Editorial: Some progress in Fiji

Some time in the next few days a five-year diplomatic standoff will end when New Zealand and Fiji appoint high commissioners to each other's capital.

Neither country has been represented at the highest level in the other's territory since 2007, when Fiji expelled then high commissioner Michael Green.

The pending appointments, which follow the relaxation of travel bans on some government members and officials, confirm a gradual warming of relations as the Bainimarama regime has taken baby steps towards the restoration of democracy.

Elections, once promised for 2009, are now scheduled for 2014, a five-person commission has drafted a new constitution and New Zealand has funded a voter registration programme.

However, the regime's demand last month that a newspaper editor be jailed for six months for reprinting a New Zealand newspaper article that reported criticism of Fiji shows the country still has a way to go before its people enjoy the rights and freedoms their neighbours in the South Pacific take for granted.

Commodore Bainimarama and his henchmen pay lip service to the notion of press freedom, just as they pay lip service to the rule of law, but woe betide anyone within their reach who challenges their authority. Beatings in the army's Queen Elizabeth barracks have been replaced by oppressive legal action.

The regime's sensitivity to criticism suggests there will be many bumps in the road before Fijians once again take control of their destiny.

Nevertheless the upgrading of diplomatic links is warranted.

So is the assistance Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Murray McCully has promised Fiji in the wake of Cyclone Evan. New Zealand's beef is with the regime that installed itself at the point of a gun, not the Fijian people. The Constitution Commission's recommendations offer some hope of progress. They have still to be officially released but the commission has reportedly proposed the axing of separate seats for indigenous Fijians and those of Indian descent, and the creation of a new body to elect future presidents.

Few outside Fiji would question the wisdom of scrapping a racially divisive electoral system or the creation of a nationally representative body to perform tasks once performed by the Great Council of Chiefs whose membership was composed entirely of hereditary chiefs. However, two issues have still to be resolved – the future role of the coup-happy military and the regime's insistence that its members be granted immunity for all acts committed during and since the 2006 coup.

While the military retains the power to overthrow governments with which it disagrees, democracy will remain fragile and while legal action against coup leaders remains a possibility they will remain reluctant to hand over the reins of power.

To make progress, Fijians and Fiji's critics may have to sacrifice principle for practicality.

The Dominion Post