Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji on February 20 with fury, surpassing all previous cyclones. The 325 km/h winds displaced about 45% of the population and took a heavy toll on infrastructure and people (44 lives).
The Bainimarama regime quickly leapt on declaring a state of emergency the next day for a month, later extended to April 19, 2016.
Low key politics
National disasters permit the state machinery and its functionaries far more embracing and forceful than in normal times. More often, it is a boon for the governing party as it can manipulate the governmental and quasi-institutional funds and resources selectively towards those affected by the disaster and thereby win the hearts and minds of the people. The Fiji National Provident Fund for example paid almost F$ 35 million to 33,000 recipients from more than 120,000 applicants.
The opposition parties, SODELPA and NFP, naturally kept a low key since criticism would not cut ice with the people. They made token gestures of salary sacrifice, baiting the Fiji First Party to follow suit. Fiji First did not respond.
Domestic politics tends to operate at a low ebb during national disasters whereas the cry of the affected people tends to be at the high edge. This dilemma is the test case for the governing party as it must show to the people that it has acted as far as possible reasonably and fairly.
In a diverse society, criticisms based on reality and/or perception of discrimination are common. For instance, Fiji Electricity Authority vehicles were stoned in Nausori, National Disaster Management Office officials were abused and there were several cases of impersonation of Fiji National Provident Fund officials.
Fund raising and altruism reach their peak after national disasters. Resulting from the coups in Fiji, there is now a large contingent of the Fijian Diaspora spread across the Oceania. These groups, especially that of the Indo-Fijian ilk, collected substantial donations for Fiji’s relief efforts.
Natural disasters also provide an opportunity for those benefitting from Government’s aid, funding and contracts to reciprocate in cash and kind. Thus, a number of infrastructure associated companies, commercial firms and quasi-governmental organisations opted to help the government.
Whether there was a unified methodical approach to collect fund is a moot question. Equally hard question is whether collection of such funds, both in hard cash and goods, and their usage or distribution was systematically audited.
Developing nations such as Fiji do not have the requisite resources to meet the relief and rehabilitation needs of the people spread over distant geographical areas. This is where other countries, singularly or in consortium, came to their rescue.
It was in foreign aid that the powerful countries stumbled upon each other to outshine in their compassion for a small nation. It was first for Fiji. Since colonial days, the country had been locked with its colonial masters: Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand and on their orders fought for two World Wars and the Malayan anti-communist campaign. After Independence in 1970, the policy was continued under the Mara regime till the emergence of the Fiji Labour Party in 1985.
In a Fiji Sun column of 28 December, 1984, I had foreshadowed that the Fiji Labour Party would “steer the country away from the United States” and “maintain a strict non-aligned status…”
Governments rush aid
China, and to a lesser extent India, instantly committed their support for Fiji. India was one of the first to provide financial assistance and relief supplies and direct budgetary support to the government. There is a specialist team currently in Fiji assessing renewal power energy sources. China showed its muscle by sending two 747 Jumbo jets on March 17 carrying nearly 2000 tents as a part of the total 500 tonnes of relief supplies valued at F$ 16 million.
Since the Bainimarama coup of 2006, Fiji stood isolated and the relations soured with former donors. Cyclone Winston provided them an opportunity to make amends. In January 2016, the US launched ‘Building Resilient Communities’ by a grant of US 1.3 million to the Fiji Red Cross. After the cyclone, it gave US$ 1.2 million and announced a further relief aid of US$ 1 million on March 24, 2016.
Australia and New Zealand, two neighbouring regional powers, tended to tread with some hesitancy, but cyclone devastation was too enticing to be missed. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Fiji from March 13 and knowing that China had already dug in its feet, declared that “Australia was keen to work with China” (Herald Sun, March 15, 2016). Australia announced a package of A$ 20 million relief assistance.
New Zealand Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee was in Fiji from March 22 and visited Vanua Balavu where the New Zealand Defence Force set up a maritime base for relief efforts. HMAS Canberra, HMNZ Canterbury and HMNZ Wellington, the largest ships of the two countries were a spectacle for the villagers in the outer islands.
Seven New Zealand aircraft, particularly helicopters, played an important role in transporting relief supplies. For New Zealand, it was one of the largest maritime deployments in the Pacific.
The upshot of Cyclone Winston was that about 1000 Australian and 350 New Zealand defence personnel were able to build bridges with the Fiji military command that were broken in 2006. The participation of the defence force cadres alongside the Fijian military personnel in Easter service at the Gymnasium displayed the kind of mutual bonhomie that far surpasses the monetary aid assistance.
Mahendra Sukhdeo was Suva’s Deputy Town Clerk and Acting Lord Mayor. He left Fiji in 1999 for New Zealand. He now lives in Australia.