ethnically segregated election system long after independence was gained in 1970 (and means Fiji was hardly democratic prior to the 2006 coup) the country would prefer New Zealand stayed out of its affairs. “The more interference that we have,..the harder it is for us to get [to democracy]” Sharon Smith Johns , the permanent secretary for information in Fiji, told Radio New Zealand, “We’d hope that countries would partner and help us to get there, but if not, we’ll still get there by ourselves. The distraction from Mara is something that we don’t need.”
For background information see ‘New Zealand’s Imperialist Attitude Toward Fiji’ in the March 2009 issue of The Spark available online at http://bit.ly/iJWtG2