“It wasn’t until it happened to us that we realised what was really happening, what had been happening all along,” my friend, Mary [not her real name], says.
It is mid-afternoon on a cold Saturday in Sydney. We’re sitting in Mary and her husband’s hotel room. They both look drawn and tired. At first I thought it was the weather, after all, they live in Fiji, where the seasons are split into “Hot and Humid” and “Hot and Raining”. The chilly autumn air here in Sydney wasn’t something they were used to.
But after speaking to them for a while, I realise their exhaustion has nothing to do with the cold weather. It has to do with the country where all three of us were born and bred, the country I left when I was 19 to chase better opportunities in Australia, the country I still call home even though I haven’t lived there for 10 years. It has to do with Fiji.
The masseuse dug her lower palms into my back, alternately rubbing and kneading into my skin. It felt good. I was at the famous Fiji Westin Heavenly Spa in Nadi, treating myself to my very first massage ever. With my head turned to the side, I caught glimpses of tourists, mostly white tourists, being led down black pebbled pathways into private bures of their own, no doubt to be treated to the same pleasures I was currently being treated to. It felt strange to be doing such a tourist-like activity in my own country, but there was something also weirdly thrilling about it.
“Where you from?” The masseuse asked me.
“Here,” I sighed. So much for being a tourist.
“Yeah, but I live in Australia now. In Sydney.”
“I massaged an Australian man yesterday. He complained about how expensive the food here is. I told him, ‘If you think it’s expensive, how expensive do you think it’s for us?’”
I was quiet. Ever since the 2006 military coup, headed by military leader Commodore Frank Voreqe Bainimarama, food prices in Fiji had soared. The import and export trade had suffered, with Fiji’s biggest buyers – Australia and New Zealand – pulling their support from the country. Things only seemed to worsen after Fiji was expelled from both the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009.
After the massage, I gave the masseuse an extra 20 dollars. It felt ridiculously inadequate, but she beamed in gratitude when I placed the money into her smooth, oil-scented hands.
Fiji is an Island Nation made up of 323 islands, many of them small and uninhabited. When I was younger I spent a lot of time imagining rowing out to one of these islands in a canoe and proclaiming myself Queen, not knowing that Fiji had ceded to Great Britain in 1874 and had thus been ruled by a King then a Queen until the year independence was gained in 1970.
Since then Fiji has been rocked by four coups – two in 1987, one in 2000 and the latest one in 2006. While all four coups have shaped the present and future of the country, it is the 2006 coup, spear-headed by Bainimarama, which has firmly placed Fiji under the defined rule of “Dictatorship”.
It has been said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Indeed, Bainimarama started out as the classic good guy with perhaps the best of intentions. In 2006, he refused to allow the government to grant amnesty to the perpetrators of the 2000 coup under the proposed Reconciliation and Unity Commission. He staged his own coup, kicked out the potentially corrupt but democratically elected government and gave power back to the Indian people, who had long been poor second cousins to the Fijians.
In an address to the nation in 2009, Bainimarama stated: “I know we all have our different ethnicities, our different cultures and we should, we must, celebrate our diversity and richness. However, at the same time we are all Fijians. We are all equal citizens.”
Little wonder that us Islanders couldn’t help but like Bainimarama despite the unconstitutional way he had seized power. We spoke about Bainimarama’s revolution on the streets of Fiji and here in Australia, where many Fiji Islanders live.
It was a terrible thing he did, we all agreed. But it was for the good of the people.
However, like all self-styled governments that start out with the common ideology of a Utopian society, the cracks began to appear not too long after. In 2009, the Fijian Court of Appeal declared Bainimarama’s takeover illegal, prompting the then President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, an avid supporter of Commodore Bainimarama, to suspend the Constitution of Fiji, dismissing the courts, judges and the Central Bank Governor. In effect Fiji was, and still is, a lawless country.
Bainimarama has also placed a media ban on any news relating to his self-imposed government. Army officers are stationed outside TV stations and newspaper publishers so that all news scripts and articles are reviewed and approved before going live or being published. News Limited, the owner of The Fiji Times, was told by Bainimarama’s government to sell the business, in an effort to have all major organisations under local ownership only.
Bainimarama himself has come under fire from his detractors. On 29 May 2011, a short yet telling article appeared in Sydney’s The Sunday Telegraph, detailing Bainimarama’s torture of pro-democracy women advocates in 2009. The account was told by Bainimarama’s ex-second in command, who had to ﬂee to Tonga after being accused of sedition. Other prominent public figures, mostly foreigners, such as The Fiji Times’ General Manager Anne Fussell, and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission Stuart Huggett, were deported from Fiji. There are rumours Huggett was tortured by the military before being pushed onto a plane back to Australia.
There have been articles published in the Sydney Morning Herald about the abuse of human rights by Bainimarama’s military-style government. Amnesty International has called for Fiji’s government to stop their brutal attacks on journalists, lawyers and political activists who speak out against them. Coup Four and a Half, a website run from within Fiji by activists, tells a grim tale of the “progress” towards a democratic election, which Bainimarama has promised to hold in 2014.
Despite the danger, people are still willing to speak out against Bainimarama’s rule. My uncle, a pro-democracy lawyer in Fiji, continuously and publicly criticised the government. Even though he recognised what Bainimarama was trying to do for Indo-Fijians, he was first and foremost a lawyer, and he attested that people without laws were no better than animals. On a quiet night in Suva, Fiji, in 2007, several military officers surrounded his house. In front of his wife and children, he was forcibly dragged from his house to the military compound.
We found him the next day, bloody and bruised, staggering almost drunkenly along a street, trying to make his way home.
If you went on a trip to Fiji today, you’d find this: the same thing you’d find any other day.
You would most likely land in Nadi airport and be greeted by smiling Fijian singers, welcoming you to Fiji. Taxi drivers will badger you with hotel names in the shape of questions, “Sheraton? Westin? Sofitel? Shangri-La?” The taxi driver who drives you to your hotel will regale you with stories about the Fijian culture (if he’s Fijian), the Indian culture (if he’s Indian) and the Chinese culture (if he’s Chinese).
At your chosen hotel, everyone and anyone will greet you with “Bula”, which means “Hello”. After a while, you will start saying “Bula” to everyone too, even your fellow holidaymakers.
If you travel from Nadi to Suva, or any other bigger town like Lautoka, Ba or Sigatoka, you will marvel at how basic everything is, and you’ll remind yourself that Fiji is a third world country, after all. You will curse the pothole-ridden streets. You’ll eat things you never would have guessed you’d ever eat, like fried ooto (breadfruit) and vakalolo (fish in coconut milk). You’ll drink Fiji’s national drink called yaqona, which is made from the roots of a tree.
In Suva, the capital, and where most of the political action happens, you’ll buy a ticket to the movies and eat bad Chinese takeaway. You’ll go to the market, which smells like pineapples and fish and dirt, and marvel at the mix of ethnicities all under one roof, selling their wares. Strings of crabs, piles of mangoes, heaps of chillies, await you. To you, the prices are very reasonable, especially if you take into account what it actually costs you in Australian dollars, but ask anyone and five years ago the price would have been a lot less.
You will take a tour to some of the outer islands of Fiji – Yasawa, Jacque Cousteau, Sonaisali – and watch spectacular sunsets and snorkel in pristine waters. Everywhere you go the Islanders will always smile at you. You would never guess that beneath those smiles, there is a darkness at the heart of Fiji.
Back in Sydney, Mary tells me how her sister had been accused of stealing money. Without formal charges laid or any sort of due process, the military had taken Mary’s sister to the military compound.
“They beat her over the head with a full Fiji Water bottle,” Mary says, matter of factly. “To hide any evidence of torture. She needs brain surgery overseas, but the military won’t allow her to leave the country.”
When I lived in London, it snowed for a few days one particularly cold winter and the world turned completely white. I had never seen anything like it before; I didn’t recognise the world at all.
Fiji feels like this now. It feels like a place I don’t recognise.
“Someone has to do something,” Mary says. “We can’t go on like this. Someone has to do something.”
She looks at me and I look back. There is nothing more to say.