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Severing church from state in Fiji

By Max Wallace - posted Monday, 16 December 2013


On 10 April 2009 all the judges in Fiji were removed from office by the military led by Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. The Constitution was treated as if it were a mere piece of paper. This major event was a consequence of the December 2006 military coup, one of four since 1987 to shock governments, diplomats, law societies, defenders of human rights and civil liberties, and non-government organisations.

The military coup, described as a 'revolution' by University of Sydney constitutional law professor, Anne Twomey,[1] has not allowed anyone to get in the way of its perceived need for reform - including - of all people - Rupert Murdoch. He was obliged to sell one of his newspapers to an Indian-Fijian businessman in 2010.


This short paper emphasises the role of theocratic Methodism in Fiji, how its dogmatism and likely corruption may have helped cause Commodore Bainimarama to arrive at the position where he is now in 2013, but where was not prior to the 2000 coup: advocating a secular democracy, on terms that he defines.

It will assert there has been a power struggle between an indigenous, military, mostly Methodist, regressive elite, and a more progressive elite, composed mainly of a faction of the military, led by Commodore Bainimarama, who have de-converted from their earlier support for the 2000 coup.

They in turn have had support from a politically astute, mostly Indian-Fijian group of leading figures, and some passing support from the Catholic Church. The progressive elite have turned partly to secularism to sideline the indigenous-Methodist elite. Their success seems assured, but the moment of truth will arrive in the September 2014 elections.

As Helene Goiran noted in 2008 'It is, of course, paradoxical to conduct a coup d'etat in order to enhance democracy.'[2] Commodore Bainimarama's version of democracy allegedly emphasises fairness in the application of consolidated revenue, in a country characterised by under-development and poverty, but with an economy growing at about 3 per cent.

Commodore Bainimarama has - as required - suspended the basic structures of democracy, including: censoring the press; causing judges to resign; arresting ministers of religion and protestors; kicking out diplomats. It has been Napoleonic and breathtaking. He has remained totally focused on what he apparently perceives is the matter at hand – introducing stable and reasoned government – and has let nothing or no one stand in the way of achieving this.

Some background


Fiji has a population of some 900,000 people scattered over hundreds of islands. The Deed of Cession written in 1874 formalised Fiji as a British colony. The British created a Great Council of Chiefs to facilitate smooth control, as they did in New Zealand, with the creation of a MÄori 'King'.

Australian aboriginals and New Zealand MÄori suffered the indignity of the huge loss of most of their land to colonisers. That did not happen in Fiji. Some 80 per cent of the land is still in the hands of the descendants of the tribes. That ownership is guaranteed in the preamble to the new 2012 constitution.

Indentured Indians were brought out between 1879 and 1916 to work on sugar plantations. They mostly leased land from indigenous owners. Instructively, they were not even counted as citizens until the 2012 constitution. They now comprise 37.6 per cent of the population, down from their pre-coups level of 51 per cent. They turned to business and other enterprises to make their way.

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This article first appeared in Concordat Watch.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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