10 Nov 2022

'Human rights violations' propel popular community worker into politics

11:08 am on 10 November 2022

Photo: NFP

A prominent Fijian social worker says "human rights violations" of opposition voices compelled her to make a "last minute" decision to contest the December 14 elections.

Founder and former CEO of the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development (FRIEND), Sashi Kiran, spent over two decades supporting rural and vulnerable communities in Fiji before quitting last week to stand for the National Federation Party (NFP).

Fiji will have its third democratic elections under its 2013 Constitution next month and the stakes are high for the incumbent prime minister Frank Bainimarama's FijiFirst party, with claims that his appeal to ordinary voters is in decline, while the prospects of his major rivals - former PM Sitiveni Rabuka and NFP leader Biman Prasad - gains momentum.

Kiran said there have been many challenges in the past decade and she thought those in power would do something about it.

"But things are deteriorating, if anything, whether it's water infrastructure, health infrastructure, roads, electricity, education, malnutrition, poor food in boarding schools," Kiran told RNZ Pacific.

"For too long I feel I've sat back thinking that what I have to offer on the ground is much more impactful than what I could do probably inside [parliament]," she said.

"I think the push over the cliff for me has been the human rights violations we've been seeing, in particular, the persecution of the opposition that has really made me decide very last minute [to contest the elections]."

Photo: NFP

The Fiji government has come under criticism from opposition and human rights groups for silencing dissent with several rival figures being pursued by the police and anti-corruption courts.

Kiran has joined the NFP to contest the polls and was revealed as a provisional candidate last Friday, a move seen as a major win for the party.

Disappointment at decision - but also encouragement

She said there have been mixed reactions from the communities that she has long worked for.

"I think some people have seen me in the role [as a social worker] for so long that they can't imagine seeing me as a politician," Kiran said.

"People have said to me, 'where will we go now when we need a wheelchair, or food, or natural disaster? We could count on you to be on the ground'."

But she said people were also encouraged that she has entered the political arena.

However, she admits she is a novice when it comes to the campaign trail.

"I'd never thought politics, never done politics, didn't understand and still don't understand fully what a campaign means," Kiran said.

"But the number of people who reached out from the communities, and they said, 'we're grateful that you're well aware of our issues and you'll take our voice and you'll do something about it because you've done things every time you've heard us. That's given me a boost.

"I feel a huge burden on my shoulders. Expectations from the ground is huge because the situation is so bad. The pressure is there to be able to do more for the people."

Chequered history

Fiji has a chequered history of ethnic tensions which has resulted in four military coups since gaining independence.

Though everyone is called a Fijian under the 2013 Constitution that was imposed by Bainimarama, race and ethnicity continue to dominate the Fijian political landscape.

Kiran said the country has many ethnic groups living together and during each of the political events of the past there has been "a lot of rift to try and divide people."

But she said she would "love to see one people" because the issues faced by one ethnic community affect all others.

"So coming together as one people because there's so many tools and resources in the community that could be put together and be able to give our people the very basics of needs [like] water, electricity, hospital, medicines, infrastructure, education, malnutrition, NCDs, mobility aid, disability care," she said.

"These are simple things that many countries around us have achieved as and there's absolutely no reason if our leaders have the will we can't change the status quo.

"We have 200,000 people living in poverty. We can do very targeted work and make sure that our people live a dignified life out of poverty."

The major opposition parties have joined forces to monitor the election.

The People's Alliance Party, National Federation Party, Fiji Labour Party and Unity Fiji will be working together to keep tabs on proceedings when the polls open.

On the People's Alliance official Facebook page, party leader Sitiveni Rabuka said there are more than 2000 polling stations and if each party has two agents at a station at any given time this would increase their surveillance of proceedings.

Rabuka also confirmed that the Social Democratic Liberal Party, which he led at the last election in 2018, is not working with them.

Frank Bainimarama.

Frank Bainimarma is hoping to win another term as prime minister. Photo: Fiji govt