Fiji’s newly elected prime minister and one-time coup leader Frank Bainimarama has taken another step towards implementing a vision for a new unified Fiji with the announcement that the nation’s flag will bechanged by October this year, in time for the 45th anniversary of Fiji’s independence. It’s a move made as part of his response to continuing ethnic and religious division in the Pacific island state.
The nation is dominated by two significant communities: Indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The latter, mostly Hindu or Muslim, were marginalised throughout the colonial period and again during the coups staged over the past 30 years. Bainimarama has tried to label all citizens as “Fijian” in the of hope of promoting inclusiveness. Creating a new flag is part of his plan to embed a sense of unity, as well as a bid to cement the legitimacy and authority of his government.
Bainimarama has framed the flag change as an effort to break free of the shackles of Fiji’s colonial past. The flag that has existed since 1970 features the Union Jack – a nod to the British monarchy’s role in governing the islands from 1874 to 1970.
The colours, the shield and the dove of peace were, however, also on flags flown by the self-proclaimed supreme chief and king, Ratu Cakobau, in around 1870. That the British allowed the flag to retain some of these features, and that they were used in the flag of independent Fiji, reflect a continuation of the chiefly authority of Indigenous Fijians.
Bainimarama’s idea then is not merely to move away from Fiji’s colonial past but also to break down chiefly power – the source of his greatest opposition. This extends on actions he’s already taken, through the dismantling of the great council of chiefs, for example.
His opposition to chiefly authority is in part due to the perception that celebrating it only further deepens ethnic rifts. He angered many when he implemented a new constitution in 2009 in which there is no distinction made between the Indigenous and Indo-Fijian communities: all are considered equally Fijian.
It is not just those with chiefly heritage who see this as a threat to Indigenous rights, particularly land title. It is also, as Bainimarama said in his announcement, significant that the flag announcement was made at Nasinu, near to the government buildings but also close to the military barracks from where his own 2006 coup and Major General Sitiveni Rabuka’s coup in 1987 received support. Bainimarama’s connections to the military are therefore still significant, despite renouncing his military rank.
Bainimarama has invited public input on the design for the new flag. Suggestions are flooding on to social media platforms. One, from the author of the blog Fiji Coup Four Point Five, incorporates the Chinese and Islamic State (Isis) flags with the shield from the existing Fijian flag: a cynical reflection of Fiji’s increasingly close relationship with China, as well as anti-Islamic and by extension anti-Indian sentiment.
This design reflects Fiji’s shifting gaze away from the Commonwealth nations towards Asia, but the topic of discussion places it in step with debates among these close neighbours. New Zealand intends to hold a referendum (a process Bainimarama will not follow) in 2016 on whether to swap the Union Jack for the silver fern. Australians are also constantly revisiting the Republican debate through questions about replacing the flag. Fiji is following regional trends while still in the process of mending relationships with Australia and New Zealand that were harmed by the 2006 coup.
The decision has provoked a mixed response: some see it as a necessary step forward, other see it as abstract and secondary to the real issues that face many Fijians day today. The frequent water and electricity cuts are a problem, and while the official unemployment rate is around 8%, approximately 45% of the community is living below the poverty line. Bainimarama is playing one tune to unite the people of Fiji but whether they choose to play along with him is another question all together.