Fiji’s ousted prime minister today said the South Pacific country was sliding toward “the worst kind of dictatorship”, and offered to hold talks with the military regime to find a way to restore democracy as quickly as possible.
Coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama did not respond directly to Laisenia Qarase’s offer of talks, but accused the deposed leader of trying to formulate a government in exile from the capital and warned the military would not tolerate any challenge to its authority.
“The army is intimidating people and breeding fear,” Qarase said from his home village on an outlying island in the country’s north, where he has been banished by the military. “It’s a sign of one of the worst kinds of dictatorship.”
He was referring to the military’s practice since seizing power on December 5 of hauling in outspoken critics of the regime to the main military barracks in the capital, Suva, and giving them warnings to stop.
The military has also thrown up a security cordon around the city, warned that dissent will be met with force, and briefly last week stationed censors at media outlets.
In a separate interview with the Legend radio network, Qarase said his main concern was to have democracy restored and indicated he would not insist on retaking the prime minister’s post to bring that outcome about.
“One thing is coming back to power. I think what the overwhelming majority of people of Fiji want is democracy restored, that is the most important thing for our country today,” Qarase told Legend.
“I think the sooner key people at key institutions such as the military, the GCC and my government get together to find a way out of the mess that we are in, the better for Fiji,” Qarase said, using the acronym for the influential tribal body the Great Council of Chiefs.
Bainimarama said the military had information that Qarase was trying to set up a de facto government in Fiji’s west, and warned that anyone who joined it would “only put yourselves in harm’s way”.
“Let me categorically state here and now that the military will not allow any form of any government anywhere else in Fiji,” Bainimarama told reporters in Suva.
Qarase said he still planned to return in the next few days to Suva, despite military threats to arrest him if he does so.
“I’m sure they’ll detain me,” Qarase said. “If they put me into prison - what crime have I committed? I haven’t done anything wrong. I won’t be intimidated, if they wish to detain me, so be it.”
Last Tuesday, Bainimarama announced he had assumed presidential powers and dismissed Qarase’s government. He declared a state of emergency, dissolved Parliament, and began firing top bureaucrats who opposed him or who were involved in corruption he alleged was rife in Qarase's government.
The coup is Fiji’s fourth in less than 20 years and was the culmination of a long impasse between Bainimarama and Qarase over corruption and contentious bills that offered pardons to plotters in a 2000 coup and would hand lucrative coastal land rights to indigenous Fijians.
Bainimarama insists he is “cleaning up” the government, and has vowed to appoint an interim administration that will eventually call elections to restore democracy. He said Tuesday that no member of the interim government would be allowed to stand in the future elections.
The regime today cancelled an unpopular tax hike ordered by Qarase that would have raised the prices of food and other household goods, and confirmed it would honour a pay raise for the country's 20,000-plus public servants.
The moves were likely to help generate popular support for the takeover and help kick-start government operations that have been paralysed since the coup.
Bainimarama met with senior departmental officials and bureaucrats today, telling them to operate as normal.
“They are the ones who run the machinery of government … and they can now do so without political pressure,” Bainimarama said.
But military spokesman Maj Neumi Leweni confirmed at least three more senior civil servants, including Qarase’s private secretary and the government senior legal adviser, had joined senior police officers and other top officials who have been fired.