Five months in Fiji ...

... or a Semester in Senibua Land, by Jonathan Ritchie

While senibua flowers might be in abundance, there is no sense that Fiji is lotus-land.
While senibua flowers might be in abundance, there is no sense that Fiji is lotus-land.

By Dr Jonathan Ritchie, Visiting Fellow, Alfred Deakin Research Institute

Senibua is the Fijian word for that most tropical and Pacific of flowers, the frangipani. 

Its ubiquity throughout Fiji makes it a handy symbol of this most friendly and welcoming of nations, whose citizens retain - despite more than five years of military-dominated rule since the 2006 coup - an openness, grace, and sense of humour that continues to appeal, not least with the crowds of tourists drawn there in ever larger numbers.  

This paradox - a constant, indeed increasingly relaxed and contented demeanour in the face of a military dictatorship – is perhaps the most surprising aspect of contemporary Fiji. The news in Commodore Voroqe Bainimarama’s 2012 New Year Address that the Public Emergency Regulations will be lifted adds to the quandary of how Fiji and its people should best be handled.

I have just returned to the Alfred Deakin Research Institute from a semester’s teaching at the University of the South Pacific’s Laucala campus in Suva, Fiji’s capital city. This was a valuable and stimulating experience, one that allowed me to meet a wide cross-section of Fiji’s intelligentsia, along with that of the Pacific more generally, both among my university colleagues and the students, some of whom will go on to be the leaders of the 21st century. 

As well, living in Suva as an interested outsider - meeting taxi drivers, shop assistants, teachers, public servants, and many others - enabled me to get some idea at least of what people outside of the relatively open world within the university were thinking about contemporary Fijian life. 

It did not, however - and this is a crucial point underlining these remarks - grant me the status of ‘instant expert’.  What follows are some initial and largely unformed comments arising from my observations of the society and culture in which I have had the privilege to have lived for the second half of 2011.

Amongst the humour and hospitality that my wife and I experienced from ordinary Fijians, there is a strong undercurrent of hope that the promises made by the Bainimarama regime - of equality for all Fijians regardless of their ethnicity and religion, of a fair and inclusive constitution, and of free elections in 2014 - will be kept. 

Most seem to have accepted that the government is attempting to steer Fiji to a better place, and although many will privately acknowledge concerns over the apparent abuses of power, there is a widely held support for the government’s overall stated aims.

There is anxiety that, in seeking to build an equitable and harmonious society, the government has overstepped its mark (especially in its draconian response to the merest hint of criticism). However, for the most part the disquiet is expressed privately - by those close enough to the regime to be able to do so - or sublimated into a host of other concerns, ranging from the social (poverty, morality) to the superficial (the perennial favourite of sporting performance, especially the woeful performance of the national rugby team, the Flying Fijians, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup).

Fiji’s report card received an unexpected boost with the publication of the Lowy Institute’s report, Fiji at Home and in the World, in September 2011. [1]  Its findings - the most prominent of which was the two-thirds support for the Bainimarama government by the Fijian people - were trumpeted across Fiji’s media outlets, all of which, it must be said, are now under the tight control of the military regime. 

There was a strong sense in the public arena both of vindication for the direction being taken by the government, and an ‘up yours’ to the strident, even shrill, criticisms coming from Australia and New Zealand. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Lowy polling exercise, in Fiji its outcomes (at least a cherry-picked version of them) were widely welcomed.

At the same time, however, the unease caused by Fiji’s relationship with Australia is prevalent. The same Lowy poll reported that 76% of those surveyed strongly agreed that the government should have a good relationship with Australia; only 60% thought the same about China. Australian (and New Zealander) criticism of Fiji’s direction bites hard, then, as Fijians who see an abiding, close connection based on shared history and values with the two countries as a vital part of their world. 

Signs of a warming of the relationship will be extremely welcome to many in Fiji, despite any claims about new ‘friends’ being found in east Asia (as one Fijian told me, ‘Chinese don’t play rugby’!). On the other hand, if plans for a transition to democracy don’t proceed, and government relations with Australia and New Zealand become still icier, there is the potential for this closeness to become just an artifact of history.

While senibua flowers might be in abundance, there is no sense that Fiji is lotus-land. Far from it, as social worker (and friend) Gavin Barker, whose NGO, ‘Really MAD’, is working with disenfranchised and at-risk young Fijians in the squatter settlements around Raiwaqa, would readily agree. [2]

Rising levels of poverty, of unemployment, and of the related ills of street crime and substance abuse are signs of the strains being felt in Fiji. Stories about negative experiences with the health and justice systems can often be heard, even if they are not often written about in the newspapers. The work of many Fijians in the public sector and NGOs is difficult, fraught, and under-resourced, despite the attention given to such high-profile (and government-supported) work, for example, of the Yellow Ribbon campaign to support rehabilitation of prison inmates. 

But there is much to love about contemporary Fiji, and Fijians, even with the (hopefully temporary) problems they face.  For me, perhaps the most attractive aspect is the excitement of the creation of a new aesthetic, driven by world-class arts professionals like Vilsoni Hereniko [3] and others, that draws on the twin heritages of the Pacific and the Indian diaspora to say something new. The melding of cultures – something that we Australians should be comfortable with – is going on before our eyes in Fiji. 

The collective sigh of relief from many Fijians in response to Commodore Bainimarama’s announcement that the Public Emergency Regulations are to be lifted can almost be heard from this side of the Pacific Ocean. These regulations, imposed since the 2006 coup, have stifled not only those seeking to question his government’s record of administration but also a host of less challenging (to the government) forms of public association. Their lifting is a welcome sign that - at least for the optimists among us - Bainimarama and his government intend to follow through on their plans.

If they do, if the plans for a democratic transition work out, and if Fijians deliberately move away from the coup culture in the future, the next forty years will be just as stimulating as the four decades since independence have been. My own belief is that Australia should continue to be a strong and reliable partner in Fiji’s progress.

[1] Jenny Hayward-Jones, Fiji at Home and in the World: public opinion and foreign policy. Sydney: The Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2011, accessed 4 January 2012.

[3] Vilsoni is currently Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies in the University of the South Pacific. Read his biography.

Page custodian: Deakin Research
Last updated: