Filling the Fiji vacuum Duncan Graham 2009
One of the saddest sights in Suva, the capital of the tiny nation of Fiji, is the Parliament building.
It’s reputed to be a splendid example of Pacific island architecture representing traditional Fiji values.
But this can’t be confirmed. The gates are locked and rusting. Weeds are pushing through the driveway. Three years ago Fiji went through yet another coup and the power of the ballot box yielded to the rule of the gun.
There have been four coups in the past 22 years but this didn’t stop Indonesia opening an Embassy in this troubled former British colony.
It was a smart move. As the Commonwealth and European Union punished Fiji for overthrowing democracy, other countries have filled the gap.
“Indonesia’s interests in the Pacific islands used to be served by our embassy in Wellington, but because Suva is the hub of a growing region it was decided to establish a presence here in 2002,” said the Indonesian Charge d’Affaires, Pinardi Priambodo.
“Fiji doesn’t produce much so most of the trade is in Indonesia’s favor. In the past five years the growth rate has been 2.77 per cent.
“The other issue that takes our time is caring for the interests of Indonesian seamen and sorting out disputes with employers. Many problems come about because the Indonesians haven’t read or understood the job contracts they signed back in Jakarta.”
Indonesia isn’t the only nation taking a new interest in a zone once dominated by Australia and New Zealand. The imposition of sanctions and other controls on aid, sporting contacts and government visits by fellow Commonwealth countries has created a vacuum largely exploited by China which is now ramping trade and aid.
Last year Indonesia did business worth US $24.5 million (Rp 250 billion) in the Pacific islands served through Suva. By Indonesian standards it’s little more than a mid-size town with only 200,000 people, but it’s the biggest city in the South Pacific outside NZ, and a multicultural mix of locals, transients, other islanders, Indian traders and Europeans seeking a quiet life.
Indonesia’s natural sphere of influence has long been South-East Asia but its push into the Pacific is logical, according to Pinardi.
There are historical Indonesian links with the peoples of Polynesia. The current theory is that they arrived about 3,000 years ago after travelling south from Taiwan and China, then moved through the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines and then deeper into the Pacific, reaching Fiji via Tonga.
Though Indonesia isn’t part of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum it has the status of a ‘dialogue partner’. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda attended the forum’s post-summit meeting in Queensland, Australia in August this year.
Pinardi, who is also known as Pak Klik, a nickname that defied simple etymology, is single and “under 40”. He was previously stationed in Seoul where he specialized in economic issues, spending his spare time on the snowfields. By the time his tour of duty had finished he’d skied seven of the 12 slopes near the Korean capital.
Seeing his love of snow it fits the curious posting system of Foreign Affairs that he should be sent to a tropical island. He runs six Indonesian staff including four lively young diplomats seemingly uninfected by the past rigid bureaucracy of the Soeharto era (Pinardi labelled them ‘the fantastic four’), and five local staff.
Unlike many embassies it’s a relaxed low-security office. Despite the military coup and alleged human rights abuses Suva isn’t full of soldiers and most locals seem indifferent to the political tension, more concerned with public service sackings, the devaluation of the Fiji dollar and the resulting high cost of living.
With no direct air links to Indonesia there’s little demand for visas. For Indonesians wanting to see Fiji the good news is that they don’t need visas, prices are cheap and they can stay for four months, enough time to explore the lush, coral fringed 300 islands.
Indonesia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Fiji to develop tourism but so far little has happened.
Pinardi arrived in Fiji in June after the departure of the last ambassador. The son of a Christian pastor and academic Pinardi was born and educated in Salatiga in Central Java and educated at the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta.
“I got into diplomacy by chance,” he said. “I planned to be a banker because I’d trained in economics. But when I went to get the transcript of my studies legalized I chanced to see an advert for the Foreign Service.
“I later spent 18 months at Monash University in Australia learning trade negotiation skills, knowledge that came in useful in Korea.
“In Fiji we’re not just concerned with trade. We’re very keen on providing technical assistance, sending Pacific Islanders for training in Indonesia.”
It’s a strange reversal of positions. While the big Western nations are giving aid to Indonesia, the Republic is busy providing assistance to the Pacific. This has ranged from training farmers in artificial insemination of dairy cattle, using the latest fishing technology and navigation aids, and rehabilitating people with disabilities.
“We’ve been passing on our skills in rice planting,” Pinardi said. “Farmers in Fiji used to broadcast their rice seeds. We’re training them in our system planting seedlings in rows while walking backwards. We’ve also donated small agricultural tractors.
“The other skill we’re teaching is in the multiple uses of bamboo. Fiji people don’t do as much with bamboo as we do in Indonesia.”
So while other countries may consider Indonesia to be a poor, low-tech developing nation, Fijians have another view, particularly those who’ve been the lucky recipients of programs like ‘capacity building for poverty reduction.’
The Indonesian touch can be found everywhere from imported Toyota Kijang vans through to handicrafts and women’s clothing. Fiji was once a big garment exporter but Commonwealth sanctions and cheap Chinese imports have crushed the industry, creating opportunities for smart Indonesian businesspeople and not just clothing manufacturers.
Furniture is a trade where Indonesia has few competitors. The big resorts have been ordering large quantities of tropical style rattan and water hyacinth chairs, tables and sofas that can be used inside and outside. They appeal to the environmentally-conscious because they’re made from renewable materials.
“We want to improve people to people ties and build cultural understanding,” said Pinardi. “We’ve been giving scholarships for higher studies at Indonesian universities.
“Fijians are very musical people and great singers. We do have a set of angklung (bamboo xylophones) but no gamelan orchestra. Maybe in the future.”
Being in Fiji in 2009 is a bit like living in Indonesia during the repressive Soeharto years.
Outside journalists are not welcome and the local media is heavily controlled. Australian publishers have been kicked out. The newspapers originally responded by leaving blocks of white space to show readers that local political news had been cut by military censors, but now they fill the columns with bland tales.
Only those with access to overseas TV newscasts would have known that Fiji had been expelled from the Commonwealth on 1 September.
Fiji won independence in 1970 and became a republic. When the country was under British control in the 19th century indentured laborers from India were brought in to work the sugar cane plantations. Many stayed and now about half the national population of 800,000 is Indian. Most are Hindu, though seven per cent are Muslim.
Although the Indians and native Fijians (who are mainly Protestant) seem to get on together there have been few mixed marriages. The two cultures are radically different and don’t share the same values.
Past coups have been explained as bids by native Fijians to retain control of their country, fearing the democratic vote of one person, one value could put Indians in charge.
But the situations is more complex and involves native Fijians owning the land. The industrious Indians can’t get freehold land and many, especially the better qualified, have fled to Australia and NZ.
The present military strongman and self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama says he wants to rewrite the constitution, reform land laws and eliminate corruption.
Despite the sanctions and pressures from his neighbors he is refusing to allow elections till 2014.
First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2009