Hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders have taken part in protests against deteriorating human rights in Fiji. Unionists, teachers and church groups gathered in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Wellington today.
In Canberra they gathered outside the Fijian High Commission, hoping their message might get back to the dictator, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
Church groups and exiled Fijians have expressed concern that repression and interference by the military regime could boil over.
Adrienne Francis reports.
CROWD CHANTS: Restore human rights in Fiji! Restore Human Rights in Fiji!
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: Unionists and church ministers gathered outside the Fiji High Commission in Canberra to protest against deteriorating human rights.
Reverend Gregor Henderson is the former president of the Uniting Church in Australia.
GREGOR HENDERSON: This denial of human freedoms, this denial of civil rights, is absolutely dangerous. There are problems in Fiji but the way to solve those difficulties is not to repress civil rights, not to lock people up, not to prevent people from having meetings, not to prevent people praying for God’s sake!
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: Among the crowd were exiled Fijians, including 44-year-old Joanne Daunitutu.
JOANNE DAUNITUTU: We are fighting for our brothers and sisters back home who are suffering and going through a terribly difficult time having their voices suppressed. We would like them to be heard and just have our country returned to a legal government.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: Joanne Daunitutu fled Fiji for the southern New South Wales city of Queanbeyan after the first coup in 1987. Two decades on she says conditions are worsening under dictator, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. And she’s not confident he can be dislodged peacefully.
JOANNE DAUNITUTU: They have just had enough of this, like these bullies that are ruling our country and that is all they are. They are ruling the country with guns. There are no human rights.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: The psychological tensions extend across the community even to some Fijian schools.
Chris Watt is the federal secretary of the Independent Education Union in Australia.
CHRIS WATT: Teachers that are members of the two teacher unions in Fiji are being followed by the police. They are not able to meet easily and discuss simple things like their conditions, and negotiate around their salaries.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: Two Fijian trade unionists appeared in court today in Suva charged with unlawful assembly. They’d allegedly met members to discuss a collective agreement without government permission.
Commodore Bainimarama introduced legislation last month to dissolve collective agreements for workers in the sugar, aviation and tourism sectors. It also restricts striking and overtime payments. Fijian wages continue to decline below the international poverty line. More than half of all Fijians earn wages below $1.25 Australian per day.
Church groups say they’re also being denied basic human rights Reverend Gregor Henderson says the first annual conference in three years of the country’s largest church was recently cancelled.
GREGOR HENDERSON: Saying, a last-minute requirement from the government saying that the president and general secretary of the Methodist Church needed to be replaced because they had spoken out in past months in criticism of the government.
Now no church can allow a government to determine who the church leaders elected by that church will be.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: About 30 per cent of Fijians, and close to half the indigenous population, are members of the Methodist Church. Reverend Henderson says military interference is rampant.
GREGOR HENDERSON: But even worse, since then the military government has cracked down on the Methodist Church in Fiji and the hundreds of congregations of the Methodist Church are now not allowed to hold choir practices, prayer meetings, youth group activities.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: The relatively small turnout in Canberra today doesn’t worry exiled Fijian protesters like Joanne Daunitutu.
JOANNE DAUNITUTU: The message is being heard back at home and it is stirring up some concerns with the current regime knowing that the support that the Fijians have the world over is growing and it is growing daily. And of course the United States are also rallying to have Fiji returned to democracy.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: A new chapter of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement is being launched in South Australia this evening and Queensland is next. And there are growing calls for the Federal Government to step up back room diplomacy and publicly oppose the recent Fijian military interference in the church and trade unions.
GREGOR HENDERSON: The difficulty with sanctions and boycotts is that it may end up damaging and hurting the Fijian people more than the military government. But we will not be encouraging people to have holidays in Fiji whilst acknowledging and leaving that to a person’s individual decision.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS: Reverend Henderson says he’s concerned many Australians appear to be apathetic or ignorant to the military repression and interference in Fiji, and the struggle for democracy.
The Canberra protesters were handed a three page statement by the first secretary of the Fiji High Commission today. The statement by the Fiji Government contradicts many of the protesters claims, saying the government is committed to upholding equality and dignity for all citizens. Adding, as the government prepares for free and fair elections in 2014, reforms will provide the Fijian people with fundamental guarantees to essential human rights.
MARK COLVIN: Adrienne Francis.