SUVA, Fiji – Fiji's powerful council of tribal chiefs refused to recognize the country's military regime on Thursday, as the newly installed prime minister conceded the takeover was illegal but defended it as necessary to clean up corruption in the government.
Consolidating his grip on the South Pacific nation, armed forces commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama used his self-appointed powers to remove Fiji's Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi from his office and official residence late Wednesday.
Fiji's hugely influential Great Council of Chiefs, who appointed Madraiwiwi and President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, threw its support behind the two leaders despite Bainimarama's announcement Tuesday that he had assumed presidential powers.
"Ratu Josefa Iloilo is still the president," Council Chairman Ratu Ovini Bokini told news network Radio Legend. And, "Ratu Joni's removal from office is illegal, unconstitutional and most disrespectful."
The criticism leaves Bainimarama increasingly isolated, with no significant group in Fiji expressing even tacit public support for the takeover, amid the commander's claims that unnamed people are plotting civil disobedience.
During previous coups in 2000 and 1987, the chiefs carefully avoided strong criticism of the plotters because they claimed to be defending the rights of the indigenous Fijian majority over the ethnic Indian minority.
Meanwhile, Fiji's caretaker leader Dr. Jona Senilagakali — a military medic with no political experience — said Tuesday's coup was needed to clean up corruption in the government of ousted leader Laisenia Qarase.
"It's an illegal takeover to clean up the mess of a much bigger illegal activity of the previous government," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Thursday.
The coup — Fiji's fourth in nearly two decades — was the culmination of a long impasse between Bainimarama and Qarase over bills offering pardons to conspirators in a 2000 coup and handing lucrative coastal land ownership to the indigenous Fijian majority.
Bainimarama declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, dissolved parliament and sent troops to kick Senators out of the chamber, and removed from office bureaucrats and senior police who opposed him.
Bainimarama says he wants a peaceful transition to an interim administration and eventually elections that would restore democracy. But has warned he will use his military might to quickly put down any dissent.
Qarase, who left the capital on the military's orders, maintains he is Fiji's legal prime minister.
The chief's council canceled a meeting planned for next week. Bainimarama had hoped the chiefs would restore Iloilo as president and endorse his caretaker government — thereby giving the takeover a veneer of legitimacy.
Fiji's central bank tightened capital controls and capped loans to financial institutions as part of a range of "strong measures" to protect the country's foreign exchange reserves from fallout from the coup.
"The measures will be reviewed regularly and it is hoped that some relaxation will be possible once the political situation normalizes and financial pressures abate," the Bank of Fiji said.