ELIZABETH JACKSON: It's now five years since Fiji's military commander Frank Bainimarama staged the Pacific nation's fourth coup.In that time, groups lobbying for a return to a democratic government have surfaced in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. However, that push for democracy hasn't been evident in Fiji.
In this report Radio Australia's Pacific correspondent Campbell Cooney looks at why most of the organised opposition to Fiji's leaders exists outside of its borders.
CAMPBELL COONEY: On a cold and windy Saturday morning the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement held its annual general meeting.
TEVITA NAROBA: Well I'm from Sydney, parliamentary church in Sydney, you're not very happy with what's happening in Fiji at the moment, yeah? Hoping something's going to get done up right. Tevita Naroba, I hail from the village of Natewa in the (inaudible) and I'm the president of the Fiji Democracy Freedom Movement in Adelaide South Australian chapter and also the national secretary of the Fiji Democracy Freedom Movement in Australia.
I came over today to be the voice of the voiceless back home in Fiji. Like we all know that we don't have any voice, their hands are tied, even their legs are tied, they can't even walk.
MARISA: I'm Marisa from Sydney. I feel so pity for the people back home and that's why I'm here today, just to voice some of our rights because we don't have any more rights back home, and the people are suffering silently.
CAMPBELL COONEY: As the addresses of those attending tells you, the meeting was not held in their homeland. The venue was the North Blackburn Community Hall in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. But one place where the movement does not have an active or obvious membership is Fiji.
And while the movement's members around the world may be passionate about forcing a return to democracy in their homeland, in Fiji, while there are critics of the military backed regime, the passion of these expatriates does not appear to be shared by those who still live there.
In early December 2011 the fifth anniversary of Fiji's coup of 2006, passed with little fanfare.
It was the fourth Fijian coup in less than 20 years. In 1987 Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka staged the first, followed soon after, by the second. The year 2000 the third was led by businessman George Speight.
And while all three happened quickly, with little warning, the fourth in 2006, led by the commander of the military, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, came as no real surprise.
In the months and weeks leading up to it, he'd made it clear he intended to remove the government of prime minister Laisenia Qarase.
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: We consider that Fiji has reached a crossroads, and that the government and all those in power to make decisions in our constitutional democracy are unable to make decisions to save our people from destruction.
CAMPBELL COONEY: The expectation was that the takeover would happen on Friday the second of December. When the question was asked of the military that morning, would there be a coup today, the message came back that as the annual defence force versus police rugby match was to be held that afternoon, and with the Commodore's attendance required, it wouldn't be happening then. But by Monday, the takeover had begun and by the next day it was complete.
ANNOUNCER: Six o'clock this evening the military has taken over the government.
Sean Dorney is the ABC's long serving Pacific correspondent, reporting for Australia Network news.
SEAN DORNEY: Bainimarama staged almost the opposite coup. The three before it were all conducted by people on behalf, they said, of the rights of the indigenous Fijian people. Well Bainimarama's coup was the reverse of that. He actually got rid of a government that had been elected on the back of 80 per cent or so of the votes of the indigenous people.
And Bainimarama's attitude to prime minister Qarase was poisonous. And the most successful of the previous ones of course was the second coup carried out by Rabuka, only months after his first coup. But he took over the government and, but eventually agreed, sometime later, to have elections. But what Bainimarama has done is that he's inserted huge numbers of military people into all aspects of the public service. There were a few instances of that under Rabuka but nowhere near this militarisation of the upper levels of the public service that we've seen in the last five years.
What Bainimarama is saying he wants to do is transform the mentality of the people of the country to not regard race as an important factor in any future elections if he eventually allows them to have an election. It's almost a utopian ideal that he professes to be following.
CAMPBELL COONEY: In the months after the coup, Commodore Bainimarama formed an interim government, and appointed himself prime minister. Around the region meetings were held between his ministers and other member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum about assisting in a return to democratic rule.
At the 2007 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Tonga, the leaders and their representatives came out of their retreat claiming a deal had been struck where Fiji had promised a return to democracy in early 2009.
Representing Australia was then foreign minister Alexander Downer.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: There was unanimity that the elections should be held by the end of the first quarter of 2009. And the Fijian commander accepted that. He has accepted the roadmap that needs to be consistent with the Fijian constitution.
CAMPBELL COONEY: But the next day Fiji's leader was throwing doubt at the much heralded deal.
REPORTER: In your speech at the United Nations you talked about wanting to change the constitution to just one vote, would you be wanting to do that before the elections?
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: Ah, we have discussed that, yes.
REPORTER: What, you would like to change the constitution?
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: We have discussed it yes.
REPORTER 2: How can you change the constitution without a vote of parliament?
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: It's quite different.
REPORTER 3: The impression we got yesterday was that leaders of the forum thought there wasn't sufficient time to change the constitution. We can't ...
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: Insufficient time to change the constitution, what the whole constitution, or one or two sections of the constitution?
CAMPBELL COONEY: In early 2009 after a Fiji High Court ruling that the coup and the interim regime was illegal, Fiji's constitution was scrapped, and since then the country's been ruled by decree, and under emergency regulations with a promise of elections being held in 2014 under a yet to be drafted new constitution.
And while at home there are some voices opposed to the Commodore and his action, widespread opposition is muted.
Well what he's done back in Fiji is just eliminated the opposition. I mean the media now is censored, the trade unions have been knackered, the great council of chiefs was abolished, the Methodist Church has been muted in political terms.
He has just got almost complete control there and one of the interesting things of that survey that the Lowy Institute conducted was that there does seem to be an acceptance that he's in charge and people just want to get on with their lives in Fiji.
Those who are opposed to or fall offside with Bainimarama do not have a very pleasant time. And lots of the rest of the people of Fiji don't seem to be particularly keen to take to the streets and oppose him.
(Sound of Fijian music playing)
CAMPBELL COONEY: For the Fiji Freedom and Democracy meeting held in Melbourne in October, how to energise that opposition at home, dominated proceedings and discussions.
Also on the agenda was a way of giving an alternative view of the state of the country to that put forward by the military backed regime in power. One of the guests was Stuart Huggett, a former chairman of the Fiji Public Service Commission, he's now based in New Zealand and heavily involved in the democracy movement.
STUART HUGGETT: The idea is, germinated from what we felt was the need for a Fijian government in exile. This idea has obviously been kicked around a lot; it's extraordinarily difficult to set up a government in exile. It's a long-winded and probably very expensive operation.
We eventually felt that a council of eminent people who would represent the various communities and stake holders in Fiji might be the sort of organisation to speak for the people of Fiji and give some hope to the people in Fiji that there was a responsible body able to handle the transition to democracy.
CAMPBELL COONEY: The Australian Movement voted to support the council. Also at the meeting was Ratu Tevita Mara. Ratu Tevita was one of the high ranking Fijian military officers who had supported the 2006 coup. But in May 2011 he was arrested and charged with mutiny alleged to have been involved in a plot to remove Commodore Bainimarama from power.
Later he escaped to Tonga, claiming he was out fishing near the Fiji's border with the island kingdom, and was rescued by the Tongan Navy after his boat broke down. Since being granted asylum he has travelled around the region lobbying governments, and speaking to democracy movements. He's supportive of the creation of an eminent person's council.
RATU TEVITA MARA: As I've said Australia and New Zealand will find it a better forum in which to discuss things regarding Fiji 'cause it will involve eminent and prominent people in it.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Have you spoken to anyone in either of those governments about the proposal?
RATU TEVITA MARA: I've in some of my correspondence with Australian and New Zealand governments informed them, the idea of a council.
CAMPBELL COONEY: They liked it?
RATU TEVITA MARA: They're positive about it.
CAMPBELL COONEY: But how much influence can a movement have when it has little if any presence or influence in its homeland?
When talking informally with those who'd gathered in Melbourne it was put to me more than once that what they were doing could be compared to the Arab Spring, which has forced a change in regimes and policies across the Middle East.
(Sound effects "Somebody shot him by gun, nine milli...")
ANTHONY BUBALO: It started in late 2010 in Tunisia with the suicide, in fact, the immolation of a young vegetable vendor who had been harassed by the police. This struck a chord with a large group of people in Tunisia for whom this act symbolised their growing frustration and following the events in Tunisia and following the successful uprising there, which was watched throughout the Arab region, this in turn struck a chord with populations in other Arab countries.
It all coalesced around that same idea that their governments and their rulers, many of whom were aged, many of whom had been in power now for many, many years. This belief that they'd failed them and that they needed to go. So then you saw obviously most famously in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Middle East, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya, you know, follow on uprisings.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Anthony Bubalo is the program director for West Asia with the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
ANTHONY BUBALO: If these movements are looking for examples in the Middle East then they're looking in the wrong place. You know, if there's one conclusion that you can draw from the uprisings in the Middle East is that being there, being organic, being part of the society is critical important in success. Now whether that's applicable in Fiji or not, I don't know because it's not my area of expertise.
CAMPBELL COONEY: They're comparing themselves to the Arab Spring though, are they pulling at a long bow?
ANDREW BUBALO: Yeah I think so. But they're not the only one to pull it. There are the Wall St protestors are making the - are pulling the same bow. Look the one thing that I think is common is that is this sense, as I said earlier, the kind of sense of, whatever people's grievances there is a sense that the existing political system and political class have failed them.
CAMPBELL COONEY: While the events of the Arab Spring may not be comparable to what the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement hopes to achieve, its Australian president Suliasi Daunitutu believes it can have an impact.
SULIASI DAUNITUTU: I told them today at the meeting I don't really need 20,000 people. If I have ten where their heart set in freeing Fiji and they're willing to go the full nine miles or whatever, come with me and let's do it.
CAMPBELL COONEY: One group which has taken action at home calls itself the Viti Revolutionary Front. So far that action appears to be contained to a graffiti campaign critical of the regime and three people allegedly involved in it have been charged and sentenced to prison. If they intend to expand their efforts is hard to say.
The ABC tried to get in contact with one of its leaders, promising complete anonymity, including the offer to disguise their voices if they would speak to us. No one was prepared to come forward.
But former Fijian military officer Ratu Tevita Mara says the VRF should be taken seriously.
RATU TEVITA MARA: I know for a fact that there's members of the security forces also involved in VRF. How far the, to what extent the regime knows about that is another question but you know for them to have been operating so long, doing so much things, for an extent, given the current conditions, surely there were members of the security forces involved.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Since 2006 a number of pro democracy websites have appeared online, highlighting what they claim are the less than honest intentions of the regime, and the concerns of those who are still in Fiji. When the ABC made the same offer to them that it made to the VRF, to get their view on home based opposition, the offer was refused. The success of the Arab Spring has been credited in part to the growth in online social networking and good communications.
ANTHONY BUBALO: What you saw in the Arab uprising is people being mistreated and everybody knowing about it through these other media connections. I mean Al Jazeera played a critical role in the spread of uprisings around the region because people could literally watch it minute by minute play out in Tunisia and in Egypt and elsewhere.
CAMPBELL COONEY: But many Fijians live in rural and remote areas where there is no TV or Internet and where large parts of the country do not have mobile phone access. Local radio broadcasts remain the main source of news and those are censored by the regime.
Suliasi Daunitutu says that has made it difficult to get their concerns to a wider audience.
SULIASI DAUNITUTU: It's frustrating actually. It's frustrating how we want them so much to know that they are in trouble but they don't . It has to come from Fiji and it's not. And one of the ladies said that they are being passive.
CAMPBELL COONEY: And while Fiji's fourth coup is seen to have been driven by something different than the indigenous Fijian nationalist concerns of the first three, The Asia Pacific editor for The Australian newspaper, Rowan Callick believes the lack of a strong home based opposition in the current situation can be directly related to those first three coups.
ROWAN CALLICK: We're not seeing an opposition, we're not seeing an exciting charismatic leader emerging to ask questions of and seek to replace Frank Bainimarama and my view is that this is the inevitable outcome of 20 now 24 years of disruption of political process. If you have ambition in Fiji, you want to do good things for your country or for yourself, for the family, do you go into political life, do you put your life on hold in order to organise to set up a political party?
I think you don't and so I think this is part of the problem. The other half is that we've seen under Bainimarama a far more effective system of control being established than we've seen under previous coups.
Another issue identified as holding back the overseas based Fiji Democracy Movements is also tied to the first three coups. The nationalistic anger which led to them was aimed at the country's indo Fijian population, which is descended from the indentured labour brought to the island's nation over 100 years ago to work in the cane fields. Since 1987 a large part of that population has left Fiji.
And while many Indo Fijians, both living there and overseas, are critical of the regime of Frank Bainimarama, it was noticeable that at the annual general meeting of the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement in Melbourne, all the delegates were indigenous Fijian.
MAN AT FFDM MEETING: Fiji is not for just Fijians, it's for multi-ethnic diversity we have. And we have sort of live in tolerance with each other, which was good until this came about, the coup came about and sort of highlighted the race, the division.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: The president of the Australian Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement Suliasi Daunitutu ending that report from Campbell Cooney.