By Joel Brinkley

Commodore Frank Bainimarama says he was intoxicated when the Australian defense minister called to threaten him.

"We had a heavy grog session the night before, and I was still doped," he explained with a silly grin to a television interviewer. "He told me, 'Don't ever do anything that will pit my troops against yours.' I thought, I'm not the one who's doped" on a kava-root beverage. "It must be this guy."

Bainimarama, the self-appointed prime minister of Fiji, is a South Pacific dictator. But he's not very good at it. The U.S. State Department says it has seen no reports of "unlawful killings," disappearances or political prisoners in Fiji. What kind of dictator is that? And just last week, the Bainimarama administration gave out good-governance awards. The top performers: the ministries of information and prisons.

Four years ago, Commodore Bainimarama seized power in a military coup. No blood was shed, but he immediately earned the undying enmity of his largest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand. They imposed sanctions, as did the United States and European Union. They call him the Pariah of the Pacific and repeatedly urge him to hold elections.

But Bainimarama says they don't understand. He is interested in maintaining power only as long as it takes to enact important reforms. In fact, he promised to hold elections again in 2009. But then in April of that year, Fiji's court of appeals ruled that his 2006 coup had been illegal. What choice did the commodore have? He abolished the courts, abrogated the constitution and removed almost every official appointed under the old, elected government.

"Everything was removed, right?" asked reporter Graham Davis, in a Sky News television interview. No, Bainimarama said with an earnest expression. He was wearing a flowered, short-sleeve shirt. "Let's get that right. Not everything was removed. I was reappointed as prime minister."

With all the foment that came from abolishing the government, the commodore's reform agenda was foundering. He wanted to end crime and racism, improve government efficiency and promote economic growth. So elections had to be postponed until 2014.

The economic part is not going so well. Fiji's vacation resorts are half-empty; tourists are afraid of him. Sugar-export prices are down, and earlier this year the government had to fight a cataclysmic termite infestation. The commodore was forced to devalue the currency by 20 percent. Last week he asked the International Monetary Fund for a $594 million loan.

Australia and New Zealand are taking every opportunity to rail at him. Just a few days ago, The Australian newspaper quoted an unnamed foreign-affairs official saying: "the people may have no choice but to stand up to Bainimarama and his thugs." The commodore was understandably offended, principally because "some of the foreign countries are turning a blind eye" to "the reforms that the government is carrying out," he complained.

Among them, on June 28 the government implemented the Media-Industry Development Decree -- an important part of the government's reform agenda, the secretary of information said. The decree imposes two-year jail terms on reporters and editors who write "irresponsible" stories that undermine government initiatives. It is also forcing sale or closure of the Fiji Times, the nation's oldest and most important newspaper. The new decree says Fijians must own 90 percent of the paper.

Every newsroom now has a government censor. But the prime minister, in that Sky News interview, insisted that reporters still have "the right to say whatever they want -- as long as they don't stop us from moving forward."

He moved forward with another reform earlier this month. Everyone in the nation now must register his phone number with the government. Justice Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum explained that some misguided citizens "have threatened the lives of government ministers in an attempt to deter ministers from the execution of their official duties," like warrentless arrests, property seizures, religious persecution and deportations.

Last year, Australia and New Zealand suspended Fiji from the Pacific Island Forum, an important, 16-state organization. So the commodore tried to arrange his own regional summit this month, inviting the few nations that remain friendly. Unfortunately, the prime minister of Vanuatu, Edward Natapei, announced last week that the group would not come to Fiji because of concerns about the "lack of democracy and good governance."

Of course, Bainimarama blamed Australia. He immediately expelled the Australian ambassador and announced that because of "constant interference" by Australia and New Zealand, "I'm all of a sudden thinking that we might not be ready, come 2014, for elections."


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© Joel Brinkley

World - 'Pariah of the Pacific' Has Ham-handed Grip on Fiji | Global Viewpoint