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“The Bainimarama Government, academic freedom and lasulasu” (ed. in FT 5 March 2022)

05/03/2022

[Lasulasu: Fijian for “lies”. Jooth: Hindi for “lies”]

A few weeks ago, Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister and Attorney General (Mr Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum)  piously explained in the Fiji Parliament that “academic freedom means that an academic can comment on anything whether they support government policies or not” (Fiji Village, report by Semi Turaga, 10 Feb. 2020).  That is quite correct, of course.

But Khaiyum then went on to allege “we have publicly lamented the fact that in Fiji not only academics but professionals like accountants and lawyers don’t have a culture where they can come out and say this bill has come out and we agree with 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 but we don’t agree with these ones because of these reasons.”

            Any newcomer to Fiji hearing this for the first time would think “Wow. What a progressive liberal Government this is, wanting to encourage a culture of critical thinking and public debate among academics and professionals”. But anyone whose memory of events in Fiji goes back just ten years must be shaking their heads in absolute astonishment.

            What about the Bainimarama Government’s withholding of its financial liability to USP to try to get rid of VC Pal Ahluwalia who had been uncovering irregularities at USP?   The public well knows that the Bainimarama Government sent soldiers to brutally deport VC Ahluwalia and his wife from Fiji in the dead of night.

            But what about the role of the Bainimarama Government and AG Khaiyum ten year ago in putting financial pressure on USP to get rid of a certain Professor of Economics who was then publicly disagreeing with the Bainimarama Government’s arguably illegal plan to slash existing FNPF pensions as well as many other draconian policies?

            Since ten years is a long time in Fiji, let me just remind the Fiji public what happens to dissident academics who disagree with the policies of PM Bainimarama and his AG Aiyaz Khaiyum. This might give the Fiji public the real perspective on the Acting Prime Minister’s recent diatribes about the “lasulasu” and “jooth” allegedly committed by Opposition Parliamentarians.

A dissident professor in 2011

In 2011, after painfully winning a long and exhausting battle taken to USP Council, to get my normal three year extension of contract (another story), I escaped on a six month sabbatical leave to Kagoshima University in Japan.

            But the Dean of FBE (Professor Biman Prasad) soon forwarded me a disturbing email (dated  29 May 2011) from the Deputy Chair of USP Council (the late Ikbal Janif), to the Vice Chancellor of USP (Professor Rajesh Chandra), also cc’d to the Chair of USP Council (Dame Fiame Mataafa).

            Janif’s email to the Vice Chancellor stated “Further to the conversation we had in Rarotonga following the AG’s call to you… [I suggest] you should write to Wadan expressing USP’s concern at the wild and unsubstantiated accusations he makes against the Fiji government and ask him to refrain from this practice.”

            I have no record of what the AG said to Professor Chandra but was soon to find out the result.  Within weeks VC Rajesh Chandra sent me an email which any ordinary person would read as quite threatening. It stated “you are required to present yourself at the University here in Suva on … at 10 am on 15 July 2011… at my Office. There would be serious  consequences should you fail to attend as directed”.

 Despite my requests, the USP VC refused to give me any details about the Fiji Government complaints against me, nor what USP rules I may have breached, nor why the meeting could not be held by video conference with me in Japan.

            I asked for the President of AUSPS (then Rohit Kishore) to attend the meeting but he did not appear.

            The long meeting with Vice Chancellor Chandra was also attended by the two Deputy VCs (Kelly and Williams) and the then Dean of FBE (Professor Biman Prasad) who can all testify to the following account of which I have an indisputable record (even though the USP management strangely chose not to have any secretariat to record the minutes). Another Dean (and a quiet Bainimarama Government supporter) astutely sent in her apologies when the meeting started].

The Government’s financial pressure

I was informed that the University’s financial state and its financial future was being jeopardized by my criticisms of the Military Regime; that Fiji was already withholding six months of payments of its required contributions;  that USP might also lose out financially to National University of Fiji and Fiji University;  and that USP’s legal opinion was that I could be charged under the Public Emergency  Regulations.

            VC Chandra informed me bluntly that PM Bainimarama had personally complained about my writings and that as Minister of Finance he was not prepared to pay the salaries of people like me; that I had ” jeopardized the funding of the university from the Fiji Government and it is also jeopardizing the future of the whole university”.

            After a long discussion going round and round, the VC said that I could apologize to the Prime Minister and Attorney General and formally agree to write only “professorial” academic analyses, not the “journalistic” pieces I had allegedly been writing and which had appeared on blogs.

            I told USP management that apologies to illegal treasonous Prime Ministers and Attorney Generals were out of the question, especially to two individuals who were doing great harm to Fiji and its people.

            I gave them concrete examples of the huge military overspending, harm to vital institutions like the FNPF, and total unaccountability to the tax-payers of Fiji for government spending and deals on Fiji’s resources.

            I informed the USP VC that I would continue to write for the ordinary people of Fiji and the USP member countries, whose taxes paid my salary; that I had a fundamental disagreement with USP management on what the tax-payers wanted and needed from USP “professors” in terms of publications and policy advice.

            I informed that I would not compromise my basic human right to “freedom of expression” and that any news outlet in the world was free to run my articles under my name, as they often did (such as Pacific Scoop out of AUT).

            The rest of the USP Management Team (with the exception of Dean FBE) strongly supported the VC’s blunt statement that it would be financially better for USP if I resigned.

            Totally exhausted after my previous long battle even to get my normal three year contract and this traumatic forced recall to Fiji, I saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

The costs of academic freedom

After Kagoshima, I lay low for another six months in Cairns Australia as Adjunct Professor (without salary) at The Cairns Institute, James Cook University.

            Upon returning to Fiji in 2012, I was taken in for questioning by the CID.   In the company of my lawyer (Tuitoga) from Hannifs, , my CID file was interestingly shown to me by a friendly CID officer (a well-known name today though departed from his position).

            That file had a record of the preliminary meetings, including some interesting names well known in prosecution circles and one ever present in the Fiji media today.  The CID took away my computer and phone, found nothing incriminating and eventually failed to lay any charges.

            Some of my more astute professorial colleagues continued to quietly work at USP for more than ten years after I was forced to resign, forever reminding me of the great long term financial costs that I paid for my attachment to academic freedom.

My rewarding consultancy work with the FBS (financed by FBS and AusAID) also came to an abrupt end, with a finished print-ready FBS report (Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leisure. 2013. FBS. Funded by AusAID) not seeing the light of day because it had a few bits of bad news for the Bainimarama Government such as employment actually falling between 2004-5 and 2010-11, while the Government boasted of the Bainimarama Boom.

Academic censorship continued

The Bainimarama Government continued to trample on basic human rights in Fiji, including freedom of speech, with the collaboration of some media owners, except The Fiji Times which desperately tried to keep its head above water, despite the draconian prosecutions against publishers, editor and journalists.

            In that period, no Fiji journalist dared to ask for details about what this Regime was doing with the valuable rights over the mahogany forests, mining agreements, provincial shares in Yasana Holdings and Fiji TV, hundreds of millions of FNPF assets and large infrastructure road projects.

            No lawyer’s conference ever made an issue about the late David Burness’ legal challenge to the reduction of FNPF pensions being thrown out of court by a Military Decree. Today, a current university vice chancellor and former “pro bono” lawyer for the late Burness might like to forget this travesty of justice by the Bainimarama Government, but then again, she also once justified the 2006 coup.

            No accountants’ or auditors’ congress ever made an issue that five years of Auditor General’s Reports were suppressed until after the 2014 Elections under a 2013 Constitution imposed by the military Bainimarama Government, but never passed by any parliament.

            Not just university academics, but also a few lawyers and accountants struggled for freedom of expression, despite the many vital issues requiring public debate in their areas of expertise.

            After his resignation from USP, this Professor of Economics continued to write critical articles for the Fiji Times as he was advised to do by a lawyer friend who continued his hawkish oversight over my many politically sensitive published writings.

The hypocrisy today

How utterly astonishing is it that the very people who created this oppressive era of intimidation after 2006, are today “lamenting” that Fiji’s academics, accountants and lawyers are failing in their duty to the public to engage in public debate.

How utterly astonishing that one most powerful Minister in Bainimarama’s Government  accuses the Opposition parliamentarians of lasulasu and jooth.

            When the public can readily see that not just economics professors, but university vice chancellors, solicitor generals, government statisticians, military and career police officers, public enterprise board members, and many others, can be sent packing with the stroke of a pen.

            In the meantime, the Fiji public can ponder how the most powerful Government Minister Fiji has ever had through its entire history, can blatantly lie through his teeth in the Fiji Parliament no less, that his Government “laments” that Fiji does not have a culture of academic and professional freedom.

But there is wider collective responsibility

However convenient it may be to do so, the Fiji public must not fall into the trap of holding only the one strutting Bollywood Minister responsible, however much he is given star media prominence by his brother (at FBC), a newspaper rag (Fiji Sun) given preferential government dollars and anonymous keyboard warriors.

            Even this Bollywood star for his misdeeds needs the support of many other functionaries in high places who either actively conspire with him or remain silent and become accomplices.

            He also has the support of many corrupt business houses who have minted money since 2006, but who will readily jump ship if necessary (as many are already doing at the prospect of Bainimarama losing the next elections- ask the Opposition Leaders).

Remember that the Bainimarama Government also comprises a large number of silent FFP Ministers who are all party to what has been going on (including even a former USP student of mine).  Will voters at the next election hold them to account? Don’t hold your breath.

            Then there is the military, police and prisons hierarchy, presidents and speakers of parliament (full of former military officers) who are the real powerbrokers and beneficiaries behind Bainimarama who no voter can exert any pressure on. Expect them to raise their ugly heads after the next election like feeding cobras or more appropriately, to keep the pigs feeding with their noses in the taxpayers’ trough.

Historians well know that Hitler could not be Hitler in Nazi Germany without his powerful henchmen like Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goring, Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann who all conspired to terrorize the Opposition in Germany, and “disappear” thousands of dissident intellectuals and six million Jews. Just as Putin does today in Russia.

Fiji may have its own Hitler in Bainimarama with his strutting Bollywood Deputy, but behind both are the silent Tonton Macoutes in the military, police and prisons. Will they continue their shameful role in blindly propping up Bainimarama and Khaiyum or, will they open their eyes and ears to the impoverished crying masses of all races in Fiji, and say “enough is enough”.

[Dr Wadan Narsey is a former Professor of Economics at The University of the South Pacific]

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