Fiji’s military rulers yesterday lifted a state of martial law that had been in place since 2009, setting the stage for public deliberations on a new constitution and a promised return to democratic elections within two years.
However, even as the lifting of martial law was being touted in the capital, Suva, Fijian Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama announced on Friday a raft of new regulations and restrictions that have led to concerns that the government will continue to silence its critics through force.
Fiji, a former British colony made up of about 330 islands in the central Pacific Ocean, has been under military rule since a 2006 coup led by Bainimarama. The emergency regulations that ended yesterday greatly expanded police powers, placed government censors in newsrooms and curtailed the rights of nongovernmental organizations and religious organizations to hold meetings.
In his speech on Friday, Bainimarama announced the official lifting of the emergency laws, which were enacted after a decision to abrogate the constitution led the courts to declare his government illegitimate.
He said that the emergency powers had given his government time to stabilize the country, which has been racked by political and ethnic tensions for decades. His opponents, however, accused the military junta of using their powers to crush dissent and hobble civil society.
“There is nothing more I want than a Fiji with a truly democratic government, one representative of all Fijians. For the first time in our history, we are on the path to making this a reality,” Bainimarama said in the speech.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji has had four military juntas, but the latest coup and subsequent crackdown isolated the island state, which is a member of the British-led Commonwealth of Nations. Australia and New Zealand imposed tough unilateral sanctions and the country was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009.
The governments of both Australia and New Zealand cautiously welcomed the decision to lift the emergency regulations, though they said that any discussion of an end to sanctions or the country’s regional isolation would be contingent on measurable progress in human rights and democracy.
Although life will be easier for opposition groups, there is still a strong possibility that speech considered inflammatory by the government could still be punished, said Jenny Hayward-Jones, a regional expert at the Lowy Institute, a research organization based in Sydney.
In his speech on Friday, Bainimarama compared the new regulations to anti-terror legislation in the US and hate crimes legislation in the UK and Australia that forbid inflammatory public rhetoric.
However, toward the end of the speech, he clearly stated that no attempts to destabilize the elections or constitutional consultations would be allowed.
“Know that elections cannot be held in an environment devoid of social cohesion and economic stability. Know that those who seek to destabilize society only do so to serve their own interests. They do not serve you,” Bainimarama said. “Also know that we will not tolerate an iota of disruption to the peace, safety, stability and common and equal citizenry we now enjoy.”