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“The public silence and Government’s accountability” (FT 13/7/2019)

14/07/2019

The public silence and government’s accountability (FT 13/7/2019)

(appeared as “A Fiji Leaders’ Day”)

No one today ever disputes that good governance and accountability of leaders are important criteria to judge any society, with even World Bank country reports bringing it up as a development issue for many countries.

Usually, the public can reasonably expect that the Fiji Parliament with its elected Government and Opposition parties, is the appropriate place to hold the government accountable for all its decisions, with the assistance of the Auditor General’s Office on financial matters to do with taxpayer funds.

But what about other non-financial decisions which also requires accountability from government, especially when the Government refuses to respond to public requests and parliament is prevented from debating, as recently over the Opposition’s request for the lifting of the ban on Professor Brij Lal and Dr Padma Lal from entering Fiji, the land of their birth.

For the sake of this article, I select another government decision (there are many others) which Parliament has never discussed- the removal of Ratu Sukuna Day as a Public Holiday,

Given that the Fiji Times is at least one media which has been courageous enough for decades to give the public an avenue to put pressure on the government of the day on matters of public concern, why has the Fiji public refused to play their part in stridently demanding accountability from the elected Bainimarama Government on these two decisions?

Indeed, one must ask, are there any elected Fiji First MPs at all who disagree with these two decisions, whatever “Cabinet” may have decided?

Why cancel Ratu Sukuna Day?

In 2010, the Bainimarama Government used an Employment Relations Promulgation Act to cancel the public holiday to commemorate Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna and National Youth Day.

According to the Fiji Sun (21 March 2010), the Bainimarama Military Government stated that “By reducing the number of public holidays we, as a nation, will be, among other things, more focused on productivity and increased output… essential if we are to modernize and grow our economy and improve  our living standards… we do not require specific holidays to commemorate these two occasions”.

So the immediate question arises: why can these arguments not be applied to the other remaining public holidays such as those associated with

* the Christian religion (Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday)

* the Hindu religion (Diwali Day)

* the Muslim religion Prophet Mohammed Day)

Why should these six days associated with particular religions be celebrated as “public holidays” by all Fiji (including those of other religions or note at all) given that the Bainimarama Government claims to be a secular government?

Given that the future of Fiji depends ultimately on the youth of today, why ban a public holiday which can be used to commemorate all the issues which concern the youth?

Why celebrate a Constitution Day for a constitution imposed on Fiji by an unelected government, and never ratified by parliament in contrast to the 1997 Constitution which was unanimously approved by the elected Fiji Parliament?

But let us look at the lessons that can be learnt from the elimination of Ratu Sukuna Day as a Public Holiday.

What Ratu Sukuna Day stood for

Ratu Sukuna was an extraordinary leader in the history of Fiji and indigenous Fijians, with his own extraordinary personal history during colonial Fiji, both as a highly connected chief and indigenous Fijian. He was for decades considered an icon for Fijians and rightly celebrated with a Public Holiday named after him, even though some historians today, with the wisdom of hindsight, also note the negative impacts he had on long term Fijian welfare.

His father (the earlier Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi) enrolled him at Wairuku Indian School in Ra (unusual for those times) and he also studied at Wanganui College in NZ and Wadham College in Oxford (UK).  But despite his excellent and very academic abilities he was then denied a university education by the British colonial authorities.

During World War I the British authorities refused to allow him to enlist with the British forces one of the elements of racism then. Ratu Sukuna refused to knuckle under and enlisted and fought for the French Foreign Legion, was wounded on the battle fields and eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre (the equivalent of the British Military Cross), leaving the war as a war hero.

Joining the colonial Civil Service in Fiji, by 1921 he had returned to Oxford and became the first indigenous Fijian university graduate with a BA and LLB.

Upon his return to Fiji, he took an increasing role and was single-handedly responsible for the creation and acceptance of the Native Land Trust Board by Fijian landholders all over Fiji, as well as the establishment of the Fijian Affairs Board. He eventually became the Speaker of the House  in the Fiji Colonial Legislature.

For his great service to Fiji, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna received two knighthoods, the ultimate accolade in the British Empire at the time, which few others have ever received.

The “other side” of Ratu Sukuna

The reader may obtain a generous account of Ratu Sukuna through Derrick Scarr’s official biography guided by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, a nephew of Ratu Sukuna: Ratu Sukuna: Soldier, Statesman, Man of Two Worlds.

But for a far more nuanced understanding of the incredibly contradictory character Ratu Sukuna was for Fijian development (and today rarely publicly discussed in Fiji), the reader should carefully absorb Dr. Steven Ratuva’s article in Fijian Studies (and reprinted in a recently published collection of articles Understanding Oceania) “Man versus Myth: the life and times of Ratu Sukuna”.

Ratuva cogently argued: “As far as the Taukei community was concerned, Ratu Sukuna was the lighthouse that illuminated history in an awe-inspiring way. He was the  model personality to be emulated, the holder of immeasurable wisdom and guiding beacon for Fiji’s future”.

Before one concludes that would justify having Ratu Sukuna Day as a public holiday, note that Ratuva also argued cogently how the policies Sukuna helped the Fiji colonial government to entrench on Fijians and Fiji “shackled the Taukei further into colonial servitude and feeble reliance on colonial institutions such as the Great Council of Chiefs and Fijian Affairs Board… helped undermine Taukei innovation and empowerment and was partly responsible for their lack of progress in education, commerce and professional endeavours. The system of nomination Ratu Sukuna vehemently advocated also nurtured a distrust in democracy and modernity.”

Ratuva argued, with the support of work by other scholars such as Dr. Robert Nicole, that these factors “collectively fueled Taukei grievances in the postcolonial era and contributed to public and violent expressions of ethnonationalism”.

It is clear therefore that Ratu Sukuna was an extraordinary in Fiji’s history and what a person whose life and indeed his contradictions can be celebrated and discussed today so as to enable the modern indigenous Fijian to understand where their current leaders are taking them, some in clearly opposite directions to what Ratu Sukuna stood for.

So why has there been total silence from Fiji’s leaders today (including those from the military hierarchy, past and present) on the removal of Ratu Sukuna Day as a public holiday,

The current military leaders

I don’t expect the chiefs of Fiji to protest about the removal of Ratu Sukuna Day as a Public Holiday, given that they failed to protest at the removal of the GCC.

But how  many people in Fiji think about the extent to which Fiji’s leadership today is dominated by former military commanders?

The Prime Minister (Voreqe Bainimarama), the Leader of the Opposition (Sitiveni Rabuka) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Ratu Epeli Nailatikau) are all former Commanders of the RFMF, with Ratu Epeli also having been the President when a number of critical decrees and laws were promulgated, including that for the 2013 Fiji Constitution.

The current President of Fiji (Major-General Jioji Konrote) as a retired senior military officer.

It has been abundantly clear for the last twelve years that the profound policy changes of the Bainimarama Government (both unelected and elected) could only be implemented because of the support of the RFMF.

It is surely incumbent on these former military leaders to explain to the Fiji public their position on the decision to remove Ratu Sukuna Day as a public holiday to commemorate this historical icon for the indigenous Fijians, who are more than 60 percent of Fiji’s population, a far higher proportion than are Hindus or Muslims.

Why not a Fiji Leaders Day?

I can understand that any government (and the employers of course) would be worried about having Public Holidays to celebrate every leader, just as questions can be asked about which religion to celebrate, in a secular state.

But surely the Fiji Parliament could discuss having a “Leaders’ Day” Public Holiday to celebrate all the other great leaders of the past, both during colonial and Independent Fiji.

Worthy names that spring to mind and are not active politically today are Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Jai Ram  Reddy, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Ratu Sukuna, AD Patel, Swami Rudrananda and many others, perhaps also including the radical leaders like Apolosi Ranawai.

Our people surely need to remember and celebrate their positive contributions, while honestly acknowledging and learning from whatever weaknesses they may have had (don’t we all?).

If Fiji’s current leaders to not recognize Fiji’s historical leaders just because they had a few  weaknesses, a future Fiji could well apply the same argument to some current political leaders who may also be reasonably argued to be transforming Fiji, even if they have their own personal weaknesses and Achille’s heel.

Note of course that I have not mentioned any of the great social leaders that Fiji has had over the years (like the late Savenaca Siwatibau , the late Amelia Rokotuivuna), and some still alive and kicking today (like Suliana Siwatibau and Esiteri Kamikamica). There are many more that readers can think of.

But what of the silent Fiji public

It is a tragedy for Fiji today that most of the population think that their civic responsibility is fulfilled if they put a piece of paper ever three years in a ballot box to elect a parliament and government.

We can note that the recent motion by the Opposition for the Bainimarama Government to remove their ban on Professor Brij Lal and Dr Padma Narsey Lal, was ruled out of order by the Speaker of the House and a former President who signed that very decree that set in stone the 2013 Constitution that he used to justify his current decision in Parliament.

But true democracy and good governance means that the public must keep demanding accountability from their elected leaders, even if parliament is prevented from doing so.

Accountability of leaders and good governance will not be given to our people on a plate: it has to be earned, painfully at times.

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