Institute’s Maikolo Horowitz recently visited Fiji and New Caledonia to file
reports on the political situation there for an American radio network. When
Maikolo got back to Tonga I talked with him about his experiences in Fiji, and
about his analysis of superpower politics in the Pacific.]
Maikolo: 2014 will be a fulcrum year in
Pacific politics, with elections scheduled in Fiji and in New Caledonia. Fiji
is supposed to emerge from military rule, and New Caledonian voters will be
offered independence from Paris. I wanted to talk to some of the big political
players in Noumea and Suva, and they were happy enough to chat, although some
of the Fijians were – how can I put this? – looking over their shoulders.
Journalists and lawyers gave me introductions and addresses, but didn’t want me
to mention their names in my broadcasts.
Bainimarama claims to want to hand power to a democratically elected civilian
government next year, but he is still running a dictatorship. And all of the significant
political parties, not to mention the trade union movement, have criticised the
constitution he recently unveiled. The document offers an amnesty to Bainimarama
and everyone involved in his government, that it sets limits on freedom of
speech, and that it makes many types of trade union activity illegal.
One day, on
the streets of Suva, I watched as a peaceful protest against the constitution was
dispersed. The protesters – there were a couple of hundred of them – had looked
like they expected to be confronted with overwhelming state power, and they
fled as soon as they were confronted by riot police armed with long batons and
with the head of the Methodist church, which used to be such a pillar of the
Fijian establishment, and Mahendra Chaudhry, the leader of the Labour Party.
The Methodist spoke venomously about Bainimarama, and repeatedly warned that
the grassroots of his church might escape his control and seek an extra-parliamentary
solution to the country’s problems. I was very impressed by Chaudhry – he’s an
intellectual with considerable experience of trade union politics, and with his
mixture of worldliness and erudition he reminded me of some of the great
American left-wing leaders of the early twentieth century, like Norman Thomas
or Eugene Debs. Chaudhry complained about the beating and jailing of Labour
Party members. After experiencing the atmosphere on the streets of Suva, I
didn’t find his allegations hard to believe.
Scott: After Chaudhry was ousted from the
Prime Minister’s office by George Speight’s coup in 2000 even sympathetic
commentators suggested that he had helped to bring about his fate by behaving
in a high-handed manner. Did you find him arrogant?
Maikolo: Not at all. I think he is a very
skilled communicator. He knew he was talking to an American radio audience, and
he repeatedly used American anxieties about growing Chinese power to help justify
his opposition to Bainimarama and to the new constitution. Bainimarama has
grown close to China, accepting Chinese aid and trade as Fiji copes with
Australian and New Zealand sanctions, and taking China’s side at the United
Nations. Chaudhry criticised Bainimarama for the breakdown in Fiji’s
traditionally good relations with Australasia and America, and promised to
restore those relationships.
Scott: Chaudhry’s relations with
Bainimarama haven’t always been so cool. He initially served in the government
the commodore set up after his coup.
Maikolo: They’ve obviously fallen out. I
would characterise Bainimarama as, in Marxist terms, a Bonapartist ruler – a
‘man on a white horse’, who rode in to save the nation in the midst of a
crisis. Bainimarama may initially have had a degree of popular support, but he
has grown increasingly isolated and authoritarian, and now seems to be opposed
by a large majority of Fijians.
Scott: I think Bainimarama can be compared
and contrasted with Hugo Chavez. Both men were able to enter politics through
the military because of the way in which the armed forces had achieved a
special status in their respective countries. In Venezuela the military was
seen as the friend of the people and the guardian of democracy; in Fiji it was
created as an outlet for indigenous males excluded from the modern economy, and
was allowed to grow until it had become a state within the state –
Maikolo: But Bainimarama isn’t Chavez.
Scott: No. Chavez tried gaining power
through a coup, but then got elected. After the old Venezuelan establishment
and the Americans jumped on him, he built up a mass movement of the urban and
rural poor as a counterweight, and found himself under pressure from this
movement, until he ended up offering his supporters more and more radical
reforms, like the nationalisation of businesses and the redistribution of land.
Bainimarama faced opposition from the Methodist church and traditionally
powerful indigenous Fijian chiefs, and began by trying to build an alliance
against those opponents – besides Chaudhry’s Labour Party, he turned to Fiji’s
Catholic and Muslim communities, which have traditionally been marginalised by
the Methodists. But he fell out with many of his early allies, and doesn’t seem
to have been willing or able to build a mass base. Bainimarama has increasingly
stacked his government with members of the military.
Maikolo: Bainimarama has presented himself as
the protector of Fiji’s Indians, who were undoubtedly discriminated against by
the Qarase regime he overthrew, and as the enemy of the Great Council of
Chiefs, the faux-traditional body set up by British colonisers late in the
nineteenth century. But the Indo-Fijians I talked with, including of course
Chaudhry, were very negative about Bainimarama, and Fijians in general regarded
the chiefs as yesterday’s men.
Scott: While you were away yet another
newspaper appeared here in Nuku’alofa. One of the first issues of the Tonga Daily News – the title is
deceptive, as the paper has only been turning up once a week – included an
interview with the Catholic Archbishop of Suva, Peter Chong, who argued that
Bainimarama, for all his rhetoric about reforming Fiji, had retained the
essence of the country’s old political system.
that Fijian politics have typically featured a clique of leaders who distribute
largesse to a set of clients. In the pre-Bainimarama era, most of those leaders
were members or close associates of the Great Council of Chiefs; today, they
tend to come from the military. Chong characterised the Qarase regime as
‘corrupt and racist’, but insisted that Bainimarama had simply made the
military, rather than the Great Council, into the ‘institution of patronage’.
Maikolo: And arguably Bainimarama himself has
become a client of a foreign patron – China.
Scott: Bainimarama’s constitution is so
controversial that any democratically elected government is likely to amend or
abrogate it. Bainimarama overthrew an elected government, albeit a government
elected with the help of gerrymandering and race-baiting, and he has used
violence and rigorous censorship of the press to maintain his rule. If the
amnesty he has given himself in the new constitution is revoked, then he might
well face a long spell in prison. Bainimarama has an interest, then, in holding
onto power. Dictators don’t always enjoy long and pleasant retirements.
his situation, hasn’t Bainimarama formed a political party to contest next
year’s elections? With the muscle of the state on its side, and perhaps some
residual support from enemies of the old order, such a party would presumably
have a chance of helping to form the next government.
Maikolo: I asked Chaudhry a similar question.
He told me that he thinks Bainimarama’s failure to form a party is a sign that
the elections will not be held.
Scott: Australia and New Zealand reliably
act as American proxies in the Pacific: is their dispute with Bainimarama, who
has become such a close ally of China, another episode in the new Cold War that
Washington and Beijing are waging in this part of the world?
Maikolo: American diplomats are careful not
to talk about China as an enemy. There is no question, though, that the two
superpowers are vying for influence in the Pacific. Fiji is, in Pacific terms,
an important place – it dwarfs the Polynesian nations to its east like Tonga.
The Australasian hostility to Bainimarama has opened the door for Chinese
influence over his government. China is funding major pieces of infrastructure
in Fiji like dams, and helping counter the effects of the Australasian economic
interesting parallel can be seen in Tonga, where an unpopular government, which
was formed by the nobility against the will of the people, is surviving by
going into debt with China. Chinese are e verywhere, raising buildings and
running shops. Both Fiji and Tonga have traditionally been close allies of
Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and many Fijians and Tongans are
distressed by the rising influence of China and the declining influence of the
old allies. There is a great fear of China, which is seen as culturally alien
and rapacious. Chaudhry is canny enough to play on this fear, and in Tonga the
Democratic Party, which won the support of seventy percent of voters at the
last election and should be in government, is also lining up behind the old
allies and warning about China.
Scott: In the latest issue of Ko e Kelea
Viliami Taufa, who generally seems to reflect the thinking of the Democratic
Party, asks in apparent seriousness whether the Chinese annexation of Tonga is
imminent. Taufa raises good questions about whether Tonga can afford more and
more loans – or ‘gifts’, as the nobles now seem to call them – from China, but
his anti-Beijing rhetoric seems almost hysterical, as well as potentially
dangerous, given the series of anti-Chinese riots we’ve seen in the Pacific
over the last decade.
understand the thought process which leads to the conclusion that America and
its puppets Australia and New Zealand are benign powers, while China is a grave
threat. We only have to look at the history of Anzac imperialism in the
Pacific, from the disastrous New Zealand colonisation of Samoa to –
Maikolo: But that’s history, and probably not
relevant to anyone in Tonga and Fiji. Don’t forget that Tonga was never really
Scott: Well, let’s consider the relative
abilities of China and America to intervene in the twenty-first century
Pacific. China has of course a burgeoning economy, and can throw money at small
island nations in the hope of influencing them. But China’s economy is still
smaller than that of America, and China still spends considerably less on aid
to the Pacific than Australia, America’s key ally here.
China has little
way of guaranteeing the loyalty of its newfound friends in the Pacific – we’ve
seen, for instance, some island states switching their allegiance backwards and
forwards between China and Taiwan, in search of the richest harvest of aid – whereas
America and its allies have all sort of institutional resources available to
discipline allies who go ‘astray’. We’ve seen Fiji suspended from the Pacific
Forum, we’ve seen New Zealand using its constitutional powers over Niue’s
foreign policy to twist the arm of that country when it got too friendly with
China, we’ve seen the World Trade Organisation discipline Samoa when it
attempted to put controls on food imports. And America and its allies can
ultimately resort to violence against errant Pacific states, because, unlike
China, they have a network of bases across the regions.
China is growing more powerful, both economically and militarily, but a
coalition of medium sized powers can thwart a new superpower which doesn’t have
the global military and economic infrastructure the United States relies upon. China
recently got into a dispute with Japan over some islands, and the whole of
southeast Asia seemed to jump to Japan’s defence –
Maikolo: Because, like Pacific Islanders,
they are terrified of China’s growing power!
Scott: I would have thought that the entry
of a new superpower into the Pacific region would give small states additional
options, when they seek crumbs from the table of the developed world and try to
hold back nastier aspects of capitalist globalisation.
Maikolo: As you know we have a fundamental
difference of opinions about the Pacific. You’re a romantic who reads Marx’s late
writings and thinks that societies on the periphery of the global economy can
bypass the stage of capitalist development and build something like socialism
on the foundations of pre-capitalist modes of production, like the primitive
modes of production that still exist in Tonga.
I’m a realist who agrees with
Marx’s earlier statements that capitalism is an essential prerequisite for
anything better. Tonga needs more capitalism not less. Bring on the Democratic
Party and open up the economy, I say – but make sure that the new wealth is
captured as tax revenue and benefits the wider population. If Chinese largesse
is just delaying the inevitable by allowing a dysfunctional, moribund
semi-capitalist economy to limp on, then Chinese largesse is a bad thing.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]