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Fiji must be doing something right

Once locked in a seemingly never-ending "coup cycle," the 300-island nation now appears to be finding its footing.

Fiji suva sunset 2012 04 10Enlarge
The sun sets behind the mountains of Viti Levu, the largest island in the Republic of Fiji and site of the nation's capital, Suva. (Torsten Blackwod/AFP/Getty Images)

SUVA, Fiji — For most people Fiji means fun in the sun and aesthetically pleasing water bottles.

The reality for nearly 1 million Fijians, however, has been far less idyllic.

Racial tensions simmer. Corruption and endemic instability have led to four coups since independence from Britain in 1970. The current prime minister, Commodore Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, declared martial law in 2009, after taking power in a 2006 putsch.

Recently, however, things have begun to change for the better.

Until recently, Fijians had been living under martial law. But the lifting of that law, which the prime minister put into effect in 2009, is one of the many shifts in Fiji that have onlookers saying the country appears to be making sure-footed steps down the road to democracy.

In January, Bainimarama called for the lifting of martial law. He announced that he wanted nothing more than a truly democratic government representative of all Fijians.

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And he appeared to mean it.

As he made the announcement at his office in central Suva, a gaggle of Fijians, some barefoot and holding crying babies, gathered to listen.

The access that average citizens have to the highest levels of government was not remarkable, according to Fiji’s attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. These days, people often talk directly to government officials, he said.

“They have come to talk about issues that concern them, so they make appointments — or just show up — to speak with the PM or others in government,” he said. “We are accessible like that.”

"True democracy" is a lofty goal for Fiji. Bainimarama and Khaiyum — referred to by the media as “Bainimarama Republic” — essentially have all the power in Fiji. The regime is criticized for human rights abuses and repression against trade unions and political opponents. There are some who say that martial law still effectively exists.

Steps toward democracy

Yet the government does seem to be making progress.

Revoking martial law has been lauded as substantial first step. Under the law, censors were placed in newsrooms; certain groups were not allowed to gather; and there were tales of police harassing members of civil society, the media and academics who spoke out against the government.

In an interview with GlobalPost, Bainimarama argued that he has provided Fiji with better infrastructure throughout the 300-island network. Revamped social welfare laws have given children better access to education, and have provided the police more authority to step in on domestic abuse cases.

Recent voting reforms have included lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, and efforts to ensure one vote per person.

Lines of communication have opened up between members of government and civil society, and several meetings have taken place in recent months. The United Nations Development Program organized two meetings in 2011 among government, business and civil society leaders to discuss the constitution, among other issues.

Consultations on the new constitution are now underway. The constitution commission, which is being chaired by Kenyan constitutional scholar Yash Ghai, also includes Fiji's first female deputy prime minister, Taufa Vakatale; former Fijian parliamentarian, Satendra Nandan; and South Africa human rights and constitutional expert Christina Murray. Information about the new constitution is being distributed this month to all citizens.

Meanwhile, a UN team has arrived in the country to ascertain the technical needs for conducting elections by the end of September 2014, and voter registration is set to begin in May.

Imposing martial law and abolishing the constitution had led countries like Australia and New Zealand to isolate Fiji with sanctions. But recent reforms have brought signs that relations are beginning to thaw.

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Since the repeal of martial law, some have called for leniency towards the current Fijian government.

“Australia and New Zealand have advanced a policy to force Fiji back to democracy [by imposing] a wide range of sanctions [and cutting] off diplomatic channels” Eni Faleomavaega, the American Samoa delegate to US Congress, recently wrote in an editorial.

“The US can no longer rely on landlubber diplomacy that seeks to force democracy by isolation. Force is contrary to the order of democracy and contrary to our innate sense to choose,” he wrote.