Fiji’s new leader makes official trip abroad as tensions with military simmer

PM Sitiveni Rabuka is hoping visit to Kiribati will convince the island nation to return to a regional forum.
Stephen Wright for BenarNews
2023.01.20
Bangkok
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Fiji’s new leader makes official trip abroad as tensions with military simmer Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka is pictured exiting a Royal Australian Air Force plane after arriving in Kiribati on Jan. 20, 2023.
Handout/Fiji Government

Fiji’s newly elected prime minister is on his first official trip abroad even as tensions simmer between his government and the coup-prone Pacific island country’s military.

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka arrived in Kiribati on Friday, a visit he has said aims to convince Kiribati to return to the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional organization that groups island nations, Australia and New Zealand but which has been beset by rifts.

Rabuka traveled to Kiribati on an Australian Air Force plane, pictures posted on his Twitter account showed. “Arrived in Kiribati this afternoon,” the Twitter account announced.

Plans for the overseas trip took on a heightened significance after Fiji’s military commander, according to Fijian media reports, on Tuesday criticized Rabuka’s government for making rapid policy changes and emphasized the military’s guardian role under Fiji’s constitution. Freedom House has described Fiji as only “partly free” because of the military’s entrenchment in politics. 

A smiling Rabuka, in a video posted online of an exchange with reporters, responded to military commander Jone Kalouniwai’s warning shot by saying “Just relax. Do I look worried?”

Rabuka formed a coalition government after elections in December, ending the 16-year rule of former military chief Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup. 

rabuka police.jpg
Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka walks past a police formation after arriving in Kiribati on Jan. 20, 2023. Credit: Handout/Fiji Government

Fiji, a linchpin nation in a region vulnerable to natural disasters and economic shocks, has a burgeoning relationship with China while maintaining close security ties with the United States and countries such as Australia and New Zealand. 

The country of more than 900,000 people has suffered four coups since the late 1980s and the December election was also notable as a contest between former coup leaders. Rabuka led two coups in 1987 that aimed to reassert indigenous political power.

Indigenous Fijians are the majority in Fiji and Indian Fijians – the descendants of indentured laborers brought to the islands during British colonial rule – have dropped to about 38% from 50% in the 1980s because of emigration spurred by the coups.

Rabuka’s motorcade in Kiribati’s capital Tarawa on Friday was greeted by locals waving Fijian flags, video showed. 

Kiribati, a chain of coral atolls that’s among the poorest nations in the Pacific, switched its diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019 and its exit from the Pacific regional grouping last year suggested it might further tighten relations with Beijing.   

A Fijian government statement on Friday said Rabuka will meet with Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau “to re-engage with the island nation after its withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum last year and to reaffirm that solidarity exists in the region.”

Rabuka hopes to bring Kiribati back into the Pacific Islands Forum before Fiji’s chairmanship of the regional grouping is passed to the Cook Islands in March, the statement said.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

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