Living with fear: Government should listen and learn

People's Alliance Party leader Sitiveni Rabuka during an interview. Picture: FILE

In many of my speeches I refer to the atmosphere of fear often felt in Fiji.

This week the fear issue has emerged again.

The prominent National Federation Party member Richard Naidu told an audience in Suva that the current government rules by fear.

Minister Sayed-Khaiyum questions this.

He asked at a press conference, what fear?

Then he attempted to put the blame for it onto threatening material allegedly written by supporters of our party and others.

That is typical of him.

Let me say straight away that it does not surprise me that Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has difficulty recognising Fiji’s fear.

This sort of denial often comes from those who lead authoritarian governments.

I make the point that both Mr Sayed-Khaiyum and the Prime Minister have difficulty expressing genuine empathy with the people.

The Prime Minister’s remarks are often scripted and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum cannot help talking down and lecturing.

He has accumulated so much power, and is ready to use it to get what he wants, that people do indeed fear him.

It is a striking example of self-deception that he and the Prime Minister have convinced themselves they are doing marvels for the people, and all is well.

It is impossible for them to admit that fear is so broad as that would mean they have failed to create a happy nation.

And after all, isn’t that supposed to be their mission?

Yet it is a fact that throughout Fiji there is a perception that this government is indeed to be feared.

The origins of fear go back to numerous publicised incidents and some utterances.

I add here that apart from print and electronic media the “coconut wireless” can be very effective in disseminating news.

Police state tactics

I recall some years ago the PM appeared to threaten to withhold development funds from areas that had not supported him.

He seems to have overcome that urge now.

But the memory of his apparently threatening attitude lingers.

It makes people cautious and nervous about speaking out in case there are repercussions.

In other words fear still hovers.

For many the safest approach is to hide their true feelings and shower the PM and his ministers with praise.

When Opposition MPs were taken in for questioning for opposing the controversial Bill 17, that created fear.

It would be natural for people to think “if MPs were taken in perhaps the same will happen to me if I speak out on something”.

The vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific was deported at night with no explanation.

These were police state tactics.

The vice-chancellor’s fate became another source of concern and fear.

It is more than likely that major business organisations wondered whether their chief executives might receive similar treatment if their companies were involved in disagreements with the Government.

A group of young people tried to march publicly to protest about climate change issues.

The police descended on them, and told them to remove their banners and stopped them from marching.

What sort of signal went out to the youth of our country over that incident?

People would naturally be very fearful when they witnessed on video a man being savagely beaten by security personnel in the back of an open truck.

A 2019 incident involving a 16-year-old boy physically abused at the army barracks in Suva also sent a ripple of fear right through the community.

He was accused of posting criticism of the Prime Minister on social media.

What happened to him was widely publicised and is still remembered clearly today.

He is unable to admit that his media decree is oppressive.

The only defence he offers is that no one has been prosecuted.

So what?

He cannot get into his head that the decree, with its serious punishments, is the media industry’s Sword of Damocles.

It is waiting to drop.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum could remove it with the stroke of a pen.

Why doesn’t he?

The answer is he prefers a media industry operating in fear of his law.

The recent legal onslaught on political parties by Mr Sayed- Khaiyum over electioneering details is causing wide concern and probably a degree of fear among candidates, their families and the public.

I give a pledge that the fear now felt will come to an end when a The People’s Alliance-NFP government comes to power.

Our job will be to bring unity, peace, prosperity and happiness.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum at his recent press conference pushed back on the reality that democracy was under assault. Again he is in denial about this because he has to be.

Here are just a few things to consider.

Restoring democracy

Local engagement between MPs representing different constituencies and the people living there was always an important part of Fiji’s democratic landscape.

But it was removed by the Bainimarama-Sayed-Khaiyum regime.

Local constituencies were scrapped and all the MPs were supposed to be looking after all the voters everywhere.

It’s like the whole of Fiji became one huge constituency.

This doesn’t work.

The “one constituency” model has damaged democracy and made it more distant from the people.

Previously voters had the right to elect their town and city councillors.

But that right was taken away from them when the Bainimarama-SayedKhaiyum government did away with elected municipal councils.

I suspect that in their minds they felt such elected bodies would become a threat to them.

So instead of councillors put there by people’s votes, they appointed administrators for the towns and cities.

The officials are not accountable to the ratepayers and citizens generally.

They appear to make decisions privately.

They answer only to the Government.

Our intention is to reinstate all the municipal councils, so that the citizens one again have the right to govern and control their own local affairs.

There are other instances of the diminishing of democracy, especially in parliamentary procedures.

These include cutting back debate time, rushing legislation through the House of Representatives and making it
more difficult for petitions to be introduced into Parliament.

Petitioning is one of the most ancient methods of communicating the views of ordinary people.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum is very familiar with these attacks on democracy.

Earlier this week I spent time visiting informal settlements and villages.

I went to talk to the residents quietly and most of all to listen to them.

What I saw and heard completely undermined the often-repeated claim by the Sayed-Khaiyum-Bainimarama government that no one would be left behind.

A majority of the people I spoke to were very evidently struggling.

They were being left behind.

They belong to the growing ranks of the population who want to see a change.

They are burdened by the cost of living, low wages and poor health services and other amenities.

They are sick of taps running dry and cuts in electrical power.

The earlier advice of one of the EFL executives, that people should protect themselves by buying a generator, perfectly illustrates how out of touch this government is.

It was clear to me in those settlements and villages that most people could not find the money to generate power that should be provided by the Government at any rate.

My advice to Mr Sayed-Khaiyum and the Prime Minister is that when they go to meet the poor and the needy they should just listen quietly and respectfully.

If they did that they might learn something.

• SITIVENI RABUKA is a former prime minister of Fiji and the leader of The People’s Alliance party. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.

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