SUVA (Reuters) - Australia and New Zealand criticized Fiji’s self-appointed prime minister Frank Bainimarama on Tuesday for boycotting a summit of South Pacific leaders, saying the military coup leader should turn up and “take his medicine”.
Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, has pulled out of the Pacific Islands Forum in Niue, where he was due to face growing regional pressure to hold promised democratic elections in Fiji in early 2009.
“He was compelled as a matter of honor to turn up to the forum and explain himself to the leaders. It is very disappointing that he won’t turn up to effectively take his medicine,” Australian Foreign minister Stephen Smith told Australian television.
Bainimarama attended last year’s meeting in Tonga, where he gave a commitment to hold elections by March 2009, but on Monday said the elections would be delayed for up to 15 months after a new electoral system was set up.
Bainimarama blamed New Zealand for his decision to pull out of this year’s summit, saying Wellington would not give his delegation visas to attend post-forum talks in Auckland.
But New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Bainimarama was just looking for an excuse so he could avoid meeting leaders of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum.
Clark and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held talks in Auckland on Tuesday. They said Bainimarama was showing contempt for the region by snubbing the annual summit.
“I think that Pacific leaders will be concerned at the no-show,” Clark told reporters at a media conference with Rudd.
“If someone is not prepared to come and be accountable for breaking commitments given to leaders a year ago, that itself speaks volumes.”
Rudd said Fiji’s return to democracy would remain a key issue for the Pacific Islands Forum despite Bainimarama’s absence.
“We don’t believe we can sit idly by while the principles of democracy are shredded. And therefore, the resolve of Pacific Island countries is to act in concert on this question,” he said.
In Suva, the man Bainimarama ousted from office, Laisenia Qarase, said the boycott of the Forum, the region’s key annual summit, an insult to Pacific leaders.
“Fiji is a very influential country in the Pacific and by boycotting the meeting we are taking a step backwards,” Qarase told the Fijilive news website (www.fijilive.com).
The forum, which began on Tuesday, is due to receive a report from a South Pacific foreign ministers mission on Fiji, which has found that political will remains the only obstacle to March elections in Fiji.
Bainimarama staged a coup in 2006 claiming Qarase’s government was corrupt and soft on those behind a 2000 coup. Fiji has been hit by four coups and an army mutiny since 1987.
The island chain, with about 900,000 people, remains deeply divided between ethnic Fijians and Fijians of Indian background, who make up around 40 percent of the population but control large parts of the $3.7 billion economy.
Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Paul Tait