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Would Fiji’s reform via the Peoples Charter marginalise Rotumans?
by Lilino Vaurasi
From behind the Pacific clouds of uncertainty, a ray of hope emerges as Fiji's Political Leaders gather at the command of Interim Prime Minister (IPM) Commodore Bainimarama for the second political forum.
In opening discussions on Friday, March the 13th, IPM Commodore Bainimarama reiterated that Fiji's history has shown that the communal election structure is divisive. Further, that the system denied Citizens the right to choose their parliamentary representative.
The forum is said to deliberate on would be invitees and agenda for the up coming President's Political Dialogue Forum (PPDF). High on the PPDF agenda is the electoral reform and "The People's Charter." IPM Commodore Bainimarama said;
The Rotuman Coummnity's participation at the proposed PPDF has been raised and a representative will certainly be included in the final line up.
Major General Joiji Konrote would be the right representative to the Forum given that he was the last democractically elected Parlimentary Representative of the Rotuman Community.
Two features of the likely PPDF agenda have a direct impact on the Rotuman Community.
Rotumans must collectively gather, deliberate and decide on a unified consensus on its stand on the said issues noted hereunder for the PPDF representative to take to the forum. The issues are the proposed;
1: Abolishment of the communal voting and representation
2: Adopting the common name "Fijian" for Fiji Citizens
1. Voting System change Impact.
The Rotuman Community would lose the single seat reserved for its electorate in the Lower House of Representatives.
The concern about the proposed change was earlier raised by Major General Jioji Konrote who highlighted the fact that as a minority community, the current voting system guarantees representation and avoids the Rotuman Community being politically annihilated by the two major races.
In response to Major General Jioji Konrote's concern, many critics voiced their opinion with some arguing that the concern is flawed and Rotumans should not be given preferential treatment because of its minority population status.
So with the difference in opinion, are there sufficient grounds to support Major General Jioji Konrote's concern? The answer is "Yes".
Yes, Rotuman must maintain its direct parliamentary representative status.
The Rotuman Community must resiliently support Major General Jioji Konrote's effort in constructively arguing that the Island of Rotuma is an independent protectorate of the Republic of the Fiji Islands, with its own Laws specified under the Rotuma Act, known as Laws of Fiji, Charter 122.
As such, the Island of Rotuma rightfully should have its own direct representative in Parliament to ensure that the independent territory of Rotuma is equitably represented in parliament. The Rotuma Act States;
With the Rotuma Act in mind, the only change that should be implemented is the voting eligible status of the Rotuma electorate roll.
That is, only registered residents on the Island of Rotuma are eligible to contest for the parliamentary position and vote for the best candidate to represent the Island territory of Rotuma.
This proposed amendment would result in a non-resident of the Island of Rotuma, unable to participate in the voting process for the Rotuma Parliamentary Representative.
Under this proposal, Rotumans residing in other parts of the Fiji Islands or abroad will have to vote for their respective periphery parliamentary candidates under the proposed open voting system.
Such a transparent change to the voting eligibility would strengthen the Rotuma Act's description of the "Rotuman community" and clearly highlight the fundamental fact, that Rotuma is an independent territory, with its own laws and rightfully worthy of a direct parliamentary representative.
The above proposed voting eligibility change has further pros and cons.
It would leave aspiring Rotuman Leaders living abroad no choice but to journey back to the Island to forge their leadership career with the community. A difficult career path for some that may lead to the Rotuman community forcing a review and change to the archaic Rotuma Act.
That is, to enable the inclusion of Rotumans living abroad the constitutional right under the Rotuma Act, to be part of the Rotuman community and electorate roll.
A change to the Rotuma Act to include Rotumans living abroad as part of the "Rotuman Community" would legitimatise their rights to contribute in the collective decision process in developing the Island of Rotuma and its entire community.
As is, Rotumans living abroad have no legitimate say about the developments in Rotuma because they are legally not part of the Rotuman Community. Hence the reason the Seven Rotuman District Committee in Suva has no rights to demand or see implementation of what they feel is right for the Rotumans, from the Council of Rotuma.
The Seven Rotuma District Committee is useless from a blunt perspective and a pathetic forum the Council of Rotuma's view, especially when issues raised by the committee appear threatening or demanding to the Council of Rotuma members.
The Seven Rotuma District Committee in Suva would be better off looking after the interest of its registered members within its boundaries and not bother about the Rotuman Community in Rotuma until such time the Rotuma Act includes Rotumans living abroad as part of their Community.
Suggest the Seven Rotuma District Committee set up its;
From a broader perspective, a non-resident of the Island of Rotuma would still indirectly benefit from having a direct representative in parliament because of their extended family interests on the Island.
However, should the Interim Government agree to uphold the current Rotuman voting eligibility status, then Rotumans should take the salute and say, "Vinaka Saka" and move on to the next issue.
With the said technical perspective, Major General Jioji Konrote with the support of the Rotuman Community should pursue the points mentioned with the Interim Government and the election reformers for careful consideration.
A good start would be making Rotuma's stand known at the PPDF that the essences of Rotuma retaining its direct parliamentary representative under any voting system change would therefore not be "race based" but rightfully "territorially based".
2 Impact of adopting a common
It contradicts the description of a Rotuman under the Rotuman Act.
There is no doubt that the Fiji Interim Government can easily abolish the Rotuma Act and impose their Charter rules. That is, enforcing the change in name on "Rotumans" to be called "Fijians".
Would Rotumans be reclassified as Fijians or on a humorous relabelling be known as "Pesketians" of the Islands of Rotuma?
It can be said with great confidence that from the rebellious Pesketians of Oinafa, Chiefly Noatauans, Malhahan academics, religious Jujuan and Pepejeians, warriors of the Itu'ti'u enclave to the Itumuta blues and souls would all agree that Rotumans cannot be called Fijians.
The Rotuman identity and its authenticity "must not" be compromised in the general quest by the Interim Government for a common name for Fiji Citizens.
Rotuman Chiefs did surrender their sovereignty to the British and subsequently became part of the Fiji Islands but their identity never changed.
Many Rotumans are Citizens of the Republic of the Fiji Islands but a "Rotuman" cannot be called a "Fijian" merely for the sake of National classification for unity.
The Fiji Interim Government has an alternative.
It must seriously consider amendments adopting the common name as "Fijians & Rotumans" for all citizens of Fiji and not just "Fijian" as proposed. If it is toocomplex, than "Fiji Islander" must be maintained as the common name for Fiji Citizens.
To an extent, a great percentage of the general public, nationalists and politicians would fret about the issues raised, should the decision sway in favour of Major General Jioji Konrote and the Rotuman Community.
The question of what has Rotuma got to offer to deserve such a privilege may be raised in the debate, so Major General Jioji Konrote and Rotumans must be prepared.
Arguing the Rotuman concerns must go back to when Rotuma was ceded to Queen Victoria and its subsequent merger status when Fiji became independence.
Apart from reminding the Interim Government and the general public of Rotuma's; Loyal intelligent work force and their exemplary contribution to the Nation in all fields. The Islands independent territorial status under the Rotuma Act.
The Island of Rotuma has potential resources and features for a return to investment if the Fiji Government of the day is prepared to invest in Rotuma.
The Island of Rotuma is under utilised in many aspects with only its marine resources under its territorial waters harvested by licensed and illegal entrepreneurs.
The Island of Rotuma can be developed into a significant revenue earner with the;
The above mentioned development propositions are only few that can be implemented if the pros and cons are thoroughly reviewed, with comprehensive investment prospectus made available to investors or to the Government of the day for funding consideration.
Maintaining the Rotuman identity, parliamentary status and realising the Island of Rotuma's revenue potentials is at the mercy and prerogative of the Council of Rotuma.
To be precise, progress depends on the Council of Rotuma's ability to work with it political leader and advisors to implement viable sustainable ventures on the Island of Rotuma.
Reported squabbling between the Chairman of the Council of Rotuma with Major General Jioji Konrote and Dr John Fatiaki is considered conduct unbecoming.
Unacceptable behaviour the entire Rotuman Community can do without at a time when the Republic and the Island of Rotuma are at crossroad with change.
The political situation in Fiji requires the Council of Rotuma and its advisors to exercise tolerance, understanding with greater dialogue amongst them in order to reach equitable decisions on issues in the best interest of Rotuma and its entire community.
Major General Jioji Konrote and Doctor John Fatiaki's good relationship with IPM Commodore Bainimarama, complimented by Col. Paul Manuel's association with the Military Council, must be maintained in order to keep Rotuma and its interest within the circular of influence.
Knowing your enemy, keeping your friends close and rivals even closer is the diplomatic approach the Council of Rotuma must adopt in dealing with the Interim Government, with the assistance of Major General Jioji Konrote and Dr John Fatiaki. Breaking ties with these esteem gentlemen would be ill-advised given their strong working relationship with IPM Commodore Bainimarama.
Assessing the ultimate path
In the final analysis, if Rotuma losses out with no direct representative in parliament, then so be it, in the broader interest of routing out "ethno politics".
For the entire Rotuman Community, the loss of a direct representative in parliament should not be in anyway, taken as the beginning of being marginalised because of its minority population status.
With respect to previous Rotuman politicians, the Island of Rotuma never gained much from development with their direct representatives in past Governments. This was simply due to the poor Council of Rotuma leadership that was never united to forge a firm sense of development direction for the Rotuman politician to assist implement.
Rotumans were humiliated and more renowned for the wrong things few individuals and former political leaders did in the course of their duty. Such as the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji, half heartily backing coup leaders and consciously participating in the recently unearthed Agriculture scam.
In the worse case scenario, a loss of a direct parliamentary representation should be a "beacon of strength" for Rotumans, a catalyst for Rotumans to work towards achieving Rotuma's own financial wellbeing with its natural resources and intelligent labour force.
It is up to the Rotuman Community to influence their District Chief's to work together with its advisors in order to correctly forge the foundation to prosperity for the next generation.
Major General Jioji Konrote and Dr John Fatiaki cannot alone, bring about good change and development for the Island of Rotuma and its people. These gentlemen are however, in the circular of Fiji's leadership group and better positioned to influence change with Rotuma's interest.
Suggested sacrifices to forge change
The Rotuman Community and its Chiefs have to be even-tempered and united to forge good change.
Even if it means;
If the Fiji Interim Government is not prepared to adopt the common name Fijian & Rotuman for its Citizens under the proposed Charter Change and Rotumans have to change their identity and be known as "Fijians".
Then perhaps, it is time for the Rotuman community to seriously consider disassociating themselves from Fiji via a referendum.
Rotumans should either seek Independence with the assistance of the United Nations or seek a new tolerant democratic partner country that is willing to take the Island of Rotuma as part of their extended sovereign territory.
Again, no one else but Major General Jioji Konrote is evenly poised to take up the assignment, in leading Rotuma to either form a sovereign independent Island Nation or in finding an alternative super democratic Nation to align Rotuma in alliance.
Major General Jioji Konrote's diplomatic experience in Australia, renowned leadership status with conflict management in the world arena of "Peace Keeping," should be sufficient for the said assignment. That is to convince IPM Commodore Bainimarama that its time to let go Rotuma for the sake of its people and to world Leaders that Rotuma needs assistance to disassociate itself from Fiji for the best interest of its community.
Let's offer Rotuma's territory to New Zealand, Australia and Britain first and see if they would take the Island and its inhabitants as part of their sovereign territory.
If the above two closest neighbour foreign countries hate the current Fiji Interim Government so much. They may be willing to take over the intelligent Rotuman Community that wishes to be free to live in a democratic society, even at their current blink economic conditions.
However, before diplomatic talks begin, a consensus on the issue must be obtained from the Rotumans.
Only a referendum can clearly state whether Rotumans like to;
The fear that the 8,000 plus Rotumans on Fijian territory would be discriminated should not be the case. The Fijians must respect those Rotumans that so wish to remain Fiji Citizens and gracefully farewell those that so wish to emigrate with change to their new host Nation.
However, if the referendum results are not in favour of Rotuma disassociating them from Fiji, then whatever election system and common name that is adopted in the Republic of the Fiji Islands, under the Peoples Charter for Change must be gracefully accepted by Rotumans.
A decision to stay the course with the Fijians can be viewed as a true reflection of the lack of confidence Rotumans have to venture outside the square. Further, it may be evident of the lack of good leadership amongst the Rotumans to persuade its community that it is time to leave.
On the other side of reality, it could simply signify that Rotumans are content with what they have and the "Fiji way, the way the world should be".
It would be a sincere reflection of the close sense of traditional respect forged by our Chiefly elders with the Fijian Community, past and present. A true indication of the many passionate inter-marriage acquaintances and strong empathy between the indigenous Fijians and Rotumans, complemented by a robust desire to journey together in good or bad times.
If staying the course with the Fijian is final than Rotumans must seriously consider revamping its Council of Rotuma structure as early mentioned to progress.
The Rotuman Community must be even spirited and united to understand that "Rotumans can never be marginalised unless Rotumans unwittingly choose to be marginalised".
This is a pre-eminent phase of opportunity for Rotumans to flip a coin and forge a change for a better future.
Rotumans must gather under the Nokonoko tree, talk sense, flip a coin and go with the decision.
I have read Lilino Vaurasi’s essay with potent curiosity and interest. Frankly, Lilino is very brave in the face of great adversity, especially since there’s a new interim Council in place in Rotuma appointed by the D.O., for no election has been held of Council members in line with the Military Government’s operations. The majority of the members retained their post but unfortunately three were sacked.
Certainly Lilino is very farsighted and full of zest with opinionated and audacious views. He has radically expressed his views in some instances for maximum impact to generate interest amongst the readers. But these won’t augur well to win him any accolades and support with our leaders in the island.
Perhaps he is very passionate about some of the issues expressed which he personally deemed as pertinent and made good sense. However, I have learned that such views can be construed as confronting and belligerent and a personal attack on the integrity of our leaders there rather than to stimulate their thought processes. But at least one thing is certain—that Lilino is being honest and transparent and for that reason I empathise with him.
Of course that’s what democracy is about, freedom of expression and speech. But let me assure you that with the current situation in the island, Lilino’s views, though well meant, will be brushed aside in the same way as those expressed in his previous letter—Is the Council of Rotuma Financial compliant? His opinions may be quite appropriate, but they will be viewed as a personal attack and therefore a no go zone by our leaders. Those who do not heed the warning have learned the hard way. Similarly, it is part of the reason why our elected representatives have been ignored at Council meetings; their forthrightness has been viewed as a threat.
Nonetheless, Lilino has not only provided some food for thought but also opened up a potential can of worms to which he must expect some responses.
If he were still alive, Mahatma Gandhi would be very pleased with Lilino for he once said that it’s cowardice to say nothing for fear of being ridiculed and ostracised when one knows that it is wrong.
So allow me to say this: I’ve been living in Rotuma for the last three years and can honestly say that the current mood in the island is pensive. People are full of apprehension and are suspicious of our elected representatives and well-educated Rotumans who speak their minds. These are my current understandings:
1. That the RIC will oppose any changes to the Rotuma Act that will adversely affect their authority. For the mentality is that the RIC must remain paramount in the administration of the island.
2. That the chiefs will not part with their mantle to lead and insist on having the final say; otherwise they fear they’ll be forgotten and a lost cause.
3. The perception is that Rotumans living in Fiji away from Rotuma can not bake and eat their cake at the same time.
This the mentality in the island and why I fear Lilino’s letter won’t augur well with the leaders there, but a couple of things that Lilino said needs to be clarified:
1. That in any business corporation, the Board is responsible for the production and provision of its annual report.
Similarly as is the case with the Rotuma Investment Ltd, the Board rather than the Council is at fault for its failure to properly undertake and discharge its fiduciary responsibilities.
It is the Board that is responsible for the company in Suva and if one cares to check the website one will surely find the names of the relevant directors responsible for its demise.
2. That the powers to be have audited the Council accounts but did not see anything drastically wrong with its modus operandi to seriously warrant taking the necessary steps to address inconsistencies. Thus the Council must be allowed to continue operation free of denigration and hassles. And who is there amongst us, to cast the first stone? For the Council must be right!
3. That Rotuma has no future plans for self-determination, which I am sure Lilino was well aware of when he wrote.
For we love the easy way of being picky packed and dependent on Fiji for ease of administration and everything. Certainly we have done well with this association with Fiji and surely most Rotumans will not want to part company with Fiji for a long time to come. Therefore we Rotumans must make the most of things and assimilate with the main stream in Fiji to survive. For since Fiji’s 1997 Constitution has been abrogated by the latest events, we Rotumans must be prepared to forego our single parliamentary seat for the sake of Fiji’s democracy and unity.
For Fiji to be a truly democratic country it must get rid of the coup culture that currently exists and elections must be based on a common role rather than the racially divisive communal role. But having said this, I am not naive to the fact that history dictates that any country that experiences the upheavals of a coup culture will repeat the process every 5--15 years. All one has to do is look around us, for there are many examples to be contended with. But hopefully the Peoples Charter and the proposed changes to the Election Act will be the end of this for Fiji.