A man walks past The Peace Ark, a Chinese hospital ship which offers free health care as it sails through the South Pacific, as it sits moored in the harbour of the Fiji capital of Suva. REUTERS/Lincoln Feast
Voters in Fiji's election this month are keen to end a
dictatorship that has ruled the South Pacific island nation
since a military coup in 2006, but sprucing up its human
rights situation, and ties with Western neighbours, will take
Change could be slow because Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, the
army chief who seized power to become prime minister, looks
set to retain a dominant role, with polls giving his Fiji
First Party a strong lead in the run-up to the Sept. 17
The much-delayed vote is being closely watched by neighbours
Australia and New Zealand, the region's economic and
diplomatic powerhouses. They and their Western allies are
eager to welcome Fiji back to the fold after eight years of
diplomatic, military and travel sanctions that appear to have
Far from being frozen out, Fiji has lifted its global
profile, setting up an alternative forum for Pacific island
issues, heading the G77 group of developing states in 2013
and contributing peacekeepers to the United Nations. Dozens
of its soldiers are being held by Islamists on the Golan
Fiji has also forged stronger ties with new partners, in
particular China, which is establishing an ever greater
presence across the Pacific.
"Fiji has certainly made it clear they can work without us
internationally," said Jenny Hayward-Jones, a regional expert
at Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute.
"We need to get Fiji back in the tent because it is not being
a very cooperative regional partner and that's what really
Fiji's 300-plus islands sit near the centre of a vast swathe
of the South Pacific that is home to only about 10 million
people, but is crisscrossed by vital shipping lanes and
controls huge maritime and mineral resources.
Its importance is recognised by the United States, which aims
to shore up what many see as the West's sliding prestige in
the region, as part of President Barack Obama's "pivot" to
"Our commitment to the people of Fiji has never wavered, and
subsequent to credible elections, we look forward to working
with those elected to create closer ties between our two
nations," a U.S. embassy spokesman told Reuters.
A hospital ship moored in the harbour of Suva, the capital,
ringed by coral reefs and jutting mountains, is a symbol of
China's more prominent role. The vessel, the Peace Ark,
offers free health care as it sails through the South
Pacific, where hospitals often struggle to supply even basic
China is building ports, roads and other projects around the
region, and runs a bauxite mine in Fiji.
Bainimarama calls China a true friend, while playing down the
importance of Australia and New Zealand.
But few Fijians share that view.
Many people are wary of Chinese projects funded by loans,
employing mostly Chinese workers and using Chinese equipment,
said Sainiana Radrodro of the SODELPA opposition party.
"Whilst we appreciate that we have a strong diplomatic
relationship with China, we just do not think it should come
at the expense of a lot of debt that our people will be
paying off for many, many years down the line," she told
Some Fijians also think the West is being too hasty to
rekindle relations with a regime still tarred by the coup.
At the root of much of political conflict in Fiji is rivalry
between indigenous Fijian nationalists and the ethnic Indian
descendants of workers brought by the British to work
sugarcane fields. Animosity came to a head in 2000 when
indigenous Fijians overthrew the first Indo-Fijian prime
A new constitution introduced by Bainimarama, while
criticized by some for its curbs on freedoms, has been
welcomed by many ethnic Indians for giving them equal rights
with indigenous Fijians.
"What has happened in Fiji are big changes, big
improvements," said Rupeni Turagakula, a burly 43-year-old
taxi driver, adding that relations between indigenous Fijians
and ethnic Indians had improved, along with the economy.
In March, Fiji returned to the fold of the Commonwealth
grouping of mostly former British colonies, after a
suspension of almost five years over a delay in restoring
In a report last month on Bainimarama's government, Amnesty
International listed what it called serious human rights
abuses over the past eight years, including attacks on
journalists and unionists and curbs on speech.
Accusations of brutality are common in Fiji, where security
forces function in a culture of impunity, says human rights
advocate Virisila Buadromo.
"It just reinforces in the public's mind that no one is
safe," said Buadromo, a leader of a women's rights movement.
"That we have to be very careful about what we say, because
we could end up getting taken in by the military or the
But there are signs of improvement.
Fiji's economy is forecast to grow at 3.8 percent in 2014,
exceeding its historical average, while new roads and water
supply to villages have helped lift Bainimarama's support in
the polls to around 60 percent.
Fears of more instability, or even another coup, may worry
some, but not everyone is fretting over the election result.
Stefan Pichler, managing director of national carrier Fiji
Airways and chairman of Tourism Fiji, said previous coups had
only a fleeting impact on the tourism industry, the country's
biggest employer and earner of foreign exchange.
"Governments come and go, that's the reality," he told
Reuters. "You're talking about politicians, who make noise,
versus people who look for holidays. That's two different