Fiji slams Pacific bloc expulsion threats

The Fiji government slammed the Pacific Islands Forum on Friday for its threats to expel the military-run nation over its slow pace in returning to democracy, saying such a move would undermine regional cooperation.
The forum said in a statement Thursday that it would consider suspending Fiji from membership by the end of the year unless its military government can show progress toward holding democratic elections. Forum leaders unanimously condemned Fiji coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama's recent reversal of his 2007 pledge to hold elections by March 2009.
It was the first time a member nation has been threatened with suspension in the group's 39-year history, reflecting the exasperation of leaders at Bainimarama's actions.
The Fiji government said in a statement that any move to suspend it from the grouping of 16 South Pacific nations "would have a negative domino effect on the merits of regional cooperation in the Pacific."
In a speech to the nation Friday, Bainimarama said that every Fiji citizen must now ask, "Are we going to be bullied and pressured into doing things that are clearly not in our national interest?
"If we succumb to such pressures, what next?" he asked.
Bainimarama said he had also conveyed "sadness" to other forum leaders over dominance of the forum by Australia and New Zealand.
"Pacific Island countries will need to be vigilant to protect the forum organization becoming a foreign policy tool of these two countries. They now seem to have usurped the moral leadership of the region," he said.
On Monday, Bainimarama warned the forum that he would consider withdrawing from the group if it pushed Fiji too hard to hold elections before it is ready, but he made no mention of an election timeframe in the speech.
Mahendra Chaudhry, who was Fiji's finance minister until Monday and who remains close to Bainimarama's government, said suspension from the forum would not amount to much.
"I find the forum of little relevance. It is seen as an institution heavily dominated by Australia and New Zealand, with island nations within it having very little say in its affairs," Chaudhry told New Zealand's National Radio.
Chaudhry backed Bainimarama's position that elections under Fiji's current electoral system would be "racially skewed" and that it would be a mistake to move too quickly with new elections.
Bainimarama, who took power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, withdrew his election pledge early this month, saying he needed more time to reform the electoral system.
Forum chairman Toke Talagi, the premier of Niue, said the group was unanimous in demanding the military-led state live up to its word or face possible suspension, and hopes it can re-engage with the wayward state.
Australian and New Zealand defense ministers meeting in the New Zealand capital, Wellington, told reporters they were reviewing contingency plans for evacuating their nationals from Fiji in case conditions deteriorate.
Several thousand Australian and New Zealand nationals, mainly tourists, are in Fiji at any time.
New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff said if evacuation was necessary, the two countries would work with "whatever government was in place" in Fiji, adding, that "we would do it with or without (the) concurrence" of Fiji authorities.

Updated : 2021-01-28 16:52 GMT+08:00