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Is Fiji military chief a demagogue?

Fiji's military chief Voreqe Bainimarama is either a fearless defender of the constitution or a strongman determined to get his way at any cost.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2006 13:14 IST

Depending on who you talk to, Fiji's military chief Voreqe Bainimarama is either a fearless defender of the constitution or a strongman determined to get his way at any cost.

Described as belligerent, tenacious and a demagogue, Bainimarama has been threatening for more than a year to force Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's government from power.

Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, taking leave in Australia following demands by Bainimarama that he step down, described him as "a good bloke" but tenacious in his determination to get rid of the elected government.

Even those who agree with his aims say they do not support his methods.

"He's obviously got this fixation that he's not letting go, like a dog with a bone in its teeth," said Hughes.

Bainimarama, 52, portrays the military as the last bastion of law and order and himself as protector of the interests of the ethnic Indian minority against the indigenous bias of Qarase's nationalist United Fiji Party government.

He has said Qarase's government could return Fiji to the days of "grass skirts and cannibalism" by being soft on plotters of a civilian coup in November 2000 and failing to turnaround the country's "coup culture".

He has focussed his attacks on proposed legislation to offer amnesties to plotters of a 2000 coup, but he has also targeted legislation he says discriminates against the Indian minority.

And he has a personal motive for wanting the 2000 plotters brought to justice - he had to run for his life during a military mutiny related to the coup, in which eight soldiers were killed.

Ironically, when appointed armed forces leader in 1999, Bainimarama was viewed as a low-key figure who would depoliticise the military after its involvement in two coups in 1987 under Sitiveni Rabuka.

Now many regard him as a demagogue who has returned Fiji to the dark days of 2000, when the economy nearly collapsed after the coup.

On May 29, 2000, 10 days after an armed gang led by failed businessman George Speight invaded parliament and took hostages, Bainimarama declared martial law.

Soon after he handed power to an interim administration headed by Qarase, who has since won two elections.

But hostility between the two men has once again taken Fiji to the brink of military takeover and isolated the country from its neighbours as international sympathy has evaporated in the face of Bainimarama's belligerence.

"What Bainimarama will find is that no other government in the world is supporting him. Governments like to see constitutional processes followed," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said recently.