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A strange sort of coup in Fiji

By Mark Hayes - posted Thursday, 21 December 2006

It's an odd sort of coup Fiji military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has pulled.

According to The Book of Coups - yes; there is one: Coup d'état by Edward Luttwak with additions on more recent coup plotters, such as Augusto Pinochet and even Commodore Frank's predecessor, Sitiveni Rabuka - a coup meister must seize and control the mass media promptly as part of the initial, tactical stage of their takeover of power. Telecommunications and major thoroughfares must also be shut down or rigorously controlled.

Another tactic The Book of Coups suggests is that actual, probable and even possible opponents of the coup must be promptly rounded up and detained, partly to negate their own resistance potential, and also to terrorise the wider population into submission. Resistance must be seen to be futile, even fatal.


Commodore Frank didn't exactly plot a secret ambush. He telegraphed his probable moves months in advance, giving his target, the nationalist, democratically elected, Qarase Government, and its majority party, the SDLV, plenty of time to prepare for resistance.

I have elsewhere called his strategy The Bainimarama Screw, as in applying steadily escalating psychological coercion upon the Qarase Government to capitulate to his demands, or resign. There were at least two earlier moments when it looked like he was going to make his move, in January, 2006, and in November, 2006, but both times he deliberately stepped back from the brink.

Timing of a coup is crucial. The best times for coups are when the country and target regime least expects one, Easter and the Christmas breaks being ideal. Commodore Frank pulled his coup in early December when Fiji's summer heat and especially humidity tend to make locals lethargic, and, with Christmas looming, political resistance was hardly on many people's minds. He allowed enough time for much of the consolidation phase before Christmas effectively shuts Fiji down.

Coup plotters are usually fronts for dissident interests who want to get their hands on power, reap benefits for themselves and their associates, and also exact revenge upon their opponents. All sorts of rationalisations are advanced to justify a coup, promolgated through the tightly controlled mass media.

On available evidence, Commodore Frank actually appears serious about not wanting power for himself and or a shadowy clique, but seems genuine in his desire to “clean up” Fijian governance, removing the smelly residues of the Speight-fronted extreme nationalist Fijian putsch of 2000 still tainting politics, administration and even business.

The Fiji media has been threatened but, with one exception, has faced the military down to retain significant freedom to report and publish. Telecommunications have remained fully operational within and outside Fiji, enabling local and foreign journalists to file their stories, which have then been re-broadcast back into Fiji via outlets such as Radio Australia and Australia Network satellite television, both freely available via local transmitters.


The Internet has also been a major news source too, with some locals reporting they're getting more information about what's happening in other parts of Suva via overseas on-line sources than from the local media.

Checkpoints have been set up and armed soldiers are watching traffic closely, but no areas of Fiji have been sealed off. Soldiers have also been stationed in villages where resistance to the coup was possible from pro-Qarase locals.

Despite some intimidation, Fiji's civil society has been largely left alone, with no protracted detentions or continuing harassing raids on activists or premises.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Hayes is a lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Queensland where he specialises in Pacific media and journalism contexts and practices. He still wishes he was back in Suva teaching journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

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