Fiji suspended from the Commonwealth after coup


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The Independent Online

Fiji has been suspended from the Commonwealth after Tuesday's coup, which Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon strongly condemned.

The suspension, Fiji's third in 20 years following coups, means the country cannot participate in Commonwealth meetings of ministers and government leaders until it restores democracy.

The leader of the coup got the first signs of support outside his military regime yesterday, boosting his hopes of gaining credibility for his power grab four days after seizing power in the Pacific island nation.

The country's powerful tribal chiefs indicated they would meet armed forces leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who wants the group to recognize his intended caretaker government thereby boosting its standing among the indigenous Fijian majority.

Bainimarama also received qualified support from the opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry, an ex-prime minister who was taken hostage for 56 days in a 2000 coup, who said the takeover was illegal but offered to help it to restore democracy.

But international condemnation of Tuesday's power grab strengthened, and a group of church leaders in the deeply Christian country denounced it as evil.

Ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase again insisted he was the only legal holder of that office, and urged people to peacefully defy the military regime.

"There is only one legal authority in the country at this time and that is the democratically elected government which I lead," Qarase said in an interview broadcast on Radio Fiji, from his home village, where he fled on military orders.

But in an interview with the Legend radio network, Qarase appeared resigned to not returning to power, saying he was considering a job in the business sector.

"I have done all the right things in standing my ground on principle and standing for democracy," he said. "Whether Commodore Bainimarama takes over, or somebody else, is really of no particular importance to me. To me the most important thing is to do the right thing."

Bainimarama's hand-picked interim leader, Maj. Jona Senilagakali, took over the prime minister's office Friday for the first time, arriving with an armed military guard.

The powerful Great Council of Chiefs indicated it would consider a military request to call a meeting to consider it's position on the takeover, which it earlier denounced as illegal and disrespectful for removing the president and vice president.

"If there is a request by the army to have a meeting of the chiefs, we will have to consider it first of course," council chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini told the news site.

The council holds a powerful place in the constitution, appointing the titular head of state on the advice of the elected government. More importantly, it holds sway with indigenous Fijians.

A former chairman of the council, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, said he was sure "you will see the GCC coming into discussions with the military" sometime soon.

Ganilau, a former military commander, said he supported Bainimarama's intentions but not his actions.

"We all know it is an illegal act ... but it is the lesser of two evils when you think about the endemic corruption and bad practices that have carried on over a number of years," he told reporters.

Chaudhry, whose Labour party has its power base among the large ethnic Indian minority, said he would not join the military regime, but his party would offer it "whatever help we can" to restore democracy.

Bainimarama "has the authority and the power and he has the firepower to back it up, but that does not mean that we cannot use this adversity ... to negotiate a better future ... and .... a stable and democratic arrangement," Chaudhry told Radio New Zealand.

Bainimarama announced on Tuesday that he had assumed presidential powers and dismissed the government. He declared a state of emergency, dissolved Parliament, and threw up a security cordon around Suva. He warned he will use force to quickly put down any dissent.

He has removed a swathe of senior civil servants, including the country's two top police officers, in a campaign he says will weed out corruption entrenched by Qarase.