Fiji ruler ends chiefs council, 130-year tradition

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By NICK PERRY and PITA LIGAIULA, Associated Press

SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji's military commander on Wednesday disbanded the Great Council of Chiefs, a leadership tradition on the Pacific island nation that existed more than 130 years.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama had greatly reduced the power of the council before eliminating it entirely on Wednesday. His refusal to restore democracy in Fiji has been internationally condemned, and Bainimarama accused the council of meddling when it refused to endorse his rule.

His latest move may be an attempt to prevent the council from being written into a constitution that he promised to help produce within the next year, ahead of democratic elections he plans for 2014.

The council was established as the "Native Council" under British colonial rule in 1875. Most of its 55 chiefs inherited their positions, and they have privileged status in island life.

In a statement, Bainimarama said the chiefs have an undisputed heritage in the nation of 890,000, but have also perpetuated elitism and helped feed a climate of political divisiveness.

"The Great Council of Chiefs is a product of our colonial past, and Fiji must now focus on a future in which all Fijians are represented on the same basis," he said.

Bainimarama wields great control over Fiji, and the chiefs appeared to have little recourse.

"This is a sad day, not only for i-Taukei (Fijians) but also for Fiji as a whole," said one of the chiefs, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu.

The council had long overseen the vast network of local Fijian chiefs, who collect taxes and provide services for villagers, such as constructing community halls or schools.

Under the country's 1997 constitution, the council also was charged with filling nearly half the Senate seats and with appointing the president and vice president. But Bainimarama suspended those roles after he seized power in 2006.

The council refused to endorse Bainimarama's rule or his nomination for vice president, leading the commander to accuse them of meddling in politics.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, a Pacific expert with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, said some Fijians believe the chiefs take too much from the community and give back too little. But she added that Bainimarama's decision to disband the council raises questions about his vow last week to rewrite the constitution.

The council "should be a matter for the people to decide upon," she said. "Not a matter for decree."

Hayward-Jones said that while Bainimarama can diminish the legal powers of chiefs, he can't abolish their role in society. She said the commodore has long sought to undermine the traditional institutions of Fiji — the chiefs and the church — by arguing that they have become corrupt.

Fiji's relations with its Pacific neighbors have soured since Bainimarama seized control, and the Commonwealth association of countries expelled it.

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Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.

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