Fueling Fiji's Coup

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Since overthrowing Fiji's government earlier this month, Military Commander Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama has made few public comments on how he came by the political opinions that motivated his actions. Over the past year Bainimarama has regularly complained about new laws proposed by the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, justifying the Dec. 5 coup by referring to the need to stop some of them from being passed. One of these was the Qoliqoli Bill controversial legislation designed to hand back control of lagoon, beach and reef access rights to indigenous Fijians.

Bainimarama has described the bill as racist, unconstitutional and damaging to tourism. Had it become law, resort operators could have faced enormous payments to tribes in exchange for the right to access their beaches and reefs. TIME has learned that Bainimarama's interest in the bill was heightened during a meeting on an aeroplane flight, which led to the commander being invited to be a guest at one of those businesses that might have been affected by the proposed law.

Turtle Island - setting for the 1980s Brooke Shields movie Blue Lagoon - is one of Fiji's most exclusive resorts, where guests can rent luxury villas for more than $US2,000 a night. The invitation to holiday on the island came after Bainimarama found himself seated on a September 2005 Sydney to Fiji flight next to Andrew Fairley, an Australian lawyer and board member of Turtle Island. Fairley, a Deakin University Council member and board member of Ecotourism Australia, had been heavily involved with the Fiji Hotels Association in organising a challenge to the bill, and had recently obtained two legal opinions that he says showed the bill was unconstitutional.

"I happened to be sitting next to the commander on the aircraft back from Sydney and we chatted, as you do, and he said, 'Tell me about this [Qoliqoli] Bill,' and I gave him this explanation and he said, 'Oh Gosh, that's serious,'" says Fairley. The commander was worried that the bill had "the potential to pit Fijian against Fijian," he says. "He said, 'Can you get more information about this?'"

Fairley says he provided Bainimarama with a copy of the bill, and the opinions from two Queen's Counsel in Australia. "I really didn't hear any more, but it seemed to be a catalyst for him to become much more concerned about the legislation." Fairley adds that during the same conversation, the commander learned that United States Republican Senator John McCain was going to be holidaying at Turtle Island that Christmas. "[Bainimarama] said he would really like to meet Senator McCain, who was shaping up as the next president of the United States. That was really the reason he [Bainimarama] went out to Turtle Island."

The island's owner, Richard Evanson, has confirmed to TIME that Bainimarama and some members of his family spent several days on the island around Christmas time at no cost, and had met with McCain, whom Evanson had invited to the island. Evanson, a former bond trader in the U.S., denies there was any attempt to influence Bainimarama through the provision of a holiday. He invites people like Bainimarama to his island "because I'm trying to promote good relationship with the people who run Fiji," he says. "I had no lengthy private conversations with the commander on the island. [Bainimarama and McCain] were on holiday but they did meet lots of times. We are set up at the island [so that] all the guests eat at the same table for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so there would have been huge discussions about the politics of Fiji."

Evanson takes a keen interest in Fijian politics, even helping finance the Qarase campaign after the 2000 coup. But he says he felt cheated after Qarase's government pushed ahead with the Qoliqoli bill. "In that first election, the Qoliqoli Bill came up and he [Qarase] said, 'I'm going to be influenced by what New Zealand does,' and so then when New Zealand gave it up and he didn't, I felt double-crossed on that one."

In the elections in May this year, Evanson backed one of Bainimarama's associates, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, to run for government. Ganilau is a former military commander who successfully recommended Bainimarama to succeed him as head of Fiji's armed forces when he stepped down in 1999. Evanson declines to reveal how much he donated to Ganilau's National Alliance Party to run against the Qarase government, but some observers say it was a substantial sum in Fijian campaign funding. Ganilau's election bid failed, but he has remained influential in military affairs, telling TIME he has recently been advising Bainimarama's military but "only on ceremonial matters" in the lead-up to the coup.

Earlier this month Ganilau told the Fiji Times that the coup was inspired by the Qarase government's divisive bills, particularly the Qoliqoli Bill and the Lands Tribunal Bill. "The long impasse has propelled the military," he said. "It [the coup] is an illegal act, but the lesser of two evils when you think about the endemic corruption and bad practices that have carried on during the reign of the former administration. I support the cleaning up, but not the means."