Australian minister visits Fiji amid diplomatic thaw

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2014 1:37 AM

By Matt Siegel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Friday took a major step toward resetting frayed relations with the South Pacific nation of Fiji, becoming her country's most senior diplomat to visit since a military coup eight years ago.

Fiji, a tropical archipelago about 3,200 km (2,000 miles) east of Australia, has suffered four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006 led by former army chief Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, whose Fiji First Party holds a wide majority in the new parliament.

Bainimarama was sworn in as prime minister last month after winning the first elections in almost a decade with a landslide 60 percent of the vote, an outcome welcomed by Australia and New Zealand.

The region's economic and diplomatic power houses have been eager to welcome Fiji back to the fold of normal relations after eight years of isolation, and Bishop's visit to the capital, Suva, signals that process is moving quickly ahead.

"This is the first visit to Fiji by a foreign minister since the election and the first bilateral visit by an Australian foreign minister since 2008," Bishop said in a statement. "It demonstrates our commitment to normalize our bilateral relations."

Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and minority ethnic Indians, the economically powerful descendants of laborers brought by the British to work sugarcane fields, to justify his coup in 2006.

In 2000, ethnic Fijians held the first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in parliament for 56 days, in a coup that began with deadly riots in the streets of Suva.

Five of the opposition parties that stood in the election signed a letter alleging fraud and corruption, but the Electoral Commission rejected them and Australia praised the conduct of the poll and its outcome.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie)