Fiji military chief concerned over new PM’s ‘sweeping changes’

The statement by the head of Fiji’s military has stirred anxiety in the Pacific nation that has seen four coups in 35 years.

Fijian Commander of the Military Forces Jone Kalouniwai talks to the press outside the Prime Minister's office in Suva
Commander of the Fiji Military Forces Jone Kalouniwai speaks to the press outside the prime minister's office in Suva on January 17, 2023 [Leon Lord/ AFP]

Fiji’s military chief has complained over the “ambition and speed” of changes undertaken by the government of new Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, stirring anxiety in the Pacific nation where security forces have staged four coups in 35 years.

The statement from Major-General Jone Kalouniwai on Tuesday drew an immediate rebuke from Rabuka’s cabinet, with Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua summoning the military chief to communicate the government’s concerns.

“The commander has assured that today will be the last day that he will be making such a public utterances as that,” Tikoduadua told reporters afterwards.

Kalouniwai also spoke with reporters later, saying the military would continue to “honour the current government that is in place”.

Fiji has a history of military coups, including two staged by current Prime Minister Rabuka in 1987.

Rabuka became prime minister on December 24 after a coalition of parties narrowly voted to install him as leader of the Pacific nation. His election victory ended the 16-year rule of former military chief Frank Bainimarama, who himself had first seized control of the Pacific archipelago through a coup in 2006.

Under Fiji’s constitution – adopted in 2013 – the military has wide powers to intervene in politics and Rabuka’s government has made reviewing the constitution one of its immediate priorities.

In his first statement on Tuesday, Kalouniwai said the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) had “growing concern” over the government’s “sweeping changes”. He said the military worries that the changes – the nature of which he did not specify – were being pursued “without full understanding” of procedures or are being “intentionally done to challenge the integrity of the Law and the Constitution of this land”.

Tikoduadua, who holds responsibility for the military in the new government, said in a statement that he called in Kalouniwai and “assured the commander that all the government’s actions have been guided by the law”.

They had exchanged views frankly, Tikoduadua said, and “we both believe in the rule of law, democracy … and respecting the will of the people through the outcome of the 2022 general election and protecting that decision, let come what may”.

Kalouniwai told reporters that he had no plans to seize power.

“Let me just reassure the public that the RFMF will continue to stand with democracy, we will continue to respect the law,” the military chief told online news outlet

Rabuka also said there was no reason to fret about the military’s criticism.

“Relax. Do I look worried?” he asked reporters.

“I have no concerns about my relationship with the military. I have every confidence in them.”

Besides the touted constitutional review, Rabuka has said that the government plans to set up a “mercy commission” to decide on possible presidential pardons or reduced sentences for convicts.

The prime minister has rejected media suggestions that the commission is aimed at pardoning George Speight, a bankrupt businessman serving a life sentence after leading a coup in 2000.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies