South Pacific leaders planned to meet Tuesday on how to respond to military-ruled Fiji’s failure to restore democracy, with powers Australia and New Zealand pushing for tougher sanctions but smaller neighbors opposed.
More than two years after military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power, there is little sign he will keep his promise of returning the country to democratic rule, and experts say regional countries have few options left to force the regime to do so.
Australia and New Zealand, whose aid budgets and security muscle make them regional powers, favor stiffening sanctions or even suspending Fiji from the regional grouping. But smaller island states have said they will oppose any such moves, and observers say tougher sanctions could backfire.
Leaders from the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum — the impoverished area’s main trade and diplomatic bloc — meet in Papua New Guinea on Tuesday to discuss the Fiji issue.
Bainimarama will miss the meeting, saying he needs to stay in Fiji to deal with recent floods that killed 11 people and dislodged at least 11,000 from their homes. Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyumwill will represent Fiji.
The regional grouping has led international efforts to persuade Bainimarama to yield power with a carrot-and-stick approach but don’t always agree on their approach.
“We want to see tangible and demonstrated evidence” that Fiji is heading toward elections, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Monday — adding that the “level of suspension” to be imposed on Fiji was the key issue for Pacific leaders at the meeting.
It ranged from suspending Fiji from ministerial contact groups and forum meetings to “much more draconian” action. He did not elaborate.
Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea have signaled they would oppose suspending Fiji from the bloc.
“We don’t want to see Fiji being kicked out of the Commonwealth or out of PIF,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, said recently.
Under forum rules, major decisions by leaders are made by consensus and no country has ever been suspended in the 30-plus year history of the grouping.
New Zealand and Australia, however, did impose travel bans on members of the military regime and their families shortly after the December 2006 coup.
Retired senior New Zealand diplomat Gerald McGhie said suspending Fiji would be pointless and could backfire.
“When Fijians are affronted, they become exceptionally stubborn,” he told The Associated Press.
“I do not think further sanctions will help, and I don’t think expelling them from anything will help,” he said. “Fiji has deep-seated problems. What are you going to do by isolating them?”
McGhie said one alternative was to “take Bainimarama at his word” and assist the country to work through changing its race-based election system and send “anti-corruption” specialists to help clean up corruption in Fiji — key issues the military chief said need fixing before elections can be held.
With the ongoing standoff, China would be “quite happy” to step in, McGhie noted, as Fiji is “an important vote in the U.N. for them on Taiwan — and they want that vote.”