5 Dec 2016

Memories from Fiji's 2006 coup still clear ten years on

12:19 pm on 5 December 2016

Ten years ago the then head of Fiji's military Frank Bainimarama seized power in Fiji in the country's fourth coup in 20 years. Mr Bainimarama remains in charge after a landslide election victory two years ago. To mark the ten year anniversary, Sally Round asked people about their personal memories of the coup and how they see Fiji a decade on.

Suva roadblocks after 2006 Fiji military coup

Suva roadblocks after 2006 Fiji military coup Photo: AFP

On December the 5th 2006, Ben Daveta was a boy of twelve living in Nadi when he heard a live broadcast from the Fijian capital Suva announcing the military take-over.

Sensing his grandmother's fear, he moved to her side as the message from Fiji's military commander Frank Bainimarama came through.

"As of 6 o'clock this evening ... the military has taken over the government ... has executive authority in the running of this country ... I urge all citizens to remain calm and maintain the peace that currently prevails."

The commodore's voice was grave, his words punctuated with pauses, as he stood before the media, including journalists from overseas.

There had been time to fly in as the word "coup" had been in the air for a few days. This was not a surprise.

Ben Daveta's grandmother began to weep.

"When I saw her crying I began to have this feeling of fear," he said.

Frank Bainimarama's announcement brought back his memories of bloodshed and horror during the 2000 coup, even though he was only a small boy at that time.

A soldier guards the road to Nasova village after a soldier and a policeman were killed in an ambush by the last rebel supporters of coup leader George Speight in Fiji 2000.

A soldier guards the road to Nasova village after a soldier and a policeman were killed in an ambush by the last rebel supporters of coup leader George Speight August, 2000. Three soldiers, one seriously injured, were also hospitalized after the attack. Photo: AFP/William West

"My grandmother held my hand and she started praying. She was worried, she was thinking about Fiji. She prayed for the country, she prayed for the leaders and she prayed for the lives of the citizens."

As the coup unfolded, the then Public Service Commissioner Stuart Huggett met government department heads to work out what to do.

They had received legal opinion the take-over was illegal.

"I went to see Commander Bainimarama to let him know what was happening, what the general opinion was," he said from Auckland where he now runs his architectural practice.

"It didn't quite work out like a meeting. I got knocked over and abused, it got a bit unpleasant and Bainimarama was very annoyed by the idea it was an illegal coup."

Coup leader Bainimarama reads out statement to media at QE Barracks

Coup leader Bainimarama reads out statement to media at QE Barracks Photo: AFP

The roadside attack involving what he described as a "bunch of military" left Mr Huggett with a broken foot.

"Angry was the strongest emotion, I didn't think it was justifiable to perform like that actually.

"It seemed very strange. I still don't understand it. I think it affected me. I think I was a bit shaken for a while."

In the ensuing days more checkpoints and soldiers appeared on the streets.

"Young kids were scared to go to town because there were military people there, soldiers on the road, fully armed with guns," said Mr Daveta.

"If we were playing touch rugby and a military truck or military van passed by, someone would yell out 'hey there's a military truck' and everything would stop."

Ben Daveta

Years of military rule shaped Ben Daveta's interest in politics. Photo: Supplied

The coup followed a stand-off between Frank Bainimarama and the Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase which had also embroiled New Zealand and Australia.

The government's proposals to give immunity to perpetrators of the 2000 coup and to return foreshore resources to traditional owners had raised the tension, as well as talk of the commander's arrest after the deaths of mutineering soldiers six years earlier.

Semi Koroilavesau was in the tourism business at the time of the take-over, running cruise ships around the islands.

"I supported it for a good reason."

"I thought there was some initiatives being taken by government at that time that would have direct impact on the tourism industry and we actually thought 'oh my God, you know, this is the end of tourism in Fiji'".

Frank Bainimarama eventually allowed elections in 2014 and won a landslide victory.

Fiji government whip Semi Koroilavesau

Fiji government whip Semi Koroilavesau supported the take-over in 2006. Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

Meanwhile, the years of military rule had shaped the teenage Ben Daveta's interest in politics, democracy and indigenous rights and he said Fiji is still a long way from democracy.

He eventually joined one of Fiji's opposition parties, disgusted over human rights abuses and moves like the dismantling of a cherished i-Taukei institution, the Great Council of Chiefs.

"I felt that something is wrong and the very first wrong was back on the 5th of December 2006, so from then I believe that I have to be one of the young people that need to stand up and have a say and make Fiji end the coup culture," said Mr Daveta.

But Semi Koroilavesau, the former cruise ship operator, said ten years on, Fiji is undergoing unprecedented development, is more efficient and less corrupt.

He is now a minister in Mr Bainimarama's government which boasts of finally bringing equality to all the citizens of multi-ethnic Fiji under its 2013 Constitution.

"They've tidied up everything that was on the loose. They have developed an era where they have gone out of the traditional way to do things."

Fiji's military band and navy welcome in the new parliament. 2016

Fiji's military band and navy welcome in the new parliament for 2016. Fiji held its first democratic elections since the 2006 coup in 2014. Photo: RNZI/Alex Perrottet

Mr Koroilavesau said Fiji had achieved new heights on the world stage, including being selected to chair the next world climate change talks, COP23, in Bonn.

"The prime minister was in the forefront of climate change, representing all the Pacific islands, being the biggest voice for the small island states in the Pacific.

"Fiji has greatly achieved a lot of things and the visibility of Fiji now in the international arena is much bigger than ever before."

Stuart Huggett left Fiji straight after the coup and wasn't allowed in for a couple of years.

He said corruption claims against his architectural firm were never substantiated and Mr Bainimarama's so-called "clean-up campaign" was just a smokescreen.

"The coup leader and his plotters are still in power. If it was illegal then whatever they've done since could still be described as illegal I suppose.'

Mr Huggett now travels freely to Fiji where his architecture company still operates, employing 25 people.

He is not pessimistic about Fiji's future given the spirit of Fiji's people.

"Fiji is able to thrive and survive in spite of coups as it's proved in the past."

The economist, academic and a fearless critic of the Bainimarama regime, Wadan Narsey, said the people of Fiji would be paying for the government's largesse for generations to come.

"What the public see at the moment is of course Bainimarama throwing the cash around spending money here and there and basically buying voters.

"What they do not see is that in ten years, he's built up the public debt by two billion dollars. I mean that's a massive amount of money for a small economy like Fiji."

Professor Narsey has found it increasingly difficult to get his analysis published in Fiji and he said he would be "cutting himself off" from the country.

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