SYDNEY — Australia's decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Fiji's military government has been criticized by human rights campaigners. They argue Australia and New Zealand are acting prematurely to restore links to Fiji's army rulers, who seized power in a bloodless coup in the South Pacific island nation in 2006.
Fiji has had a fractious relationship with its South Pacific neighbors since the military overthrew an elected government almost six years ago.
The army-led government expelled Australia's high commissioner - its most senior diplomat - in 2009, a move reciprocated by Canberra and Wellington.
However, formal ties now are to be re-established and travel restrictions on Fijian government members eased.
The thawing of relations follows Fiji’s commitment to hold elections in 2014 and promises of a new constitution, which have convinced Australia and New Zealand that real steps towards restoring democracy are being taken after so many difficult years.
But critics insist Fijian authorities continue to muzzle the press and stifle freedom of speech and assembly, while locking up dissidents.
Professor Brij Lal, the director of the Australian National University's Center for the Contemporary Pacific, believes Canberra should have demanded the military ease its grip on society before restoring diplomatic ties.
“It would have been prudent on the part of Australia to see some of the fruits of those initiatives before going as far as it has done. Once Australia has embraced the Fijian regime, it will be very difficult for it to disengage and to take a more objective stance,” said Lal.
The Pacific island nation's last democratically elected prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, has this week been found guilty of corruption, prompting accusations that the military continues to harass its political opponents.
But Australia’s former foreign minister Alexander Downer says political realities often mean that unpalatable relationships must be pursued.
“There are times when you have to speak to people you don't necessarily approve of, you don't necessarily approve of what they've done, but you give yourself the opportunity to explain your case to them,” he said.
Traditionally, Fiji has been the political and economic hub of the South Pacific island nations, but the military coup of December 2006 has destabilized the country’s international standing.
Fiji, which has a population of about 900,000 people, is suspended from the Commonwealth grouping of former British colonies and from the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s main diplomatic bloc.
The head of the interim government, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has insisted he seized power to oust a corrupt and racist government, which was eroding the rights of Fiji’s ethnic Indian minority. The commodore’s critics, however, describe him as a "power hungry dictator" who has no intention of giving up power.