Fiji: Now a secular nation


On 10 April 2009 all the judges in Fiji were removed from office by the military led by Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. The Constitution was treated as if it were a mere piece of paper. This major event was a consequence of the December 2006 military coup, one of four since 1987 to shock governments, diplomats, law societies, defenders of human rights and civil liberties, and non-government organisations.

The military coup, described as a ‘revolution’ by University of Sydney constitutional law professor, Anne Twomey,1 has not allowed anyone to get in the way of its perceived need for reform – including – of all people – Rupert Murdoch. He was obliged to sell one of his newspapers to an Indian-Fijian businessman in 2010.

This short paper emphasises the role of theocratic Methodism in Fiji, how its dogmatism and likely corruption may have helped cause Commodore Bainimarama to arrive at the position where he is now in 2013, but where was not prior to the 2000 coup: advocating a secular democracy, on terms that he defines.

It will assert there has been a power struggle between an indigenous, military, mostly Methodist, regressive elite, and a more progressive elite, composed mainly of a faction of the military, led by Commodore Bainimarama, who have de-converted from their earlier support for the 2000 coup.

They in turn have had support from a politically astute, mostly Indian-Fijian group of leading figures, and some passing support from the Catholic Church. The progressive elite have turned partly to secularism to sideline the indigenous-Methodist elite. Their success seems assured, but the moment of truth will arrive in the September 2014 elections.

As Helene Goiran noted in 2008 ‘It is, of course, paradoxical to conduct a coup d’etat in order to enhance democracy.’2 Commodore Bainimarama’s version of democracy allegedly emphasises fairness in the application of consolidated revenue, in a country characterised by under-development and poverty, but with an economy growing at about 3 per cent.

Commodore Bainimarama has – as required – suspended the basic structures of democracy, including: censoring the press; causing judges to resign; arresting ministers of religion and protestors; kicking out diplomats. It has been Napoleonic and breathtaking. He has remained totally focused on what he apparently perceives is the matter at hand introducing stable and reasoned government and has let nothing or no one stand in the way of achieving this.

The Catholic Archbishop Peter Loy Chong was reprimanded by the Prime Minister of Fiji for saying that the secular Constitution deprived Fijians of the right to worship in public.

Some background

Fiji has a population of some 900,000 people scattered over hundreds of islands. The Deed of Cession written in 1874 formalised Fiji as a British colony. The British created a Great Council of Chiefs to facilitate smooth control, as they did in New Zealand, with the creation of a Mori ‘King’.

Australian aboriginals and New Zealand Mori suffered the indignity of the huge loss of most of their land to colonisers. That did not happen in Fiji. Some 80 per cent of the land is still in the hands of the descendants of the tribes. That ownership is guaranteed in the preamble to the new 2012 constitution.

Indentured Indians were brought out between 1879 and 1916 to work on sugar plantations. They mostly leased land from indigenous owners. Instructively, they were not even counted as citizens until the 2012 constitution. They now comprise 37.6 per cent of the population, down from their pre-coups level of 51 per cent. They turned to business and other enterprises to make their way.

Despite this near monopoly of land ownership, overseen by the Native Land Trust Board, land was a hot issue for indigenous Fijians. Some argued the potential loss of government to an Indian-Fijian elite could lead to land reform, but that threat, critics responded, has been used as a pretext for the dreadful early coups which led to tens of thousands of Fijian-Indians leaving the country under the fear of violence.

A 2010 estimate has 45 per cent of the population living in poverty.3 Religious adherence is very high. According to the 2007 census 64 per cent of the population are Christian, 33 per cent Methodist and 9 per cent Catholic. The remaining population of Christians are represented by as many as forty seven sects; 28 per cent of the population are Hindu, 6 per cent Muslim.

There were coups in 1987, 2000, 2006. In May 1987 lieutenant colonel Sitiveni Rambuka overthrew the government of Timoci Bavadra motivated by the racist assertion that indigenous Fijians were ‘losing control’ of their country to its Fijian-born Indian residents.

In October that year Rambuka took another step that would have consequences he would not have foreseen. For reasons that were never made clear, possibly to avoid a charge of treason should the wheels come off his coup, he made Fiji into a republic, formally breaking the link to Britain.

In 2012 it was thus a simple matter for the Bainimarama regime to endorse secularism as a cornerstone of the new constitution, despite the high degree of religious adherence, for the informal but influential constitutional link to the religion of the monarchy was long gone.

Theocratic Methodism

The leadership of the Methodist Church in Fiji, up until very recently, has been hard core. They:

  • Wanted Fiji to be declared a Christian state barely tolerating other beliefs;
  • openly campaigned in 2001with full page ads in newspapers encouraging the electorate to vote for the indigenous-elite SDL party on the grounds the party was supported by God;
  • advocated a top-down patriarchal form of government that endorses male control, from government to the family to the school, with punishment for children an acceptable part of its agenda; and
  • have argued that those of other religions are heathens.

SDL stands for Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua which means ‘the party of land owners’. It was established after the 2000 coup by the man Bainimarama had chosen to be a stand-in prime minister, businessman Laisenia Qarase. In alliance with another conservative party SDL won the 2001 election.

Australian Liberal Party election campaign consultant, Mark Textor, was involved in Qarase’s campaign, using the fear-factor approach. The latter trades on the researched prejudices of voters. Just why Textor got involved is not clear, but having a business-friendly party may have been an incentive to Australia as well as the strategic interest of keeping Fiji out of China’s sphere of influence.

In a radio interview in 2012 Mark Textor said that ‘Methodist preachers … were an important influence in the vote’.4 This is a somewhat surprising comment.

In the United States, preachers are constitutionally forbidden from telling their parishioners how to vote from the pulpit on the grounds that religious involvement in the political process contravenes the establishment clause of the First Amendment separating church and state.

Similarly, in Australia and New Zealand, churches, which are legally charities, stand, in principle, to lose their charitable tax-exempt status if they engage in pulpit-driven political involvement. Political comment outside the church is another matter: it is free speech. Be that as it may, Textor’s comment seems to confirm Commodore Bainimarama’s statement that

In Fiji, you don’t come with your own vote. Your vote is dictated by the chiefs, it is dictated by the Great Council of Chiefs, it is dictated by the provincial councils, and it is dictated by the [Methodist Church] … So it’s not your vote. So don’t tell me that it’s democracy.5

It is alleged the way Qarase ran Fiji led directly to the 2006 coup. Methodists were heavily represented in the cabinet. There were many allegations of corruption. Mark Textor said:

Unfortunately [Qarase’s] policies got a bit radical towards the end of his second term and led to, you know, another coup. And that was unfortunate.

It is worth noting that some Methodists despaired at the political behaviour of their colleagues. In 2002, Aisake Casimira noted that a former, now deceased, president of the Methodist Church, Reverend Paula Niukula, said the heavy advocacy of a Christian state had nothing to do with Christianity. Rather, it was all about ‘accumulation of power and wealth by those in power’.6

In justifying his 2006 coup in a 2009 interview on SBS TV in Australia, Commodore Bainimarama said that there is a ‘rot that we need to get rid of [and] radical change cannot be brought in by some weak organisation. It has to be a strong entity and there’s no other strong entity than the military.’

After the coup he established the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption. Amazingly, there are many billboards in the main cities and towns, featuring a phone number, asking citizens to contact the Commission to report corruption. Critics say this is just a feint to cover for the 2006 coup and the scale of corruption was no worse than in other comparable countries. Certainly, in making corruption such a high profile issue, the Commodore is setting the bar very high for himself and his colleagues. Any hint of nepotism or the like would undermine his credibility.

In the age of the internet, it is debatable whether Fiji’s compliant press is enough to keep the lid on serious allegations. The regime is walking a fine line, especially after former Prime Minister, and sometimes lay-Methodist preacher, Lisenia Qarase, was gaoled for twelve months for share dealing corruption in 2012.

From 2012

In 2012 a Constitution Commission was established consisting of eminent persons, headed by constitutional law expert, Professor Yash Ghai. After the Commission allegedly released its report and draft constitution prematurely, it was destroyed. The Bainimarama regime took the view that as it had no oversight role for the military, it would not work.

The government re-wrote the draft constitution to ensure the military had that oversight. They also kept the key recommendation that far from being declared a Christian state, Fiji would become a secular state with a constitutional separation of church and state.

The influential Methodist, Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, since August 2013, president of the Methodist Church in Fiji, said in 2012 that the state cannot be secular because that means ‘moving away from God’.7 His colleague, Reverend Akuila Yabaki, gave a prize in a 2012 essay writing competition to a teacher who wrote that ‘God is in control’ and ‘the constitution should include a Christian state, irrespective of what the government of the day wants.’8

But, when inducted into the presidency, Reverend Waqairatu said:

[The] church … is committed and open to dialogue with other Christian churches, living faiths, government, all ethnic groups, the vanua [indigenous land and culture], civil society, as a way of moving the nation forward in the course of healthy nation-building.9

However, writing in the Fiji Sun on 13 October 2013, retired, former USP Professor of Geography, Crosbie Walsh, a blog commentator on Fijian politics, said the same old politicians are still around and want nothing more than to return Fiji ‘to how it was before the 2006 coup.’


The elections are due to be held in September 2014. That is when we will find out whether Fiji, with its brand new constitution has moved on, and whether Commodore Bainimarama, standing as a civilian candidate, will succeed in holding the secular line; or whether Fiji will relapse into the regressive Methodist-influenced state where religion is used, on the one hand, to enforce conservative, patriarchal values, while exercising self-interest on the other.

At this point in time, the Commodore seems very likely to succeed. In addition to the sweeping changes detailed above he has abolished the Queen’s birthday public holiday, the Queen’s face is to be removed from the currency and the union jack is to be removed from the flag.

In 2006, Sitiveni Rambuka, the military leader of the 1987 coup was cited as saying, approvingly, after visiting India for medical treatment, that ‘The president [of India] is a Muslim, the Prime Minister and the military chief are both Sikhs and the head of the largest political party, Congress, is an Italian.’10

After nearly two decades he finally got the secular point that one’s beliefs and ethnicity are irrelevant to the business of government. The tens of thousands of Fijian-born Indians who had to flee the country after Rambuka’s 1987 coup would surely agree.

* Max Wallace is the vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

1.A. Twomey, ‘The Fijian Coup Cases The Constitution, Reserve Powers and the Doctrine of Necessity’, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/26, University of Sydney, May, 2009, PDF.
2.H. Goiran, ‘Commodore Bainimarama: military dictator or true democrat?’ New Zealand International Review, March, 2008.
3.’45 per cent of people in poverty’, Fiji Times Online, 21 April, 2010.
4.Sunday Profile, ABC, 1 April, 2012.
5.Cited in G. Nair, Challenge to Reason, Bison Media, Thornleigh, Australia, 2008, p.46.
6.A. Casimira, ‘A fundamentalist Christian state?’ Fiji Times, 30 November, 2002.
7.Fiji Times, 1 November, 2012.
8.V. Cakau, ‘Influencing Change’, Tutaka, (Quarterly Newsletter of the [Christian] Citizens’ Constitutional Forum Ltd) Volume 6, Issue 4, December 2012, p.9.
9.Fiji Times Online, 26 August, 2013.
10.Cited in M. Field, ‘The media and the spectre of the 2000 coup’, in J. Fraenkel & S. Firth (eds), From Election To Coup in Fiji, ANU Press, 2007, p.174.