A deadline Fiji’s armed forces commander set as the go-ahead for ousting the government passed with no apparent military move Friday, as top-level meetings went ahead to try to avert the South Pacific island nation’s fourth coup in two decades.
Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, in a radio interview broadcast nationally, said he would make no more concessions to military commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama and urged Fijians to “stand up” and oppose the military’s threats.
“We are really fighting for our democracy,” Qarase told Legend FM radio. “We want freedom to live within a democratically civil government, where the government is elected by the people. That’s what people want. We do not want a dictator.”
Qarase declined to disclose his location on radio, and said his Cabinet members had moved to separate locations for security reasons. He said he was still in control of the country’s administration.
Bainimarama late Thursday rejected concessions from Qarase aimed at ending a long-running feud between the two men, saying they did not go far enough.
Bainimarama set a noon Friday deadline for Qarase to dump contentious bills, call police off a sedition investigation into senior military officers and a range of other demands.
If the government didn’t accede, the military would start “cleaning up” the government at some point after the deadline, Bainimarama said, vowing a “peaceful transition.”
As the deadline passed, the streets of the capital, Suva, remained quiet. There was no obvious troop presence.
Many offices were closed, but an annual sports day between the military and police forces went ahead at the national stadium before a crowd of several thousand.
Bainimarama attended the main event — a rugby match — and sat alongside Vice President Joni Mandraiwiwi, with acting police chief Moses Driver on the other side.
Bainimarama and Qarase have been locked in a bitter dispute for almost two years, and the military commander has repeatedly threatened to force out the government.
At the core of the dispute is proposed legislation that would grant pardons to plotters of a 2000 coup, and two other land rights bills that Bainimarama says would unfairly favor Fiji’s indigenous majority over the large ethnic Indian minority.
Bainimarama has defied international pressure, including separate appeals this week from the U.N.’s secretary general and security council, to respect Fiji’s democracy, which was rocked by two military coups in 1987.
The United States expressed deep concern at Bainimarama’s threat to overthrow the democratically elected government, and warned that U.S. aid to the country could be cut if a coup occurs.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns telephoned Qarase to “stress the United States’ strong opposition to any extralegal attempts to change the government” the State Department said in a statement Thursday.
In Sydney, Australia, foreign ministers from the 16-country South Pacific Forum were holding talks on the crisis.
Fiji, a nation of about 900,000 people, is located about 1,800 miles northeast of Sydney.