Environment & Health

Following the Fiji Water Story

A billboard in Suva, Fiji | Credit: ANNA LENZER

Investigative Fund reporter Anna Lenzer's first dispatch from Fiji described an oppressive military regime put in place during a 2006 coup and its cozy relationship with the Fiji Water company. Now, nearly two years later, Fiji may be on the cusp of revolution.

The opening scene of “Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle,” Lenzer's September 2009 Investigative Fund piece for Mother Jones, provided a glimpse into life in Fiji, where the junta had dissolved the courts, suppressed speech, and delayed elections to snuff out dissent. Lenzer was sitting in an Internet café when two police officers detained her for questioning about the emails she had been writing to her friends.

What followed, in a windowless room at the main police station, felt like a bad cop movie. “Who are you really?” the bespectacled inspector wearing a khaki uniform and a smug grin asked me over and over, as if my passport, press credentials, and stacks of notes about Fiji Water weren't sufficient clues to my identity. (My iPod, he surmised tensely, was “good for transmitting information.”) I asked him to call my editors, even a UN official who could vouch for me. “Shut up!” he snapped. He rifled through my bags, read my notebooks and emails. “I'd hate to see a young lady like you go into a jail full of men,” he averred, smiling grimly. “You know what happened to women during the 2000 coup, don't you?”

“Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle” was picked up by several domestic outlets including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic Wire, and AlterNet, as well as the Independent in the United Kingdom and the Age in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald and TV New Zealandran follow-up stories of their own. As the story gained traction, it caught the attention of bothAmnesty International and local activists.

Lenzer's latest reporting expands on this first piece, documenting the widespread nature of the regime's abuses. “High-ranking Fiji junta officer talks nonviolent resistance,” the first in a three-part series for the blog Waging Nonviolence, reveals that the regime routinely taps landlines and mobile phones in addition to monitoring Internet activity. Like Lenzer, many Fijians have been detained for private statements critical of the military, and civil servants have lost their jobs for the same reason. Most disturbingly, the junta pays informants to spy on their neighbors. According to Lieutenant Colonel Ratu Tevita Mara, a high-profile defector interviewed by Lenzer:

“Reserve soldiers, they get put on the payroll. They remain in civil society, continue their normal civilian jobs, and send information back to military headquarters.” Mara recalled taxi drivers calling military headquarters with tips about seditious passengers.

The regime regularly deploys violence to silence criticism. Perceived critics of the military have had their homes burned to the ground in the middle of the night, and recently released Wikileaks cables detail beatings, rapes, and murders carried out by high-ranking military officers, including junta leader and Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama himself.

But in recent months, the people of Fiji have been striking back. Graffiti reading “PM YOUR TIME IS OVER—NEW GOV'T SOON,” and “BAINIMARAMA U EVIL LEADER” — allegedly written by a group called the Viti Revolutionary Forces, which in a nationwide text message has encouraged Fijians to “start passive resistance now” — was scrawled across buildings in Suva, Fiji's capital city. Anti-regime blogs and social media accounts have proliferated in recent months. And leaders of Fiji's trade unions, in a real show of bravery, have gone public with their criticisms of the regime in Australian and New Zealand press, a move that has led international trade unions to push for acts of global solidarity.

Fiji's military may soon be standing with them. In the second part of Lenzer's Waging Nonviolence series, “High-ranking Fiji junta officer sees a divided military,” Mara claims that most in the military would like to see the regime replaced with a democratic government. Their continued loyalty to the junta leader is largely based on one factor: money. Bainimarama has made a business of providing soldiers to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cultivates military support by paying soldiers extra for such missions. A boycott of Fijian mercenaries by foreign governments and contractors, Mara argues, could significantly erode support for the regime within the military.

High-ranking Fiji junta officer calls for international pressure,” Lenzer's third installment, makes clear that consumers also have a role to play. Tourism remains one of Fiji's largest industries, and the island ranks third on the list of most popular honeymoon destinations. The Fiji Water company and the island's mahogany industry — with Gibson Guitar among its biggest customers — are also major sources of revenue. Mara has called for a boycott of Fiji's largest industries, noting that such consumption only fuels violence and perpetuates an oppressive regime.

Lenzer's latest reporting is already making waves. Truthout, the Nonviolent Action Network, and Common Dreams, among other sites, have reposted Lenzer's work for their readers. And when Uprising Radio, a KPFK Pacifica program that seeks to link local and global issues,interviewed her about her latest reporting last week, Lenzer saw a tweet from actress Daryl Hannah posted during the radio show: “Boycott Fiji water – or u will support a wildly repressive junta.”

About the reporter

Angela Aiuto

Angela Aiuto

Angela Aiuto recently earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Vassar College, where she served as senior editor of the student-run campus newspaper, The Miscellany News.

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