Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Commodore Bainimarama: Military Dictator or True Democrat? Helene Goiran, Assessing the Coup Carried out in Fiji in December 2006 in the Fijian Military and Social Context, Finds Logic and Coherence

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Commodore Bainimarama: Military Dictator or True Democrat? Helene Goiran, Assessing the Coup Carried out in Fiji in December 2006 in the Fijian Military and Social Context, Finds Logic and Coherence

Article excerpt

Among the Pacific Islands states I Fiji is remarkable in many ways. In particular, it is special for the political role of its military. Sitiveni I Rabuka, who was a lieutenant-colonel and number three in the Royal Fiji Military Force, carried out the first military coup d'etat in 1987, and Commodore Frank Bainimarama the most recent, in December 2006. But the various coups d'etat have been very different in nature. Twenty years ago, the servicemen declared that they intervened to protect the interests of the Melanesian Fijians, which were seen by the nationalists as endangered by the accession to power of a multiracial government. In December 2006, in contrast, the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces affirmed that the army took action to establish a truly democratic system, opposing the ethnic-based, pro-Melanesian policy of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

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It is, of course, paradoxical to conduct a coup d'etat in order to enhance democracy. Nevertheless, in the historical, social and political context of Fiji, such an attitude can be understood and has a certain coherence.

Fiji has always been characterised by militarism. The pre-colonial society was largely based on warfare. The British administration, from 1874, as well as the Christian missions, ended the armed conflicts, but the Fijians, heirs to a powerful war tradition, sought militarism's maintenance, adapted it and used it to strengthen their political power; first under the framework of colonisation, then to prepare for independence and to provide their sovereign country with a noteworthy place on the international scene. Recognised and valued for their successful participation in multinational peacekeeping missions since 1978, Fijian soldiers surprised the world by also conducting putsches in their own country. However, in Fiji, the political role of the servicemen is longstanding and important and military engagement is an instrument of political power, both for individuals embarking on a career of arms and for the state deploying thousands of soldiers in overseas operations.

Warrior tradition

The military history of Fiji is as ancient as her history. In pre-colonial times, warriors were the necessary implements of chiefly power. The chiefs gained or kept authority and influence through the victories of their combatants. War was the natural occupation of men, who were all supposed to fight to protect the community. Some of them were dedicated fighters. Warfare training was a major formative experience of young males. The importance of the social role of the warriors was such that, like the nobles, their wives were buried with them. Moreover, the gods wanted human sacrifice and the vanquished were the usual victims. War and worship were intertwined. Without wars, the offerings could lack substance, angering the gods, who could provoke disasters, and therefore weaken the power of the chiefs.

Frequent wars were essential to those who aspired to nobility tides, extended territories, and superior prestige. All men being supposed to support the chief's policy, thousands of armed men assaulted the enemy groups. But the confrontations were generally short and the number of casualties limited, because a symbolic victory was sufficient. Generally, these conflicts were aimed at establishing power, not at exterminating the opponent, who could have been before or could become an ally.

For chiefs seeking to seize and retain power, warriors were, therefore, a major instrument. Leaders who were able to mobilise, train and lead their men into battle could dominate more people in wider zones. The first contacts and exchanges with Westerners introduced firearms and the engagement, in the service of some chiefs, of foreigners whose competences played a major part in the evolution of politics. Modern weapons and Western strategy enabled certain groups to gain influence over others, in contrast to previously when, it seems, no group had dominated durably and significantly. …

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