The DLR’s correspondents have reported from the front lines of gigs, cat-scratched sofas and Tate dance performances. But now, the DLR has dug into its lucky dip of contributors and pulled out a South Pacific correspondent. That’s right, ladies, a South Pacific correspondent.
But why the South Pacific, we hear you ladies squeal. Isn’t it just a pleasant holiday destination, a mediocre musical and a politically vacuous region? Well, no. In fact, we would claim that the South Pacific is one of the most interesting regions in the world for the study of international relations. It has everything: state failure, ethnic conflict, tribalism, military coups d’etat, economic unviability, colonialism, neocolonialism, superpower competition, proxy diplomatic wars, environmental catastrophe, nuclear politics, cults dedicated to Prince Philip and weirdly incestuous and tiny societies that maintain child rape is ‘a cultural issue’. It is, with apologies to Bikini Atoll, the bomb when it comes to security studies. The South Pacific is essentially international relations and politics writ small. Plus it has some awesome beaches.
So don your grass skirt, grab your coconut cocktail and enjoy some Pacific melodies.
What is happening in the South Pacific? Since 2006, Fiji has been ruled by a military regime led by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. He’s known as Frank.
Military coups d’etat are the national sport in Fiji and the country has experienced four since 1987 (and a civilian coup/putsch). Yer man Bainimarama is an old hand at the game – he played a prominent role in the 2000 counter-coup (which ousted civilian coup-maker George Speight), setting up the post-Speight government, which he then deposed in another military coup in 2006 amid concern over the rights of Indo-Fijians.
There is an obvious problem in leading a military regime in a country with a history of military coups. Consider Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara. Tevita Mara is the son of Sir Kamisese Mara, the father of modern Fiji, who was deposed as president by Frank in 2000. He was also the commander of an infantry regiment based in the capital and a member of Bainimarama’s ruling council. So in May 2011, when Tevita Mara was charged with sedition, it looked an awful lot like he’d either been caught planning a coup or that Bainimarama had decided he posed too much of a risk.
And then, while supposedly on bail in Fiji, Tevita Mara suddenly turned up in the neighbouring Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. The Tongans claimed he was picked up in a rescue mission having become stranded while fishing. This seems pretty implausible. While in Tonga he stayed as a guest of the Tongan King, George Tupou V, to whom he is distantly related. (We’re sure you all remember him from the Royal Wedding, because we know you were all watching. Don’t pretend.)
Earlier this month, a shiny new Tongan passport got Fijian Tevita Mara a tourist visa into Australia, where he met with a pro-democracy group, accused Bainimarama’s regime of torture and corruption, and espoused a 10-point plan for a return to democracy. Tevita Mara’s activities are pretty galling for the regime, especially given how quickly he has transformed from military hard man to passionate democrat.
But this is the Pacific. Such events could easily be swept under the carpet. For instance, the parliamentary history of Vanuatu reads like the Borgias until you realise that it’s the same four or five MPs taking turns at being prime minister. In the Solomon Islands, a minister called Douglas Ete accused the government of trying to kill him in a drive-by in January 2011; he was back in cabinet by March. Hence it is little surprise that Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, a long-time opponent of Bainimarama, laughed off the recent fracas as a “brotherly squabble”.
Yet, the Fijian regime has had something of a sense of humour failure. After the Tongans picked up Mara, the Fijians started pushing Tonga over the ownership of the Minerva Reefs, two small, uninhabited atolls that lie to the south of Fiji and Tonga. On the same day that Mara arrived in Australia, the Tongans sent two naval vessels to rebuild a navigational beacon the government claims the Fijians destroyed. Then, after Mara began his tour the Fijian government issued a press statement that reads like something from Pyongyang.
Why? Bainimarama’s oft-professed deadline for elections is 2014. In that time he has set himself the goal of rebuilding the country’s struggling economy and reforming the electoral system. Without spoiling the ending, the economy isn’t back on its feet yet. Some preparations have begun for the elections, but it still isn’t clear how Bainimarama intends to move the country from the present military-centric system to a democracy, especially given that he has ruled out the participation of all the country’s old political parties on the grounds that they are racist. This would probably explain the regime’s touchiness about a former military man advocating an immediate return to democracy. But it still doesn’t explain the intemperance of the Fijian response.
One possible answer lies in the idea that Tevita Mara’s defection is a blow to Bainimarama’s vanity. This is a man who includes half-portraits of himself on billboards advertising road safety. Is it any wonder that he might occasionally find himself at odds with the neighbours? Particularly the ones with golden thrones.
Are we looking at a Pacific war? No, not really. For a start, Tonga has only three patrol boats, which isn’t much of a fleet with which to start threatening neighbours. But all this gunboat diplomacy, rhetoric and tension between a monarchy and a military dictatorship is a masterclass in state interaction and international relations.