SUVA — Fiji's military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama said Monday he would lift emergency laws in place since a 2009 political crisis and begin discussions on a new constitution.
Immediate reaction was muted in Fiji but the announcement was welcomed by Australia and New Zealand, who have been among the most strident critics of the Bainimarama regime.
The draconian regulations, including tight censorship on the news media and a ban on public meetings, were imposed after a Fiji court ruled that Bainimarama's 2006 coup was illegal.
During the crisis the constitution was repealed, the judiciary sacked and the police and military were given powers to detain people without charge.
But in his New Year message, Bainimarama said the emergency laws would be lifted on Saturday to pave the way for consultation on a new constitution.
"I will, over the next few weeks, announce the nationwide consultation process which will commence in February 2012," he said.
"To facilitate this consultation process the public emergency regulations will cease from January 7, 2012."
Opposition politicians and unionists in Fiji, who have been silenced by the regulations, were reluctant to comment, which political researcher Brij Lal said was to be expected.
"One just hopes that this will lead to freedom of speech but that won't take place overnight because the climate of fear has been deeply embedded in the Fiji psyche over the past three years," the Fiji-born, Australian citizen said.
Lal, an architect of the previous Fiji constitution and who was expelled after the 2009 regulations, said Bainimarama needed to create an environment for open debate if the new constitution is to gain international legitimacy.
The Methodist Church, the largest denomination in Fiji, said it appreciated the move after a number of senior clergy had been charged with incitement for organising gatherings over the past three years.
"It is indeed a time of happiness as it was the law that sort of stopped us from doing religious duties," the church assistant general secretary, Tevita Nawadra, said.
Australia and New Zealand said they have been calling for the lifting of the regulations as an important step towards the holding of free and fair elections in Fiji.
"While there are a range of steps that will be required before free and fair elections can be held, these are important moves in the right direction," New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.
"The international community will want to see these changes improve the lives and freedoms of ordinary Fijians."
Australia's parliamentary secretary for Pacific island affairs, Richard Marles, said Canberra wanted to see real improvements in the rights and freedoms of Fijians.
"Australia hopes that this process will involve a genuine, inclusive political dialogue between all the stakeholders, without predetermined outcomes, as called for by the Pacific Islands Forum leaders," he said.
Bainimarama said that even though the emergency regulations were being lifted, "public order, protecting the vulnerable and safeguarding the economy will always be paramount".
After failing to honour initial pledges for an early return to democracy, resulting in Fiji facing sanctions from many countries and suspension from the Commonwealth, Bainimarama has promised elections in 2014.
He said in his New Year speech that the new constitution must establish a democratic, elected government.
"The constitution must establish a government that is founded on... a truly democratic system based on the principal of one person, one vote, one value. We will not have a system that will classify Fijians based on ethnicity."
Bainimarama has argued that before his coup Fiji was beset by divisions between the majority indigenous population and the ethnic Indian minority.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »