back to new archives for 15-17 June 2000
Sydney Morning Herald
June 17, 2000
Election could take two years

Indian women twirl string around a banyan tree at a Hindu
temple in Suva in an annual ceremony dedicated to their husbands'
prosperity and longevity. Photo by ANDREW MEARES

By GARY TIPPET in Suva

It could be two years before Fiji returns to full parliamentary democracy, its
military leaders told Commonwealth visitors yesterday.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group - which includes Australia's
Foreign Minister, Mr Downer - met the army chief, Commodore Frank
Bainimarama, yesterday and was told the military's main focus was on securing
the release of the 31 hostages in Suva's parliamentary compound.

The authorities would then form an interim civilian administration and "rebuild"
the Constitution before allowing a general election within two years.

The army also said it wanted to change the 1997 Constitution, but did not say
what the changes might be, Mr Downer said.

Asked if the visiting foreign ministers had been given the "road map" for a
return to democracy they had been seeking, Mr Downer said: "It's fair to say we
got, if you like, a rough road map."

The group, led by Tan Sri Musa Hitam, of Malaysia, spent the day meeting a
cross-section of Fijian groups.

It also appears that despite its intentions, it may have met at least one member of
George Speight's rebel group.

Fiji Radio reported late yesterday that two of Speight's top advisers, his chosen
"vice-president", Timoci Silatolu, and legal adviser, Tevita Bukarau, had been
taken by military vehicle to meet the delegation at the Queen Elizabeth barracks.
Mr Downer denied this, but said one man appeared with the opposition SVT
party at an earlier meeting and described himself as Speight's legal adviser.

"We did not want to meet any of Mr Speight's people and made that perfectly
clear," he said.

The New Zealand Foreign Minister, Mr Phil Goff, said that after the man
identified himself as a "former" legal adviser, "I simply discounted everything he
said".

Mr Downer said the release of the hostages had to be left to the military, but its
timetable of up to two years before an election was a concern. "I pointed out that
two years was a very long time for Fiji to go on without a democratic government," he said.

Mr Attar Singh, the national secretary of the National Federation Party, said he
told the ministers that they should fight for the restoration of the 1997
Constitution and of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as president, and the full return of
the Chaudhry Government.

The head of the Great Council of Chiefs and former coup leader, Mr Sitiveni
Rabuka, spent more than an hour at the talks but drove away without talking to the media.

Earlier yesterday, a trade union leader, Mr Felix Anthony, was detained by police
after he tried to organise a meeting of sugar workers near Lautoka.

Mr Anthony was on his way to the sugar mill at Raiwara when stopped. He was
questioned for three hours at a police station.

It was also revealed yesterday that Indian MPs held prisoner in the parliamentary
compound were allowed outside for air and exercise on Thursday morning.

It was the first time they had been permitted outside since being taken hostage on May 19.

Mr John Scott, of the Red Cross, who was given a cheque for $F125,000 ($99,000) by Mr Downer, said the hostages were in good spirits.

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