Australia and Fiji’s New Order
27 May 2013|
Fiji Parliament House, Suva

Australia’s long experience of dealing with a New Order regime in Indonesia provides only limited insights for engaging with Fiji’s New Order.

The previous two columns (one and two) explored Canberra’s current headaches in trying to improve diplomatic relations with Suva and the nature of Fiji’s New Order. With that as prelude, the question to consider is what the previous New Order experience can offer to the future Suva game plan?

Let’s start with some of the differences. Indonesia will always be Australia’s most important relationship in Southeast Asia; Fiji will never be the number one country for Australia in the South Pacific.

Another difference—a problem as much for Fiji as for Australia—is that Suharto was smarter than Bainimarama. Suharto was far more corrupt, violent and cunning, and carried just as many cronies and carpetbaggers, but his regime was also served by some highly intelligent and competent experts (especially on the economic side).

Fiji is well loaded with colonels and cronies but has much less luck in areas of expertise and competence. Not least of the differences is that Suharto used and embraced (and profitably exploited) his Chinese business leaders while Fiji has spent the years since 1987 ushering its Indians to the exit. Indonesia’s commitment to the regional system was far greater and its understanding of its own interests was far more predictable than anything coming from the Supremo.

Other elements of the old New Order recipe are still relevant. As Canberra re-engages with the Suva regime beyond next year’s election, even more attention will be applied to Fiji’s military. The military leadership isn’t monolithic, and support for the Supremo as an individual varies widely. What the military hierarchy thinks about what Bainimarama does is of vital importance, on both sides of the election.

The even more complex trick is to deal with Fiji’s New Order while fostering links with the many elements of Fijian society excluded or subjugated by the regime. One day the New Order must crumble, or at least transform. Canberra is engaging with the regime because of its interests in Fiji and the region. The balance is to serve those interests while also building a relationship with the New Order. This will continue to be an uncomfortable and testy balancing act.

The Suva gossip is that Bainimarama’s tantrums and temper outbursts are becoming an ever greater factor in the way his courtiers have to operate. The personality of the Supremo and the nature of the regime reach deep into Fijian society. I’ve been told a couple of times that Fijians now have to be careful of what they say around the kava bowl. Bainimarama has deeply damaged his people when Fijians are afraid to have an argument about politics over some kava.

The scope for some form of politics has to expand beyond next year’s election. So Australia’s aim is to get the best possible election, despite the restrictions imposed by the regime, and then to seek the terms of a calmer understanding with Bainimarama on the other side of that poll. What Australia did with Indonesia’s New Order, it will seek to achieve again with Suva.

Canberra eventually came to an accommodation with Fiji’s first military coup master, Sitiveni Rabuka. Having covered Rabuka’s 1987 coups, it was a moment of some irony for this scribe a few years later to report on Rabuka’s official visit to Canberra as a newly-elected Prime Minister. He got the full works, including a formal welcome on the forecourt of Parliament, with guns booming a salute, the band playing and a guard of honour. Rabuka transformed himself from a colonel to an elected politician relatively quickly.

Bainimarama has instead transformed his country and imposed his New Order. The hope for next year’s election is that it marks a turn towards some form of normal politics, however restrictive the rules imposed by the regime. Bainimarama knows Australia, just as Rabuka did. Both, when convenient, found Australia a wonderful target to both blame and blaspheme against. Bainimarama, like Rabuka, has lived and studied in Australia. They both figure on the student roll of achievement that hangs next to the mess at the Australian Defence College in Weston, about eight kilometres south-west of the city centre of Canberra. The roll is for students who have gone on to achieve staff rank. Rabuka was in Course 25 at the Joint Services Staff College in 1985. A decade later, Bainimarama was on Course 51 in 1995.

Thus, as Rabuka eventually got to Canberra to receive a formal welcome in front of the Australian Parliament, it’s possible to imagine something similar for Bainimarama when elected rather than imposed as PM. The guard of honour, though, will have firmly gritted teeth.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user timoshea95.