Chapter 6: The Fiji military and ethno-nationalism: Analyzing the paradox

Stewart Firth

Jon Fraenkel

Table of Contents

The expansion of Fiji’s military
The shifting constitutional position
Bainimarama and the link with the Mara dynasty
Divergent trajectories
Good governance by militarization
Conclusion: Military futures

Despite three years of regular public criticism and threats by the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), Commodore Voreqe (‘Frank’) Bainimarama, most people in Fiji during the period 2002–06 thought he would not overthrow the government of Laisenia Qarase. The rank and file in the RFMF were solidly ethnic Fijian and had backed Qarase’s SDL party in large numbers. Bainimarama had put Qarase into office, and the RFMF had initially backed the latter’s ‘blueprint’ for lifting Fijian living standards. It seemed odd that Bainimarama could so change his political tune. The commander himself repeatedly said that there would be no coup, and that he was and would remain a loyal servant of the 1997 constitution. When the RFMF seized power, on 5 December 2006, it left many licking their intellectual wounds, and wondering how and why what was the hitherto seemingly impossible had come to pass. Yet few subsequently sought, with the benefit of hindsight, to revisit that earlier experience, and to ask why the expectations of so many – that the constitutional order would survive – were so shattered. This chapter seeks to fill that gap.

How was the 99 per cent ethnic Fijian RFMF transformed from the key instrument of ethno-nationalist Fijian rule in 1987 into its nemesis in 2006? How was a relatively junior officer, swiftly elevated through the ranks and becoming commander of the RFMF only in March 1999, able to avoid a mutiny, consolidate officer support and establish a loyal base amongst the rank and file? Why was the reaction from the rank and file, who voted for the governing Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) in large numbers in 2006, so muted? The answers lie in the hidden legacy of the top-level power struggles of the 1990s; in the fraught experience during and after the 2000 coup; and, above all, in the distinct ways through which the Qarase administration and the military sought to consolidate their influence by placating discontent or eliminating rivals.

In theory, the Qarase government was the employer of Commodore Bainimarama, and paymaster of the RFMF. In theory, it could sack the commander and replace him with someone willing to accept the orders of the democratically elected government. In reality, the RFMF had, by late 2006, long since become a law unto itself and ceased to recognize government authority. The commander was convinced he knew better than the Prime Minister what was best for the people of Fiji. As Bainimarama said at the end of 2005 – after a furious row with the Minister and CEO of the Ministry of Home Affairs – ‘The Military now is on its own and is not answerable to anyone’.[1]Under these circumstances, Qarase, the newly re-elected prime minister, had little alternative but to deal cautiously with the RFMF in the hope that the military commander would come to accept the verdict of the election.

In October 2006 Qarase made a ham-fisted attempt to replace Bainimarama with a more congenial commander, the only effect of which was to hasten the demise of the elected government. The coup so often threatened by Bainimarama eventually happened, and the RFMF resumed the control of the country that it had yielded to Qarase’s government in 2000. The infrastructure of military takeover quickly appeared on the streets as armed soldiers manned checkpoints with red and white painted metal barriers. Familiar official advice followed, telling people to continue with their normal lives. Bainimarama said ‘the Government and all those empowered to make decisions in constitutional democracy are unable to make decisions to save people from destruction’.[2] With the choice being between destruction at the hands of the elected government or salvation by the RFMF, he had had no choice but to take over.

The military tradition in Fiji is strong. Fiji’s military was known as the Fiji Defence Force when war broke out in 1939 and was renamed the Fiji Military Forces in 1942, when Fijian soldiers entered active service fighting the Japanese invaders in the Solomon Islands. Peak strength in 1943 was over 8,500, of whom 6,371 were indigenous Fijians. The wartime performance of the Fijians inspired lavish praise from the British and Americans, of the kind expressed by the historian of the World War II Fiji Military Forces, R.A. Howlett. ‘The flower of the country’s manhood was assembled and trained and then sent into conflict against a cunning and vigorous foe’, he wrote. ‘They took their place and were not found wanting. They fought valiantly and met success with equanimity, adversity with fortitude, and death with honour. They lived up to the proud traditions of a warrior race and by their deeds left a heritage for the generations yet to come’.[3] That judgement reflected the Fijian soldiers’ view of themselves as the modern representatives of a warrior race, and the esteem in which they were held by the Fijian people. More soldiering followed in the 1950s, when a Fiji battalion with the motto ‘Hunt and Kill’ served for four years with the British against communist insurgents in the Malayan emergency. Yet Fiji’s regular military force when the British left in 1970 was but 200 strong and played little more than a symbolic role in national affairs. Its best days seemed far behind; if it had remained in that role, the course of events in Fiji would have been quite different.

Why, then, did the military forces become dominant in independent Fiji? Nation-building by the country’s first independent government played a minor part. The force grew modestly in the early 1970s. Fiji’s first prime minister, Ratu Mara, enhanced the size of the force somewhat by giving it a nation-building role and by establishing a trade training school, a rural development unit and the RFMF naval squadron. Peacekeeping for the United Nations did most to stimulate the growth of the force. Tens of thousands of Fijians have served in foreign theatres in almost thirty years of peacekeeping. Solid links were forged with counterparts in the British, Australian and New Zealand defence forces. The overall effect has been to boost the morale of officers and troops – especially when they are on operational duty – and to professionalize the RFMF as a military institution. Typically, Fiji’s leading military officers have been better educated and more articulate than many of Fiji’s civilian politicians.

The expansion of Fiji’s military

The force grew from 800 to 1,300 in 1978 in order to provide a light battalion of 500 to the UN. When 2FIR, the 2nd Fiji Infantry battalion, went to the Sinai in 1982 the force grew to 1,800. By 1986, following further UN requests, the force had grown to 2,200. The RFMF’s involvement in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was initially intended to last no longer than a year or so but continued uninterrupted until the end of 2002. Over the 22 years of the UNIFIL deployment, south Lebanon was temporarily home to thousands of Fijian soldiers, some of whom witnessed the Qana incident of April 1996, when an Israeli artillery barrage killed about 100 Lebanese civilians.[4] The commitment to the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai continues a quarter of a century later. The Fiji battalion there has a headquarters company and three infantry companies, with a total strength of 329, and maintains a number of remote sites in the region, six checkpoints and five observation posts. Over the 30 years since 1978, around 25,000 Fiji soldiers have served on overseas peacekeeping missions, bringing home an estimated US$300 million. In recent years the Iraq War has brought more income to Fiji from the 1,000 or so Fijians who have served as escorts, guards and drivers for companies in the business of privatised security in war zones such as Global Strategies, Triple Canopy, ArmorGroup International, DynCorp International, Control Solutions and Sandline International. According to Lieutenant Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, a former UN peacekeeper, ‘our economy has no choice but to build armies, and it's a good business. There are few other foreign investments. If we didn't do this, our people would be in the street creating havoc’.[5]

The uniqueness of Fiji’s peacekeeping contributions lies in the fact that Fiji is a microstate with one of the world’s smallest military forces. Fiji’s sister forces in the Sinai, for example, are Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Uruguay and the USA, all countries that vastly exceed Fiji in population and resources. Peacekeeping has taken Fijian soldiers in small numbers to Croatia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait, and Fiji has 220 troops in Iraq, where they serve as guards for UN personnel and facilities in Baghdad and Erbil under the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).[6]Fijians have served in larger numbers in regional peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Bougainville and Solomon Islands. Fijians were in Bougainville as part of a regional peacekeeping force following the end of hostilities there in 1997, and have served in East Timor under a succession of UN missions since 2000. They participated in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003, though Australia cut funding for the Fijian operation following the 2006 coup in Fiji.[7]

Table 6.1. Table 1: Republic of Fiji Military Forces, 2004-5

Regular Force (2005)



Headquarters RFMF



HQ Land Force Command






RFMF Engineers Regiment






Force Training Group



Logistics Support Unit



2FIR (MFO in the Sinai)






Territorial/Reserve Force (2004)



4th Battalion (Nadi)



5th Battalion (Lautoka)



6th Battalion (Nausori)



7th Battalion (Northern Division)



8th Battalion (Suva)









Source; Ministry of Home Affairs & Immigration, ‘National Security White Paper: A Safe and Prosperous Fiji’, 2006.

The 1987 coup wrought a permanent change in the role of the RFMF in Fiji’s political life. The size of the force almost trebled, to 6,000 – including the reservists who were later deactivated – and the proportion of the government budget devoted to the military forces vastly increased. The force fell to 3,571 by 1996 and the RFMF has maintained slightly below this level of strength since then (see Table 1). But the 1987 coup taught that the RFMF could easily assume control of the country if the military leadership wanted to. With a carefully preserved monopoly on the use of armed force, it was easily large enough to overwhelm the government or suppress any emergent insurrectionist group.

The subsequent career of Sitiveni Rabuka, the originator of Fiji’s coup culture, tends to obscure the significance of the first post-coup years, 1987–1990. Under Rabuka, the army intervened not once but twice, transforming what might have been a temporary lapse in constitutionality following the first coup into a permanent change of political direction. Fiji became a republic and was expelled from the Commonwealth; the prefix ‘Royal’ was removed from ‘Fiji Military Forces’; military men occupied key positions in government; the military strictly policed Methodist Sunday observance; a security decree gave the military extraordinary powers over those suspected of disloyalty; soldiers arrested and detained journalists. The military forces absorbed an ever-increasing proportion of the national budget – rising from $8 million to $38 million in three years – while educated, highly skilled citizens, mostly of Indian origin, left Fiji in their thousands, depriving it of the human capital that had once made its government and economy exceptional for the South Pacific. People had been leaving Fiji in moderate numbers since independence but the flood that started with Rabuka’s coup – 66,000 by 1994 – has never stopped, each coup convincing more to leave.

[1] Fijilive, 31 December 2005, quoted in Steven Ratuva, ‘The pre-election ‘cold war’: the role of the Fiji military during the 2006 election’, in Jon Fraenkel and Stewart Firth, eds, From Election to Coup in Fiji: the 2006 campaign and its aftermath, IPS Publications, Suva, and Asia Pacific Press, Canberra, p.38.

[2] ‘Bainimarama appoints himself acting President’, Fiji Sun, 7 December 2006.

[3] Howlett, R.A. 1948. The History of the Fiji Military Forces 1939-1945, Crown Agents, London, p.148.

[4] Maclellan, N. 2006 ‘From Fiji to Fallujah: The war on Iraq and the privatization of Pacific security’, Pacific Journalism Review, 12(2):47–65.

[5] ‘On Fiji, a crop of soldiers fuels economy’, A Craig Copetas, International Herald Tribune, 30 October 2007.

[6] ‘Fiji soldiers leave for Iraq’, fijilive, 27 October 2007.

[7] ‘Australia cuts RAMSI funding for Fiji’, ABC, 28 December 2006.