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Pacific Media Watch

Fiji’s military commander stirred a wave of anxiety today with an extraordinary statement claiming concern over the “ambition and speed” of political changes since last month’s election that could have “fateful” security consequences.

Major-General Ro Jone Kalouniwai, commander-in-chief of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), said in the statement that the military played a “guardian role” under the Constitution and “new assaults” on Fiji’s democracy would “not be tolerated”.

But he was summoned by Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua for a meeting this afternoon and Major-General Kalouniwai denied to news media that the military planned any takeover.

Fiji has had four coups in less than four decades, carried out by either the military or rogue soldiers.

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka staged the first two coups in 1987, but he was the elected prime minister 1992-99, while businessman George Speight supported by rogue troops carried out the third in 2000, and then military commander Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in 2006 with a “coup to end all coups”.

Bainimarama has held power for the past 16 years, half of them as the elected leader, but narrowly lost his FijiFirst party majority in last month’s election.

All four coups have been marked by allegations of ethnic tension between indigenous iTaukei Fijians and Indo-Fijians.

RFMF ‘backs democracy’
However, in an exclusive interview this afternoon with Fijivillage News, Major-General Kalouniwai stressed that the RFMF would continue to stand for democracy, the rule of law and honour, and the government.

Fiji Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua
Fiji Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua . . . reassured the military commander that the coalition government was following the law and the Constitution. Image: FijiOne News

Home Affairs Minister Tikoduadua said after their meeting he had reassured the commander that all the actions of the new People’s Alliance-led coalition government had been guided by the law.

The minister also claimed that the commander’s statement had been “sensationalised” by media and he was concerned that state-run FBC News was “inciting and misrepresenting” what Major-General Kalouniwai had said.

Tikoduadua said the news had been “corrected” by the commander.

Major-General Kalouniwai’s statement and reaction have been widely carried by news media in Fiji.

According to The Fiji Times, Major-General Kalouniwai had raised concern in his statement over some of the rapid changes the government had undertaken in “just 16 days in office”.

He said that section 131 of the Constitution stipulated “the RFMF plays a guardian role where the excesses of the past are not repeated and any new assaults on Fiji’s emerging democracy are not tolerated”.

‘Creating shortcuts’
Major-General Kalouniwai said: “The RFMF has quietly observed with growing concern over the last few days, the ambition and speed of the government in implementing these sweeping changes are creating shortcuts that circumvent the relevant processes and procedures that protect the integrity of the law and the Constitution.

“Whilst the RFMF recognises the justifications by the current government to establish these changes, the RFMF believes that trying and failing to democratise in adverse circumstances has the potential to bring about fateful, long-term national security consequences.

“The RFMF is concerned whether these rapid changes are being pursued without a full understanding of the process and procedures or intentionally done to challenge the integrity of the law and the Constitution of this land.”

Major-General Kalouniwai said the RFMF firmly believed the separation of powers between the executive and the judicial arms of the state must be respected, reports The Fiji Times.

“It must be important to understand and appreciate that a strong rule of law is built on respect for and adherence to a clear separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

“Whatever the reasons may be, the RFMF feels that such actions and decisions is putting at risk the very nature of the law and the separation of powers that clearly demarcate the independence of the three arms of government.”

Major-General Kalouniwai said section 131 of the Constitution also ensured the values and principles of democracy, including the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution, were not undermined.

‘No takeover plan’
FBC News reports that Major-General Kalouniwai said he did “not plan to take over the government”.

The commander said he would not make any further comments about his earlier statement and Minister Tikoduadua would brief Fijians about their meeting this afternoon.

Major-General Kalouniwai told Fijivillage News that RFMF had spoken in defence of democracy and the rule of law before, during and after the 2022 general elections.

The commander said that today’s statement focused on ensuring that the government followed proper procedures and processes when making changes.

He said the “rule of law must be paramount”.

Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua, who is also Minister of Defence, said he had assured Major-General Kalouniwai that all the government’s actions had been guided by the law, reports Fijivillage News.

He added that he had had a “cordial meeting” with the commander, who had reassured him that he would no longer be making any public statement such as the one earlier today.

Tikoduadua said he had discussed two main issues with the commander — concerns over the government plan for sacked Fiji Airways and Air Terminal Services staff to be rehired, and over the future of Fiji diplomats abroad.

In May 2020, 758 Fiji Airways and 258 ATS staff lost their jobs due to covid-19.

Tikoduadua said the major-general had pledged support for the government.

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