Kathy Marks: A long-suffering people who want to live in peace

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The Independent Online

Why should we care about what happens in Fiji? It is, some might argue, a tiny country, far removed from Europe, with a population of less than one million and no significance on the international stage.

But the trampling of democracy in a region wracked by political and economic turbulence sends out dangerous signals. If a dictator can rule unchallenged for years in a former British colony visited by half a million tourists annually, if a constitution can be jettisoned on a whim, what of far more volatile countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands?

When Frank Bainimarama imposed martial law on the island nation in 2000, he seemed, paradoxically, to be Fiji's saviour. The nation was in crisis, the Prime Minister and his government held hostage inside parliament by George Speight's trigger-happy followers. By contrast, the armed forces chief appeared the epitome of sanity, determined to restore democracy, the rule of law and constitutional rights.

Reporting from Suva for five weeks on the aftermath of Speight's coup, I found it impossible not to sympathise with his long-suffering countrymen.

The majority of Fijians – the indigenous locals as well as the ethnic Indian minority descendants of the labour force brought over by British colonists– are good-natured, hard-working people who want only to feed their families and lead a peaceful existence.

Instead, they have endured four coups in the past 20 years, the latest by Commodore Bainimarama himself. Bainimarama, who staged a military takeover in 2006, appears determined to hang on to power at all costs.

To most people in Europe, the South Pacific might signify nothing more than pearl-white beaches and swaying palm trees.

But Australia, the regional power, has warned in the past that, unless stability is maintained, it could become a haven for terrorists and money launderers.

Quite apart from those considerations, the courteous, friendly Fijians deserve better.