Thursday, January 30, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Accepting the intolerable

There has been a fascinating response to my Dominion Post column last week (reproduced below) about the Bainimarama regime in Fiji.
To recap briefly: I described Commodore Bainimarama as the Pacific’s only military dictator and said his regime had many of the hallmarks of the despot, including such appealing characteristics as nepotism and suppression of dissent. I also said that Bainimarama had been promising elections since 2007 but no one was holding their breath.

Cameron Slater, on his Whale Oil blog, was quick to respond. Improbable as it may seem, it turns out that Whale Oil is a friend of the repressive Bainimarama government. He wondered whether I’d been to Fiji recently and suggested all I needed to do to find out what was really going on there was to pick up the phone and have a friendly chat with the benign Frank or one of his minions.
Whale Oil also pointed out, as proof of Bainimarama’s beneficence and good intentions, that Fiji will be having elections later this year. (I’m having to quote this from memory because the Whale Oil site is down today, having been subjected to a cyber attack, according to Cameron, by people upset at his description of a young man killed in a car crash near Greymouth as “feral”. Actually, I suspect that what offended West Coasters more was his statement that the young man had done the world a favour by dying – an unfortunate example of Cameron succumbing, as he sometimes does, to the urge to indulge in gratuitous shock-jock tactics, although that hardly justifies death threats in retaliation.)

Several aspects of Cameron’s response to my column intrigue me. The first is the naivety of his apparent belief that Bainimarama is unfairly misrepresented by left-wing journalists and would happily give us the true story if only we asked him nicely. This touching faith in Bainimarama’s goodness and honesty sits oddly with the tough, don’t-believe-the- bastards scepticism that normally characterises the Whale Oil blog. Perhaps if we phoned Robert Mugabe or President Bashir al-Assad we would discover that they too are simply misunderstood by the bleeding heart liberal media.
Then there’s the implicit notion that if only I’d been to Fiji recently I would see things differently. While it would certainly help me get a better understanding of the situation, I reject completely – and always have – the idea that you have to experience something first-hand before forming any judgment. I’ll die waiting for someone to suggest that if you didn’t live in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or experience one of Hitler’s concentration camps, ithIyou have no right to judge them.

The thing is, we have to form views based on what we know – which is where the much-criticised Michael Field comes in. In much of the Pacific, the media are so tightly controlled that journalists are unable to report what’s going on. It falls to outside reporters like Field, who are operating in a free environment, to expose stories that bullies like Bainimarama would prefer to suppress.
But back to Whale Oil. He points out that Fijian elections are scheduled for September, as if all will be put right then and everyone will live happily ever after. What Whale Oil doesn’t mention is that elections have been repeatedly promised and then postponed since Bainimarama seized power in December 2006. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that even if they finally take place, they will be free and fair. On the contrary, Bainimarama has given repeated signals that they will happen on his terms. He may well decide who’s allowed to stand and what they might be able to do if elected. And whoever is elected will run the risk of yet another military coup if they displease him.

Moreover, there can be no prospect of free and fair elections while the Fiji media remain under stifling government control. An election requires an informed electorate – one able to hear freely from competing candidates and make their choices accordingly. There seems no chance of that happening as things stand.
One other point about Whale Oil. I wonder how long an inflammatory stirrer like him would last in Bainimarama’s Fiji. I’d say a couple of days, tops.

Bainimarama’s apologists were also active on the Stuff website, though of course none identified themselves. One commenter pointed out all the good things Bainimarama had done: free education, free buses to school, better roads and hospitals, freer trade, more jobs, better working conditions and so forth. All of which might be laudable, assuming it’s true; but dictators often seek to justify themselves by their positive achievements. Hitler was greatly admired, by many outsiders as well as his own people, for restoring German pride and revitalising Germany’s infrastructure and economy; Mussolini, according to legend, won the undying gratitude of Italians for getting the trains to run on time. Even the monster Stalin still has his admirers in modern Russia. (He was a brutally effective wartime leader largely because it didn’t matter to him how many of his people died.) People like Mugabe understand that even despots are more secure if they earn the loyalty of at least some of the people by looking after them. On a much less malignant level, our own Robert Muldoon grasped that you could prosper politically by patronising one section of the community; even better if you could then persuade your supporters that they needed your protection against other sections of the community that might threaten their interests.
So yes, Bainimarama might have done some good things. That’s not to say a legitimately elected leader might not have done the same, but it’s harder in a democracy. Democracy’s messy. One reason dictators often look forceful and effective is that they can override all opposition. They don’t have to worry about democratic niceties like free speech, property rights, elections or consultation. They just do it. People who get in their way are likely to find themselves banged up in prison, or suddenly out of job.

This particular commenter – obviously someone in Fiji – urged me to write another piece after the elections. I would be happy to do so, and to eat humble pie if I’m proved wrong. But the commenter rather blew it at the end when he or she said it was a shame I probably wouldn’t be allowed in to Fiji to cover the election. I rest my case. If Bainimarama is confident that he’s doing the right thing and has the support of the Fijian people, he would have no need to be so paranoid about outside scrutiny that he bars visits by all but the most compliant journalists.
It comes down to this: we either believe in democracy or we don’t. It’s either the starting point for good governance and a fair and free society, or it’s an optional accessory that we can tack on if it happens to suit us. I unapologetically believe the former; my critics are clearly happy with the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence that the freest and most prosperous countries are all democracies.

Finally to Brendan, who is a frequent commenter on my blog. (It’s just occurred to me that I have no idea who Brendan is, but I’ll set aside my usual objection to engaging with people who don’t identify themselves.) Brendan is normally in broad agreement with me, but we part company here. He thinks it’s arrogant to impose our norms on societies with no democratic traditions. To me this means we should enjoy all our rights and freedoms but not bother ourselves worrying about the billions of people who live under repressive, despotic regimes. Not our problem. Let them stew in their own juice.
By implication, we shouldn’t attempt to do anything about butchers like Assad. After all, they’re operating within their own cultural traditions. We should cut them some slack. Perhaps if Hitler hadn’t been rash enough to invade Poland, we could have left him alone too; never mind that millions of Jews would have been exterminated in the process. I’m not comparing Bainimarama with Hitler, obviously, but it’s only a question of the degree to which we’re prepared to accept intolerable behaviour by the leaders of other countries.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in the Dominion Post.

Last week's article:

All that's missing is megalomania (First published in The Dominion Post, January 24.)

WE DON’T seem to hear a lot about Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama these days. Perhaps that’s because we prefer not to think about him.

Our near neighbour – the Pacific’s only military dictator – presents a big problem.

What he’s doing in Fiji, namely suppressing democracy and silencing opponents, is repugnant. We don’t approve.

But what can we do? Economic sanctions, such as isolation, would inevitably punish innocent, ordinary Fijians. Besides, many New Zealanders like their cheap Fijian holidays and wouldn’t take kindly to being told they can no longer fly there.

The net result is that we find it easier to look the other way. Bainimarama is just too difficult.

He was back in the news recently when Fairfax Media’s Michael Field, who has made it his mission to keep an eye on dodgy goings-on around the Pacific, reported that Fiji might be barred from the forthcoming Wellington Rugby Sevens because the International Rugby Board had suspended its annual grant to the Fiji Rugby Union.

The story caught my eye because Field (who is banned in Fiji, along with two other New Zealand and Australian reporters) described the FRU as being effectively controlled by Bainimarama, a rugby enthusiast. It also turns out that the Fiji Sports Commission, which has come to the FRU’s rescue, is run by Bainimarama’s daughter.

There you have it: nepotism, one of the defining characteristics of the despot. This can be added to the various other aspects of his rule that qualify Bainimarama for the classic definition of the petty tyrant.
These include, in no particular order:

● The conviction that only he knows what’s best for his people. It may start out as a sincere desire to do the right thing, but over time it gets warped into a sense of omniscience. The tyrant in the making begins to enjoy the feel of power and convinces himself that he needs to keep exercising it a little while longer.

● The promise that repressive controls are only a temporary measure, regrettably made necessary by the need to ensure social and economic stability. Those controls have now been in force in Fiji since 2006.

● An absolute intolerance of opposition which justifies control over the media, trade unions and anyone else who might be a source of dissent.

● Approval, even if only tacit, of state violence.  Military regimes need to show who’s in charge and that defiance will be severely punished, as happened to recaptured Fijian prisoners who were subjected to police beatings in 2012.

Endless promises that democracy will be restored when the country is deemed ready. Bainimarama has been promising elections since 2007. It’s not clear what elusive set of conditions he insists on before having them, but no one’s holding their breath.
The only trait missing from the above list is megalomania. That will become apparent if and when Bainimarama starts awarding himself grandiose titles – perhaps emperor or field-marshal, with all the commensurate Idi Amin-style medals, sashes and other trappings – and ordering that large portraits of him be erected in prominent places.

The tragedy is that when he seized power in 2006, Bainimarama seemed to have honourable intentions. He appeared determined to break the power of the chiefly elite and ensure fair treatment of Fiji Indians.

Somewhere along the line his good motives were corrupted by power and personal ambition. Shakespeare would have loved it.

SADLY, things don’t seem a whole lot better in Tonga.

Once again we had Field to thank for revealing that even as the people of Tonga’s Ha’apai islands were reeling from the most destructive cyclone in living memory, their rulers were more concerned with political infighting over who should be finance minister.

As international aid agencies scrambled to provide assistance, the Tongan government maintained an aloof silence. It seems it didn’t want to give the impression that Tonga couldn’t cope on its own.

Saving face was obviously more important than helping their own devastated people. The only public statement issued was one naming a new finance minister to replace one who had upset the ruling elite.

In Tonga, unlike Fiji, there’s not even the pretence of democracy. Commoners have limited power to elect members of parliament but real power resides with the royal family and nobility.

The government’s casual disregard for the welfare of its people was never more tragically exposed than when the rust bucket masquerading as the ferry Princess Ashika sank in 2009. Any other country’s citizens would have risen in outrage over the tales of official negligence, complacency and indifference that emerged following the sinking, in which 74 people – mostly women and children - drowned.

Sadly the Tongan people remain deeply respectful of their monarchy for reasons that, to any outsider, are a mystery. 


Sean Bean said...

I always enjoy your articles Karl, however you've lost the plot a little on this one I think. Whoever suggested you should go to Fiji is correct, it's important to hear what the citizens are saying and the majority I've spoken to (Fijians and Indians) on a number of visits are very happy with Bainimarama when compared to the entrenched corruption that existed within the Council of Chiefs. I do agree that a more democratic approach should be adopted in time, even though benevolent dictatorship has proven historically superior, and that an election should be held this year. Hopefully it will be.

Barry said...

I think that because NZ has MMP with its UNELECTED MPs NZers should not advise any other people about democracy!

Karl du Fresne said...

Sean: Similar views have been expressed elsewhere. My immediate response is to ask why, if what Bainimarama has done is so popular, he's so reluctant to hold the elections he keeps promising. The obvious answer is that he doesn't want to let go of the reins of power.

Anonymous said...

Fiji a bolt-hole for the wealthy?