The ongoing diplomatic fracas between New Zealand and Fiji stemming from the peaceful coup staged by Vice Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his military allies two years ago has taken on the aspect of farce. Although the Commodore is the personification of a petty despot, in equal measure vainglorious and arrogant, in this stoush he may actually be right. The reason is that New Zealand’s approach to his rule is hypocritical, neo-imperialist , short-sighted and and heavy handed in application.
The 2006 coup was precipitated by the multiple failures of Fijian “democracy,” specifically pervasive corruption rooted in a system of ethnic preferences and disproportionate representation. The Fijian military is a classic example of an “arbitrator” or “mediator” military in a mass praetorian society, so it is always the default option when political conflicts come to a head and threaten social stability. Such was the case in 2006, and the justification for the coup was to eliminate corruption and revamp the political system in order to eliminate the sources of patronage and preference that are the root causes of its endemic malaise. As it turns out, although the military intervention has been condemned by New Zealand and Australia, many Fijians and other island states see it in Â a more favourable light. Even those who view the military intervention as a political setback recognize that it is not just a military matter but in fact an internal political conundrum that is for Fijians to resolve.
Condemnation from Anglophone outsiders is seen as a colonial vestige that is counter-productive and a violation of Fijian sovereignty. It is seen as hypocritical because New Zealand enjoys trade and diplomatic relations with countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with less than stellar human rights records (and in the case of the two Arab states, oligarchical rule), and yet says nothing negative about them. Since the Fijian human rights record is demonstrably better than that of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern partners, it appears that New Zealand is being both precious and selective when it accuses the Commodore of Â trampling on Fijian civil Â liberties, or when it refuses visas to relatives of the military leadership while at the same time welcoming with open arms and blind eyes diplomatic representatives of authoritarian regimes far more repressive than Bainimarama and company (remember, for example, the warm receptions given to Pakistani president General Musharraf Â and various Chinese delegations in the past few years).
From a practical standpoint, the public posturing between Fiji and New Zealand amounts to a diplomatic failure for the latter. For whatever reasons, quiet diplomacy has been abandoned in favour of pubic sniping between the two governments. Being the larger opponent, New Zealand comes across as a bully, one that kowtows to larger authoritarians but then vents its spleen on a smaller state just because it can do so without adverse economic consequences. Hints at Australian-New Zealand military contingency planning should things in Fiji take a turn for the worse only serve to fuel Fijian military paranoia and local resentment at what is seen as post-colonial neo-imperialism on the part of the Antipodean Anglophones.
As things stand, the diplomatic row amounts to an impasse. Given the stalemate, perhaps it is time for New Zealand diplomats to look more closely at the reasons for the coup, the nature of Fijian political debate in its aftermath, the utility of other interlocutors in the region and at opportunities for dialogue in pursuit of common ground rather than engaging in a negative-sum bilateral tit for tat that ultimately proves fruitless in terms of Â facilitating the restoration of Fijian democracy . It may be unpleasant to have to deal with the Commodore on his terms, but then again, that does seem to have impeded New Zealand’s relationship with other authoritarians on a host of issues far less important than democracy promotion.