SUVA, Fiji — For most people Fiji means fun in the sun and aesthetically pleasing water bottles.
The reality for nearly 1 million Fijians, however, has been far less idyllic.
Racial tensions simmer. Corruption and endemic instability have led to four coups since independence from Britain in 1970. The current prime minister, Commodore Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, declared martial law in 2009, after taking power in a 2006 putsch.
Recently, however, things have begun to change for the better.
Until recently, Fijians had been living under martial law. But the lifting of that law, which the prime minister put into effect in 2009, is one of the many shifts in Fiji that have onlookers saying the country appears to be making sure-footed steps down the road to democracy.
In January, Bainimarama called for the lifting of martial law. He announced that he wanted nothing more than a truly democratic government representative of all Fijians.
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And he appeared to mean it.
As he made the announcement at his office in central Suva, a gaggle of Fijians, some barefoot and holding crying babies, gathered to listen.
The access that average citizens have to the highest levels of government was not remarkable, according to Fiji’s attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. These days, people often talk directly to government officials, he said.
“They have come to talk about issues that concern them, so they make appointments — or just show up — to speak with the PM or others in government,” he said. “We are accessible like that.”
"True democracy" is a lofty goal for Fiji. Bainimarama and Khaiyum — referred to by the media as “Bainimarama Republic” — essentially have all the power in Fiji. The regime is criticized for human rights abuses and repression against trade unions and political opponents. There are some who say that martial law still effectively exists.
Steps toward democracy
Yet the government does seem to be making progress.
Revoking martial law has been lauded as substantial first step. Under the law, censors were placed in newsrooms; certain groups were not allowed to gather; and there were tales of police harassing members of civil society, the media and academics who spoke out against the government.
In an interview with GlobalPost, Bainimarama argued that he has provided Fiji with better infrastructure throughout the 300-island network. Revamped social welfare laws have given children better access to education, and have provided the police more authority to step in on domestic abuse cases.
Recent voting reforms have included lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, and efforts to ensure one vote per person.
Lines of communication have opened up between members of government and civil society, and several meetings have taken place in recent months. The United Nations Development Program organized two meetings in 2011 among government, business and civil society leaders to discuss the constitution, among other issues.
Consultations on the new constitution are now underway. The constitution commission, which is being chaired by Kenyan constitutional scholar Yash Ghai, also includes Fiji's first female deputy prime minister, Taufa Vakatale; former Fijian parliamentarian, Satendra Nandan; and South Africa human rights and constitutional expert Christina Murray. Information about the new constitution is being distributed this month to all citizens.
Meanwhile, a UN team has arrived in the country to ascertain the technical needs for conducting elections by the end of September 2014, and voter registration is set to begin in May.
Imposing martial law and abolishing the constitution had led countries like Australia and New Zealand to isolate Fiji with sanctions. But recent reforms have brought signs that relations are beginning to thaw.
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Since the repeal of martial law, some have called for leniency towards the current Fijian government.
“Australia and New Zealand have advanced a policy to force Fiji back to democracy [by imposing] a wide range of sanctions [and cutting] off diplomatic channels” Eni Faleomavaega, the American Samoa delegate to US Congress, recently wrote in an editorial.
“The US can no longer rely on landlubber diplomacy that seeks to force democracy by isolation. Force is contrary to the order of democracy and contrary to our innate sense to choose,” he wrote.
A lack of equality has been the cornerstone of Fiji’s instability over the last two decades, fueling what some critics call the island nation's “coup cycle.”
The coups have all been bloodless, though in 2000 militants held the country’s first ethnically Indian prime minister hostage for 56 days. They have been sparked by conflict between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The latter make up almost 40 percent of the population. The tension goes back to the late 19th century, when the British brought Indians over to the Pacific island nation to work on the sugar cane plantations.
The country has had three constitutions since independence. The most recent, from 1997, gave a permanent majority of seats to indigenous Fijians.
“Even if you were of European descent and your family had been here for five generations, you could not call yourself Fijian,” said Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum.
“That way of thinking meant that people hesitated to call themselves Fijian. Even our arrival and departure cards at airports — which we have renewed now — would ask you ‘If Fijian, fill out race,'" he said.
Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor for The Australian, said taking race out of the electorate is an important step toward progress, but that ruling the country by decree is a step in the opposite direction.
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Since the constitution was suspended in 2009, there has been no parliament or congress. The country has been led by a series of decrees, which are implemented with no discussion. That has met with condemnation in some quarters.
"They issue a decree but they have no administrative sense or capacity. That’s what happens when you govern with two people — you make mistakes,” Callick said.
“I believe [the government] have been well intentioned on equality and have done some good stuff to improve on things like domestic violence, addressing poverty and improving education,” said Jenny Hayward-Jones, the director of The Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.
“Whether they are serious on democracy, well I think Bainimarama kind of wants something like what Turkey used to have. Their democracy was guided or tolerated by the military, which had a strong role to make sure the Turkish state remained secular. With Fiji, it would not be about remaining secular but about remaining equal,” she added.
In a recent interview with GlobalPost, Bainimarama said he could understand the international criticism of the 2006 coup but stressed that his reforms have been positive and significant.
"We got rid of our government [in 2006] and that was unconstitutional,” he said. “But a lot of people across the world do not know what has been happening in our country over the last few decades. For people like you, Fiji is a paradise with sea, sun and sand. But underneath, simmering, was a nation full of mismanagement, corruption and instability.”
"We made reforms for a fairer society. We did not have that before," the prime minister argued. "We wanted to get rid of the longstanding inequalities in Fiji. That is what the reforms are about."
But there is a feeling that although martial law has been lifted and there are no longer censors in the newsroom, the decree is de facto in place.
“The Fijian government does not censor, approve or vet articles or newscasts before they are published or aired by any media outlet,” Sharon S. Johns, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information, told GlobalPost in an email.
Still, said Callick, lifting martial law “has not really had much impact. ... If the government is going to look for a real debate to get underway in preparation for a return to democracy, I think they will need to find a way to give people greater confidence.”
Another concern is that, even if there are elections, there is a dearth of political leaders. None have had the opportunity to exercise power since the coup, and there are rumors that former political leaders will be barred from running in the elections.
Mick Beddoes, who was the opposition leader at the time of the 2006 coup, agrees that it's unclear who would be allowed to participate in the election. “I guess one must hope for the best and prepare for the worst when it comes to the immediate future here in Fiji,” Beddoes told GlobalPost in an interview.
Yet despite criticism from bloggers and foreign journalists of Bainimarama, a poll done by the Lowy Institute last year found that the majority of Fijians said the country should be left alone to sort out its return to democracy.
The poll also found that 66 percent of Fijians approved of Bainimarama's performance.
“I think it’s because we put a lot of improvements into their daily lives,” Bainimarama said, as his iPhone started ringing to the tune of a bugle call. “They have seen change with our reforms; everything from building roads and bridges to bringing water and electricity to places that never had them before.”
Joshua Momolevu, a taxi driver from Denarau Island, said he has personally benefited from Bainimarama's reforms. On a recent visit, it was all the 30-something wanted to talk about. He said the prime minister had visited even the most far-flung islands of Fiji, asking what the people wanted. Now, he said, many of those islands have running water and access to telecommunications.
So, while the international community may be quick to pass judgment on Fiji, Momolevu has something to say in response: “I think you should ask locals first how we feel before jumping to any conclusions,” he said.