Fiji’s Military Ruler Tightens Grip

SUVA ~ Fiji’s military government tightened controls on the media this week, devalued the currency and said it would not tolerate opposition to plans for a sweeping overhaul of the country’s politics.

Shrugging off international criticism, coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama defended the decision to impose emergency rule and keep a lid on any challenges to his authority after a court last week ruled he had been in power illegally.

Soldiers and police patrolled the streets of Suva, the capital of the Pacific island nation of 900,000 people, and residents said the normally bustling central business district was unusually deserted.

The military leader has reasserted control over the country after a dramatic turn of events last week which began when a court ruled that Bainimarama’s government had been illegal since he seized power in a bloodless 2006 coup.

In response, his ally President Josefa Iloilo cancelled the constitution, sacked the nation’s judges and reappointed the military leader for five more years.

Bainimarama has angered other nations in the region by withdrawing a pledge to hold elections by this year, polls which he says will now come in 2014, and said Wednesday he would brook no opposition to his elections reform plan.

“We want changes,” he told Radio New Zealand. “We’re going to come up with changes.”

Bainimarama sees Fiji as beset by divisions between the majority indigenous population and the ethnic Indian minority.

He cited a survey that he said showed 64 percent of Fijians wanted to move away from the current system of voting, which reserves parliamentary seats for different ethnic groups.

“This is to do with Fiji and the people of Fiji,” he said. “We want to do these changes, these reforms. The last thing we want is opposition.”

He added: “That was the reason why we came up with these emergency regulations.”

His government, which had already banned local media from negative reporting, shut down transmitters on Wednesday for the radio channel of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which provides detailed South Pacific coverage.

ABC correspondent Sean Dorney has been deported. Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu was arrested on Tuesday after ABC carried his criticism of the sacking of the country’s judges and the censoring of local journalists.

Some internet cafes were closed after authorities told owners their equipment “needed to be checked,” sources said.

The government also devalued its currency by 20 percent on Wednesday, a day after the dismissal of former central bank governor Savenaca Narube and the introduction of exchange controls to prevent the flight of capital.

Bainimarama insisted that he enjoyed broad popular support at home, but international criticism has been mounting.

“Can I also just express my ongoing concern about developments in Fiji,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in Indonesia. “We condemn absolutely the deportation of journalists.”

Niue Premier Toke Talagi, chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, said he would be consulting leaders of the 16-member alliance to underscore their condemnation of the hijacking of Fiji’s constitution.

The forum, which represents the common interests of Pacific island nations, threatened in January to suspend Fiji if elections were not held this year.

“The events of the past few days amount to wanton disregard for constitutionalism and the rule of law,” Talagi said.

“The military regime in Fiji have now confirmed that they are unable to abide by the core commitments to democracy, human rights and justice which lie at the very heart of our forum family in the Pacific.”

The UN human rights chief called for the reinstatement of the judiciary and an end to media censorship.

“The long-term damage of undermining such fundamental institutions as the judiciary and the media cannot be underestimated,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

“I strongly urge a return to the rule of law, to the reinstatement of the judiciary and an end to media censorship.”

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