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Re-mythologizing the state: public security, 'the Jesus Strategy' and the Fiji Police.


Our police officers are preaching and sharing the word of God when they go out on [the] beat.... When they have a Bible with them, their work is carried out effectively.

The Bibles are also a protection tool just like the baton or pepper spray ... Like the Bible says in the book of Ephesians ... we are not just fighting against physical beings but also against [the] evil spirits of this world.--Assistant Superintendent of Police for the Totogo Region of Fiji, Rusiate Ryland (Fiji Police Force, 2009a).

The imagery employed by Assistant Superintendent Ryland in the quote above might make his statement more colourful than those of many of his colleagues in the Fiji Police Force, but Ryland is not alone in articulating a vision of the Bible as a central pillar of the mission of the Fiji police. In fact, Ryland speaks in a context in which the Fiji Police Force has promoted the 'Jesus Strategy' for combating crime, regional commanders pepper their annual speeches with exertions to constables to repent for their sins, and police stations around the country hold workshops educating their officers on how to model themselves upon Jesus Christ. These efforts to self-consciously 'spiritualize' the Fiji Police were spearheaded by Fiji's Police Commissioner, Commodore Esala Teleni, who took over command of the force soon after the country's December 2006 coup and enthusiastically promoted Christianity as central to the mission of the Fiji police until he stepped down from the post at the end of August 2010. But exactly how radical have Commissioner Teleni's reforms been? Are they just another variation of a common theme in Fijian politics (i.e. the close association of Christianity with state government)? Or do they constitute a major departure for a state entity which has up until now presented itself as a secular security force?

In contrast to the Royal Fiji Military Forces who have received significant analytic attention due to their participation in Fiji's 1987, 2000, and 2006 political coups, the Fiji Police Force has been comparatively understudied. Recently, however, the police force's high-profile religious activities have garnered them considerable public attention. This paper is intended to promote further scholarly reflection on the activities of the Fiji police by outlining some of the questions raised by Commissioner Teleni's reforms and contextualizing them through an examination of the use of Christian discourse in galvanizing public support for a variety of political regimes since the 1987 coups.

The first section of this paper considers the place of Christianity in post-Independence Fijian politics. My specific interest is in delineating how charismatic, and would-be charismatic, indigenous Fijian political leaders have not only fostered and attempted to naturalize close associations between the concepts of Christianity, indigeneity, and Fijian paramountcy, but have also harnessed these associations as part of their efforts to galvanize public support for their leadership.

Next, I briefly examine the role of the Fiji Police Force as a (secular) domestic security institution. Specific attention is paid to the role of the police in restoring law and order during the 2000 political crisis and some of the questions raised about their political loyalties and treatment of members of Fiji's Indo-Fijian population during this period.

The final section of the paper considers how, following the 2006 coup, the police have adopted a new role as the nation's moral guardians and are in effect actively re-mythologizing the Fijian state. Running in tandem with Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama's declarations that his government is striving towards a more ethnically inclusive Fiji, the police force's efforts to combat crime by, in the words of the official Fiji Police Force website, emphasizing the nation's 'common bond- [in] Jesus Christ,' (Fiji Police Force, 2009b) and promoting a new, break-away Methodist church, have, I argue, revived and reshaped the once familiar discourses of Christianity and indigeneity as crucial components of the Fijian state. My analysis concludes with an examination of how a security force that was previously viewed as more ethnically-inclusive, and by extension religiously-inclusive, than the military has increasingly been under question for its role in exacerbating ethnic and religious tension.

Throughout, my primary concern is with tracing how the police force has been transformed from a secular institution into an overtly religious one (Rio, this collection). Drawing from scholarly work on charismatic leadership and its routinization in institutional forms, much of it inspired by Max Weber's early work on these themes, my overarching aim is to grapple with the significance of Commissioner Teleni's reforms not only for the Fiji police force but more broadly for the shape of the Fijian state. While recognizing the acute importance of international relations in establishing and supporting Fiji's various political regimes, my focus here is firmly on the domain of the nation-state as I wish to assess how politicians, military leaders, and the previous Commissioner of Police have attempted to constitute mass public support through their use of Christian rhetoric.

My discussion is based on analysis of public documents, including official websites published by the Fiji police and other branches of the Fiji government, and nearly two years of fieldwork that I undertook in Fiji in 1999 and 2000 (including during the 2000 coup) as well as follow-up fieldwork in 2005 and 2006.


The debate over what role Christianity should play in the governing of Fiji is by no means a new one. It has, moreover, been used to propel post-Independence reformist leaders into the highest seats of political power since Sitiveni Rabuka instigated Fiji's first coup d'rtat in the late 1980s.

Christianity, and more specifically Methodism, has been a powerful force in indigenous Fijian culture since it was introduced by Wesleyan missionaries in the 1830s. As Matt Tomlinson has recently described in his ethnography of Methodism in Kadavu, 'most indigenous Fijians are Christians and the Methodist Church is the foundation of their social and political lives.... In rural villages, Christianity is vibrant, visible, and active.... for many people the Methodist Church is the pulmonary system of weekly life, a regular breathing pattern of scheduled worship and work' (2009: book jacket, 6). Currently 99% of indigenous Fijians identify as Christians. While in recent years the number of Methodists has been decreasing, Methodism is still the most popular Christian denomination, claiming more than half of all Fijians as its members (Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics, 2007). Christianity generally has not only a huge nation-wide following but is furthermore viewed by many as an integral component of Fijian culture, so much so that it is referred to as vakavanua, or literally 'the way of the land' (Kaplan 1990).

Over a third of Fiji's citizens are, however, not indigenous Fijian. Indo-Fijians, many of whom are the descendents of indentured labourers brought over from India to work on the colony's sugar plantations in the late 1800s to early 1900s, make up approximately 35 % of Fiji's population. At one point out numbering indigenous Fijians, the proportion of Indo-Fijians has been rapidly decreasing since the 1987 coups. In contrast to indigenous Fijians, only a small percentage (6%) of Indo-Fijians are Christians with most identifying as Hindus or Muslims (Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics, 1996).

While indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian communities have lived side-by-side both during the colonial period and after Independence, since the late 1980s, the indigenous Fijian nationalist or taukei movement has invoked Christianity as not only a crucial point of difference between the two communities but also as one of the key tenets of appropriate state government. Central to these claims are contentions that by the nature of their indigenous identities, their close affiliations with the vanua or land of Fiji, and their Christian faith, indigenous Fijians have privileged status within the nation, outweighing those of other communities. As numerous scholarly analyses have shown, often the most extreme pronouncements have 'used Christianity to demonise Indo-Fijians (especially Hindus) and provide divine legitimation for Fijian political paramountcy' (Ratuva 2002: 21; see also Kelly and Kaplan 2001; Lal 1992; Trnka 2008).

One of the masters of employing such rhetoric to galvanize political support was Fiji's first (and later, second) coup leader, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. In 1987 Rabuka overthrew the elected Labour government on the grounds that a coup was the only way to put a stop to 'the Indian design for political domination' (Rabuka 2000: 10). Rabuka's message had wide appeal; even though the country's newly elected Prime Minister, Timoci Bavadra, was an indigenous Fijian, the Labour Party that he represented has historically been predominantly associated with Indo-Fijians.

A few days after he seized power, Rabuka invoked Christianity as another justification for the coup, informing a rally of his Fijian supporters that by lending him their support they would be 'preserving what is dear to our hearts--the chiefly system, our land, and Christianity' (as quoted in Ratuva 2002: 21). Under Rabuka's leadership, the military further lent its voice to his portrayal of the coup as a religiously-inspired act. In June 1987, the military placed an advertisement in a Fijian newspaper procliaming, 'the Call to War is Sounded. Fight On! Fight On! In the Spirit of God.' The ad continued:

The Army is trying to protect the chiefs and their people.... We are relying on God to be Lord of this land. We should not worship other gods. Nor should we worship wealth, moon and sun, or the intellectuals. Only Jehovah should be Fiji's God ... If the leaders of the land are non-Christian, the Fijian race will be wiped out (as quoted in Ratuva 2002: 21).

Over a decade later, Rabuka, who relinquished power to a civilian government before being elected Prime Minister in 1992 and 1994, commented on how one of his key political motivations while in office had been to transform Fiji into a Christian state. 'I believed then,' he wrote in retrospect, 'that if my Indian brothers and sisters could be converted to Christianity, then the relationship between the two main communities would be less tense, and we would have more in common' (Rabuka 2000: 13).

Under Rabuka's leadership, Fiji's new Constitution came to include a preamble that hailed 'the conversion of the indigenous inhabitants of these islands from heathenism to Christianity through the power of the name of Jesus Christ' (Government Printing Office, 1990). While recognizing the importance of the contribution of 'other faiths' to Fiji's 'spiritual life,' the 1990 Constitution specifically noted 'the enduring influence of Christianity in these islands' (ibid). Through further measures such as the Sunday Ban, which required Sunday to be a day of rest, outlawing work and non-church-related social activities on the Sabbath, Rabuka's government effectively transformed Fiji into a Christian state in which all citizens, regardless of their religion, had to abide by certain Christian precepts.

Rabuka's Sunday Ban was repealed in 1995 and Rabuka himself was forced out of power following his defeat in the 1999 elections. But the issue of whether a duly elected government can be violently overthrown on the grounds of being perceived as anti-indigenous Fijian and anti-Christian (with the two being often glossed as the same thing) has continued to haunt Fijian politics. In creating a new benchmark in political leadership, Rabuka opened the door for other divinely inspired coup leaders to follow.

In many respects, Rabuka's rise to power and his capacity to usher in radical change can be illuminated by Weber's analysis of the charismatic leader. According to Weber, a charismatic leader is an individual recognized by his or her followers as being 'set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities' (1968: 48). The recognition of these qualities is what allows the charismatic leader to break out of the shackles of tradition and initiate his or her vision for change. Indeed, while Rabuka may have initially been viewed by some as an upstart, trying to grasp hold of political power while being neither a chief nor an elected official, his claims that his violent assumption of leadership was inspired by God, and--more importantly--his followers' willingness to support him in such claims, quickly garnered him mass support. Crafting for himself what was then for Fiji a new standard of leadership, that of, in the words of his official biographer, the 'indigenous revolutionary' (Sharpham 2000), he turned the very characteristics that were initially seen as precluding him from political power (i.e. his status as an unelected commoner) into his strength.

But it is important to also note that Rabuka's radical measures were in fact a re-casting of pre-existing cultural values associated with both the importance of Christianity in Fijian moral discourse and the mana or efficacy associated with Christian leadership. While he created a new model for political leadership, he did so on the basis of a close historical association of Christianity and authoritative leadership. This model of power had been in place ever since Ratu Seru Cakobau, who was the paramount chief of Ban, converted to Christianity in the 1850s. Prior to British colonization, he had named himself king of all of Fiji and bad attempted to unite all of Fiji's chiefs under his leadership.

S. N. Eisenstadt, in his introduction to Weber's work on institutions and charisma, notes that 'a crucial aspect of the charismatic personality or group is not only the possession of some extraordinary, exhilarating qualities, but also the ability, through these qualities, to reorder and reorganize both the symbolic and cognitive order which is potentially inherent in such orientations and goals and the institutional order in which these orientations become embodied ...' (1968: xl). Ann Ruth Willner and Dorothy Willner (1965) have similarly suggested that the charismatic leader should be seen as not only initiating new forms but as also remaking bodies of myth which are then utilized to legitimate their authority. Martin E. Spencer has likewise depicted some charismatic leaders as being more 'midwives' to history than 'creators' of it through their capacities to tap into pre-existing needs and reshape them into values that are recognized as desirable by others (1973: 347). Rabuka was a master at such exercises, presenting the public with 'revolutionary' ideas while simultaneously portraying them as logical extensions of pre-existing 'common sense' notions about Christianity and indigeneity and thus harnessing public support to his side.

Furthermore, while Rabuka had never engaged in political life prior to taking over government, he had a solid base in other institutional structures. Much of his initial legitimacy as a political leader, as well as some of his initial public support, were drawn from his involvement in three key institutions: the military, the Methodist Church, and the game of rugby. Each of these is a source of significant cultural meaning and a site of traditional, masculine leadership in Fiji. Rabuka's talent was in employing the mana generated by his involvement in ostensibly non-political institutions to constitute himself as a new kind of political leader and ultimately, a new kind of Prime Minister.

By the late 1990s the public had grown both disillusioned with Rabuka's promises and concerned over his newly-brokered strategic alliance with the Indo-Fijian leader of the National Federation Party, Jai Ram Reddy. Rabuka's popularity began to fade and the 1999 elections saw him replaced as Prime Minister by another Labour Party leader, Mahendra Chaudhry who became the nation's first Indo-Fijian, and also first Hindu, Prime Minister. Under the rallying cries of protecting both Christianity and indigeneity, Fijian nationalists were again stirred into action and there were renewed calls for an indigenous Fijian Prime Minister and for Christians to rise up against the 'Satanism' that some saw Chaudhry as embodying (Thomas 2002).

The front man of Fiji's third coup, George Speight, never managed to establish himself as a revolutionary, indigenous Christian leader in quite the way that Rabuka had. Nevertheless, concerns over the status of Christianity and indigeneity in Fiji played a major role in motivating many of Speight's supporters. Many of Speight's taukei followers described themselves as inspired by calls for Fiji to revive its status as a Christian state. Indeed, when about eighty of them marched through Suva on their way to shut down the country's only television station (due to what they perceived to be its anti-Speight bias), they sang Christian hymns. But this was not a pacifist mission; the ensuing confrontations resulted in the death of a policeman and a private security guard.

Even many indigenous Fijian Christians who did not support Speight's coup struggled with the interpretation that Speight's actions must be just because they had heard that Speight was inspired by God (Trnka 2002). In part this interpretation was buoyed by some of the concerns raised at the start of the new millennium. As a middle-aged indigenous Fijian schoolteacher told me at the time of the 2000 coup, people around the world had thought that 'everything would be revealed' at the start of the new millennium and had flocked to Fiji to watch the world's first sunrise in 2000. But instead, all was being revealed by the coup. She spoke for many when she explained that Fiji was meant to be a Christian state and that Speight's speeches while taking over Parliament should be seen as an act of 'testifying' and 'speaking the words of God.'

For his part, Speight promoted himself as an indigenous activist and also held regular Christian prayer sessions with his followers in Parliament. Perhaps even more than Rabuka, Speight was intensely aware of the power of the media in how he was presented to the public, and spent many hours courting the cameras. He was never, however, able to reconcile the divergent strands of his appeal. On the one hand, sporting a shaved head and sunglasses, he presented himself as a no-nonsense, gangster-style leader. On the other, he courted those of his Christian followers who saw him as the next messiah.

He was, however, an indigenous activist whose personal links with indigenous society and culture were slim. He also did not have the institutional grounding that Rabuka had relied upon. While a Christian, Speight was not Methodist but belonged to the less popular Seventh Day Adventist church. He was also not known as being especially devout. Furthermore, despite drawing his armed cadre from members of the military, he had neither the extensive military connections nor the mana derived from being a military leader that assisted Rabuka in propelling himself into power.

In the end, Speight was outdone by the military who (this time) did not stand up to fight for an indigenous Christian state--at least not the one promoted by Speight--but instead rallied around their Commander Frank Bainimarama's call to re-instate 'democracy,' albeit democracy on Bainimarama's terms. When the 2000 coup finally came to a close, Speight was in prison, but the Fiji Labour Party had not been allowed to return to office. Instead, following a brief period of military rule, power was handed over to a civilian caretaker regime led by a new Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase.

Like Rabuka, Qarase began to build himself a following among indigenous Fijian nationalists; enough so that he was twice elected into office (in 2001 and 2006). His second term as Prime Minister was, however, cut short as tensions between his government and the military intensified, until in December 2006, Fiji experienced yet another violent change of government.

In an ostensible break from his predecessors, Fiji's fourth coup leader, Commander Bainimarama, actively positioned himself as opposed to indigenous Fijian nationalist rhetoric. Nor did he pay heed to demands for a Christian state. When Bainimarama forcibly took over the government, he announced that his takeover was necessary not in order to protect indigenous rights, but in order to ensure equal treatment of all of Fiji's citizens. Despite its violent usurpation of political power, Bainimarama's government would, the Commander asserted, be a vital improvement in this respect upon the democratically-elected government it deposed. Not only was the previous regime, as well as the May 2006 elections that allowed it to retain office, mired by corruption but, Bainimarama declared, the Qarase government's insistence upon improving the lot of indigenous Fijians had led to the implementation of a raft of affirmative action programs that discriminated against those without indigenous status. In a significant departure from previous coup leaders, Bainimarama justified his coup in terms of protecting 'democracy' and 'equality' for all of Fiji's citizens and putting an end to corruption in government.

The military's fervour for combating corruption, however, extended to cleaning up its critics by severely restricting public speech and violently cracking down on anti-military activism, effectively muzzling much of public debate. In addition to the military threatening and physically brutalizing academics and NGO leaders, Bainimarama's government has clamped down on other forms of popular organized leadership, disbanding the Great Council of Chiefs, a widely respected decision-making body of indigenous Fijian chiefly representatives from around the nation (cf. Rio, this collection), and severely restricting the activities of the Methodist Church. In a very controversial attack on Methodism's widespread influence, in 2009 Bainimarama banned the Church's annual conference, an annual event that has been held for about the last 160 years. At the same time, the government arrested prominent church leaders on the grounds that they were stirring up dissent and promoting their own political ambitions rather than promoting peace and stability across the nation (Callick 2009, see also Radio New Zealand 2009a). A month later the government went a step further in distancing itself from the nation's Methodists by cancelling one of the Church's most important (and less overtly political) national activities--its choir competition.

By intentionally alienating indigenous Fijian chiefs and Methodist leaders and their many followers, Bainimarama signaled that he is not relying on the same support base of radical Fijian nationalists who helped buoy (albeit in Speight's case unsuccessfully) previous politicians and coup leaders. While there has been much controversy generated by Bainimarama's tactics, as well as by his claim of instituting democracy by force, up until recently there has been little reason for suggesting that his government was employing the rhetoric of Christian and indigenous unity to galvanize public support. All of this was thrown into question, however, by Bainimarama's installation of Esala Teleni whose ardent campaign to 'spiritualize' the police force was intended to re-shape the character of not only the police, but of the wider public as well.


The British colonial administration founded Fiji's first police force in 1874. The initial force was composed of the members of the so-called 'Royal Army' which had been put together by Ratu Cakobau as part of his attempt to consolidate and rule Fiji (Brown 1998: ii). Renamed by the British as the Armed Native Constabulary, the ANC was described as a military rather than a police force, but was headed by a Superintendent of Police. In 1906, the ANC was disbanded and the Fiji Constabulary (later renamed the Fiji Police Force) was formed. Though initially headed by British officers, both the ANC and the Fiji Constabulary were multi-ethnic in character, including indigenous Fijian, Indo-Fijian and British constables. In the early 1900s, the Fiji Police Force furthermore recruited Sikh police constables directly from India in an effort to expand its multi-ethnic character (Brown 1998: 39). By the 1968 the force had expanded to include women.

But while the Fiji Police Force enjoyed the reputation of being gender-inclusive and more multi-cultural than the military (which is constituted almost entirely of indigenous Fijians), it has not always enjoyed a glowing reputation in terms of its public relations. In the 1950s when Fiji was rocked by a wave of industrial protests, the police were subject to public criticism when they used violence to protect the interests of the colonial government and European businesses against those of the strikers. At the highpoint of the 1959 Wholesale and Retail Workers Union strike, a riot squad of forty police discharged tear gas grenades into a crowd of demonstrators. The violence only intensified with crowds shouting, 'Kill the police!' as strikers and others engaged in violent attacks against members of the police force (Heartfield 2002). Despite a curfew order, shops and other European-owned businesses in Suva had their store-fronts smashed. Later official inquiries found the police action appropriate but also upheld the workers' justifications for the need for industrial action (Lal 1992: 165-167).

Post-independence, the image of the police did not radically improve. In the past few decades, the police have been criticized by many segments of society as being corrupt, prejudiced, and politically partial. Particularly ardent criticism has been voiced with respect to the police's activities (and inactivity) during the coups of 1987 and 2000, when high levels of violence and instability both compromised abilities to closely oversee the police and at the same time led many members of the public to rely on the police for their safety to a greater degree than ever before. Following 1987, there was considerable criticism of the police for their enthusiastic implementation of Rabuka's new ordinances, including the Sunday Ban. In 2000, the police (as well as the military) were widely criticized for not reacting more strongly against Speight and his rebels as well as against elements of indigenous Fijian society who used the coup as an opportunity to wreak havoc across the country. At the same time, there was considerable disquiet about the brutality with which the police treated suspected rebel sympathizers.

A closer analysis of police activity during the 2000 coup is particularly illuminative of how the police positioned themselves with respect to nationalist calls for indigenous paramountcy as well as of how various segments of the public viewed the police in terms of their responsibilities to the citizenry.

During the 2000 turmoil, police units were actively assisting the military in containing Speight's rebel forces. At the same time they were responsible for protecting the populace. Yet, there were numerous occasions on which the police publicly declared that they had neither the arms nor the manpower necessary to safeguard civilians targeted by violence. Following an assault and hostage taking of Indo-Fijian men in Dreketi (about 30 miles from Labasa), a senior police officer was, for example, quoted as explaining that 'no officers would be sent to Dreketi as there was a possibility unarmed police would be harmed in a confrontation' with the hostage-takers (Maci 2000). The police in Suva and Nausori also revealed that they could not enforce their own roadblocks, due to the large number of armed civilians passing through them (Lattas, Mitchell, Reed, Rio, this collection).

Many in Fiji were, however, growing increasingly skeptical not only of the military and police forces' abilities, but also their sincerity in halting the violence. While Commodore Bainimarama placed the onus for the violence and upheaval onto indigenous Fijian elements inspired by the rebels, many ordinary people expressed a more complex conception of responsibility, often blaming the very security forces that were intended to protect them.

There were widespread suggestions that Isikia Savua, who was the Commissioner of Police during the 2000 coup, may have directed the police to transport arms into Parliament to assist the rebels. Savua was later cleared of allegations of involvement in the coup by a closed-door hearing, the details of which were never made public (Lal 2007). It was also alleged that members of the police actively took part in anti-Indo-Fijian violence, transporting cows that had been forcibly removed from Indo-Fijian farmers and delivering them to Parliament to help feed Speight's supporters. Accounts that I collected from Indo-Fijians who fled violent areas also made widespread claims that individuals had been forced to give bribes to the police and military in order to secure their protection. There were, furthermore, occasions when the police liberally interpreted legal provisions to the detriment of Indo-Fijian victims of ethnically-targeted violence. The Muanikau Accord, for example, passed in July 2000, granted Speight's supporters amnesty for 'political acts' committed during a certain period. In practice the amnesty agreement was applied by police to excuse acts of anti-Indo-Fijian violence such as the mugging and harassment of Indo-Fijians travelling through Korovou (Fiji Times, July 12, 2000). By January 2006, according to Andrew Hughes, who was then the Commissioner of Police, twenty-five members of the police force had either been charged or were under investigation for complicity in criminal activities relating to the 2000 coup (Fiji Police Force, 2006).

In a different context, Paul Brass suggests with respect to police participation in situations of communal violence in India, that in many cases, 'The police are neither acting simply as agents of the state by implementing the orders of the court nor are they simply misbehaving in some kind of aberrant way. They are doing what they normally do, entering into one side or another of a local conflict' (1997: 273). While Brass makes an important point about the role of local relations in police activities, it is also crucial not to de-emphasize the political implications that arise precisely from the fact that these are recognized 'agents of the state' taking part in ethnically-targeted violence, something that was frequently highlighted in the Fiji situation.

Indo-Fijians' narratives of police involvement tended to articulate a view of the police and the military as representatives of the state who were implicated in a widespread campaign to destabilize the country and were, in the process, engaged in terrorizing Indo-Fijian citizens. In such contexts, many Indo-Fijians had stories of moments when protection from violent offenders was left in their own hands (see Trnka 2008). Self-protection was particularly vital when people felt they were under direct threat not only from disgruntled indigenous Fijian groups but were also wary of the security forces themselves. At the same time, not knowing where else to look, many Indo-Fijians still turned to the police for their protection, even if it required bribes to ensure it. Aware of police corruption and in some cases complicity with Fijian nationalists, they still held 'the police' as representatives of the state as being responsible for their safety (see also Trnka 2005).

While Indo-Fijians bore the brunt of civilian violence in 2000, they were not the only ones claiming prejudicial treatment by the police. Indigenous Fijians made similar claims, but often with respect to police assaults against suspected rebels or rebel sympathizers. In one case that I recorded, an indigenous Fijian woman related how angered she was when her village was subject to a police search for rebel supporters. She was particularly appalled when the police forced chiefs and elderly persons to lie face-down on the ground during the search, acts that strongly contravene indigenous Fijian notions of respect. Her account, however, was less indicative of the lack of state authority evident in the actions of the police as it was of the government's blatant refusal to acknowledge traditional protocols. Her concerns thus evoke a different tension from those of many Indo-Fijian claims of police acting outside of the state, as she suggested a view of the government as positioned in opposition to respect for customary forms of leadership.


It is against this backdrop that I wish to examine the radical changes in the police force since Esala Teleni's appointment as Commissioner of Police in July 2007. Central to these changes is the fact that Commissioner Teleni did not conceive of the force as a secular institution but actively re-framed it as a proselytizing mission. How this may be over-laid with Prime Minister Bainimarama's program of government reform is a crucial question that I wish to address.

One of Bainimarama's first actions in asserting control over the government in December 2006 was to remove Andrew Hughes, a senior official in the Australian police who had been Fiji's Police Commissioner since 2003, from his position as Commissioner of Police. Hughes, who had had an increasingly confrontational relationship with Bainimarama in the lead up to the 2006 coup, was quickly replaced by a succession of Commissioners who were viewed as more amenable to Bainimarama's leadership. In the six months following the December 2006 coup, the Fiji Police Force had three commissioners: Jimi Koroi, a temporary appointment, Romanu Tikotikoca, who was asked to step down in July 2007, and Esala Teleni who held the post from July 2007 to August 2010. (Since Teleni's resignation, the police force has had two other Commissioners: Joeli Baleilevuka (a temporary appointment) and, as of mid-September 2010, Brigadier General Iowane Naivalurua). Prior to being appointed as Police Commissioner, Teleni had been second in command of the Fiji military and was a very close supporter and ally of Commander Bainimarama.

From his first days leading the police, Teleni pledged not only to provide stability to the force but also radical change. The new Commissioner's justifications for reform echoed those of his boss Bainimarama who had earlier stated that his overtaking of the Fiji government was due to the need for a radical 'clean up' of corruption. Where Teleni significantly deviated from Bainimarama was in his use of Christianity as part of his 'clean up' campaign.

Commissioner Teleni was anything other than reluctant to voice his religious views. A lay preacher, he actively embarked on religious sermonizing as part of his activities with the police. In addition to leading prayer services and making formal religious sermons at police gatherings, he interwove religious messages throughout his official statements as Police Commissioner. In January 2010, for example, Teleni started off his Commissioner's New Year's Message to the police, by declaring, 'I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' and concluded it with the words, 'May God be the root to our cause and may his blessings continue to shower us all fight throughout the New Year' (Fiji Police Force, 2010a). A few months earlier, in August 2009, Teleni had addressed the Eastern Region Police and assembled members of the public with a more explicit message. During a police-organized 'Christian crusade' at Korovou, Teleni commanded officers and the public alike to

Wake up because we are in God's time.... You are not on your time but on God's time. He is waiting for us to accept him and to rely on him, to caste out burdens onto Jesus. He will never forsake us even in our darkest hour.... All present, whether a police officer or a civilian, we attend the crusade to be [In] one time with God. Our purpose on earth is to proclaim God's presence, to do his will and to be God-fearing (Fiji Police Force, 2009c).

According to an official description of this event on the Fiji police government website, 'Children, youths and adults stood and proclaimed God's presence at Korovou and feel [sic] the Holy Spirit present that evening' (Fiji Police Force, 2009c).

Teleni's proselytizing mode was adopted by police officials throughout the country, with explicit invocations of Christ and the Bible appearing throughout their speeches. In February 2010, Senior Superintendent of Police Manoj Singh of the Southern Region addressed fifty-nine of his senior officers at their first monthly drill of 2010, urging them to derive their strength from Jesus (Fiji Police Force, 2010b). In another area of Fiji, the Eastern Region's Regional Police Commander's New Year's message concluded with a call to members of the police to

change your mood and attitude by repenting and accepting the Lord into your heart, read and listen to God's word (Bible), ease your burdens and turn to him wholeheartedly. Be God's Ambassadors to understand and appreciate what your role and responsibility is in the Fiji Police Force by making the right decisions and choices, for God has given us the gift of freedom to do so.... Choose to believe in God and have faith in him because he is 'God the provider' and he will provide for the region (Fiji Police Force, 2010c).

In addition to his sermonizing, Teleni took steps to institutionalize links between the Fiji police and Christian evangelists by building close links between the police and the New Methodist Church. Founded and run by one of Teleni's kinsmen, Pastor Atu Vulaono, the New Methodists are a Christian evangelical group, frequently portrayed as rivals of the traditional Methodist Church, which Bainimarama's government has put much effort into side-lining. (1) Though the church was only founded in August 2002, the New Methodists have been gaining in converts, with current claims of 20,000 members. As their name implies, the New Methodists distinguish themselves from more traditional Methodists by emphasizing their reformist vision; as Tomlinson has recently argued (2010), 'newness' in and of itself, along with 'disciplined Christian action,' are at the heart of their religious identity. Teleni's support for the new church involved putting on joint Christian crusades, with compulsory participation by police staff (Radio Australia, 2009) as well as inviting Pastor Vulaono to preach to his constables.

All of these activities were part of Teleni's effort to change the internal dynamics of the police force. In an interview with Fijilive, soon after he took on the position of Police Commissioner, Teleni stated that after thirty years in the military, a shift to the police force had forced him to tackle a new institutional culture. 'One of my biggest challenges,' he said of the police, 'is to change the way they do business' (Nisha 2009).

Teleni proceeded to do so by promoting what he refers to as the 'Jesus strategy.' One aspect of this strategy was the implementation of formal workshops that educate members of the police in the 'Jesus' way of life.' In November 2009, for example, eighty police officers from the Southern Region took part in a one day Spiritual Enhancement Workshop that was held at the Fiji Police Force Academy. Facilitated by the police force's chaplain's office, the theme was to promote the Jesus Strategy to middle and front-line managers (Fiji Police Force, 2009d). Similarly in the Western Region, police were encouraged by their regional police commander to try and follow the characteristics of Jesus Christ in their own lives (Fiji Police Force, 2009e).

This focus on changing the behaviour and moral outlooks of individual members of the police was intended to have widespread ramifications on the culture of the force as a whole. As police spokeswoman Ema Dimila Mua commented with respect to the effects on the police of taking part in Christian crusades, 'when the crusades started, the police force changed because officers themselves are changing' (Fiji Times Online, 2009). Responding to criticisms that corruption is still rife among the police, Mua commented that allegations that police officers were being exposed for selling marijuana was a 'sign' that the Jesus Strategy is working and that the larger culture of the police force was changing. In a telling slippage between being intolerant of corruption and demanding that his officers be 'faithful' (leaving ambiguous whether they were to be faithful to God, to the Police Commissioner, or both), Mua asserted of Teleni, 'we have some officers who say, "hey, we've found these things going on and we would like to bring it to light!" ... It's a sign that our officers are beginning to change. That the dirt is beginning to come out. He ([the] Police Commissioner) has no position for unfaithful officers within the force' (as quoted in Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Ltd, 2009). Teleni himself emphasized the crusades as the cornerstone for transforming the Fiji police. In one interview, he stated that the Holy Spirit informed him that the crusades are the only way of modernizing the police force (Radio New Zealand, 2009b). The intended impact of Teleni's reforms appears, however, to have been much larger.

While a large part of Teleni's focus was on combating corruption by having his officers reform their own behaviour, the Police Commissioner's broader concern was with the moral foundations of the general public. Again, he viewed the 'Jesus Strategy' as providing direction for moral change. As Teleni explained in his Commissioner's New Year's Message to the police (in January 2010),

With the shift of focus from Crime to People Focus [i.e. a focus on people, rather than crime], we have managed to develop [a] pro-active strategy to prevent crime. By being people focus[ed] we will improve our service and develop [the] Jesus Strategy as it's the only best [sic] way to deal with the people. By adopting this strategy, we will gain public confidence and significantly improve [the] police and people relationship.... (Fiji Police Force, 2010a)

What I take Teleni as indicating here is that the Jesus Strategy was two-fold, involving both a focus on changing the behaviours and moral outlooks of the police, and a focus on morally re-educating the Fijian populace. Not only was the strategy intended, as Teleni stated, to improve relationships between the public and the police, but it was also intended, as some of his other statements indicated, to cut down on crime by reconfiguring public morality. Similar statements from members of the military furthermore suggest that Teleni was well supported in this view. Francis Kean, Commander of the Fiji Navy, and chief guest at the 2009 Police Remembrance Day, for example, stated, 'Police work has become more demanding and complex from its traditional role of investigating crimes to community policing. Fiji Police is inspirational in building our nation and the Jesus strategy is unique ...' (Ministry of Information, 2009).

Steps toward this larger goal of national reformation included things such as the use of the phrase 'Praise the Lord' as a standard telephone greeting by police stations across Fiji (Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Ltd., 2009). In December 2009, as part of their initiative in declaring Suva the country's first 'crime free city,' the police also sponsored the recording of the 'Crime Free Fiji' theme song, whose lyrics proudly proclaim: 'Crime Free Fiji, yes we can be first in the world, with the Jesus strategy, we can make a crime free country' (Fiji Police Force, 2009e). Previously secular forms of community outreach were furthermore transformed into elements of Christian proselytizing. The Fiji Police Jazz Band, for example, changed its name to the Fiji Police Worship Band and now plays only gospel songs.

In addition, some police officers were issued with Bibles so that they could start preaching to people in prison and to the young men who spend their days hanging about in public areas, such as city streets. In explaining the purpose of this program, Inspector Iokimi Navono stated, 'It's our way of implementing the Jesus strategy. We want these people to change their lives because with Jesus they can' (Fiji Police Force, 2009g). Assistant Superintendent Rusiate Ryland, who declared the very act of Gideon International donating 200 Bibles to the Totogo police station a 'miracle,' explained that, 'The Bible is part of their kit now. It is checked regularly and officers should have it on them whenever their [sic] on beat' (Fiji Police Force, 2009a).

The police not only began preaching to those deemed to be in special need of their services, but also actively took to public spaces to advertise their spiritual presence and spread the word of Christianity among the wider populace through their series of Christian crusades. One of the largest of such rallies took place in Suva in June 2009. 'Ruggers for Jesus' promoted rugby stars who declared Jesus as the source of their strength. Organized by the New Methodist Church, it was a mass, multi-day gathering of police, rugby stars, New Methodist church leaders, and members of the public, publicly testifying to the power of Jesus. The police took part in a stage show, dancing and singing on stage in uniform in an effort to, according to the Fiji police official website, 'excite the Fijian public with Gospel music and dancing and sharing a common bond--Jesus Christ' (Fiji Police Force, 2009b). As part of the same event, the police collectively paraded down the street, chanting the name of Jesus. Similar, but smaller, initiatives included 'Jesus the way forward,' a crusade led by the Navua police station, during which 150 people marched through Navua town, led by the Fiji police marching band, and other events across the nation (Fiji Police Force, 2009h).

There was a distinct element of coercion in these campaigns. Not only was it difficult for the public, who live under a military regime not immune to making itself heard through violence, to turn a blind eye to the sight of a police crusade marching through the centre of town, but Teleni was also accused of using coercion against police officers who refused to take part in such displays. According to widespread media reports as well as a report issued by Human Rights Watch, regardless of their religion, police officers were forced to take part in the crusades. In 2009, the media published complaints of officers who refused to take part in Christian rallies and an unnamed Indo-Fijian officer was quoted in the Fiji Sun newspaper as saying that police who converted to the New Methodist Church were being given preferential treatment. Teleni's reported response was to call a meeting of a number of Indo-Fijian officers to whom he proclaimed, in comments that were caught by the microphone of a nearby Fiji One television camera, 'I can sack everyone sitting here today and I can recruit another 200 Indian officers' (Raicola 2009; see also Field 2009, Radio Australia 2009). When further questioned about the voluntary nature of the June 2009 Ruggers for Jesus Crusade, police spokeswoman Mua confirmed that it was indeed compulsory for police officers to attend the crusades held at their individual stations (Radio Australia, 2009).

As part of the same outburst against Indo-Fijian officers, Teleni made some extremely controversial remarks that were widely criticized in the media not only in Fiji but across the Pacific. According to various media outlets, Teleni told his Indo-Fijian staff, 'Kemudou tamata liu muri (you people are not loyal). I don't know what's wrong with you people' (as quoted in the Solomon Times Online, 2009, translation in the original). This was variously interpreted as a denunciation of Indo-Fijianpolice as being disloyal or, more significantly, as a broad-scale denunciation of all Indo-Fijians. In a political context where Indo-Fijians' loyalty to Fiji has been consistently questioned by indigenous Fijian nationalists and has been invoked as one of the grounds for overthrowing Indo-Fijian-backed governments (Trnka 2008; Kelly and Kaplan 2001), a denouncement of Indo-Fijians per se as disloyal has profound political resonance. It would, moreover, stand in stark contrast to Bainimarama's claims of 'building of better Fiji' for all its citizens. In response to Teleni's comments, a number of organizations, including the Movement for Democracy, the Non-Government Organisation Coalition on Human Rights, and the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, publicly called for Teleni to step down (which he did not do).

In addition to exerting pressure on individual members of the police, there are also suggestions that various elements of society have been strong-armed into joining the New Methodist Movement. According to the director of the Fiji Women's Rights movement, Virisila Buadromo, battered women seeking assistance from the police have, for example, been counseled by the police to commit themselves to Christianity, particularly to the New Methodist Church (as quoted in Callick 2009).

In contrast to the government clamp down on the activities of the (old) Methodist Church, it seemed, initially at least, as if the New Methodist Church was being encouraged to flourish. At the same time that the (old) Methodists were banned from holding their national choir competition, Pastor Vulaono was given permission to hold a large-scale crusade at the national sports stadium. By late 2009, however, the government's romance with the New Methodists appeared to be winding down with suggestions in the media that Bainimarama had personally ordered the police force to tone down their public embracing of New Methodism (McGeough 2009).

But Teleni's own proselytizing did not immediately come to an end. Many of the proclamations regarding the efficacy of the Jesus Strategy quoted here were made by Teleni in early 2010, after the alleged cooling off between the police and the New Methodists had already transpired. In January 2010, Teleni furthermore made reference to intensifying the police force's spiritualizing efforts by making an upgrade from the 'Jesus Strategy' to the 'Jesus standard' (Fiji Police Force, 2010d). Though he did not explain what the shift from a 'strategy' to a 'standard' entailed, his statements indicated that he continued to view the promotion of Jesus as a model for his staff to emulate.

With no reason having been given for Teleni's abrupt departure in August 2010 and with his successor having completed, as of this writing, only a few weeks in office, it is difficult to judge what the lasting impacts of Teleni's evangelizing may be. But whether or not the 'Jesus Strategy,' 'Jesus Standard' or some other Christian program continues to shape the outlook and practices of the Fiji Police, Teleni's ability to transform a previously secular institution into a religious one as well as to forcefully promote the activities of the New Methodists constitute a significant development in the already religiously-saturated landscape of Fijian politics.


In contrast to the military's close connections with political power, up until recently the police have not been viewed as a major player in Fijian politics. During power vacuums, such as the months that followed the 2000 coup, their role as a security force was certainly significant, but they took their leadership from the military and did not attempt to constitute themselves as a separate political entity vying for power. While individual members of the police were found to have compromised public security by acting out of personal gain or out of sympathy with the rebels, public perceptions of the police as a whole were ambiguous. The police were viewed by many as corrupt and ethnically-prejudiced but also as one of the last bastions for maintaining some semblance of security and order--tasks recognized as the most rudimentary responsibilities of the state. Without them, there was a widespread sense among many Indo-Fijians that 'government' did not exist. Others in Fiji viewed the police, along with the military, as acting contrary to traditional Fijian cultural values and the interests of the Fijian populace.

Into this context, there entered a new Police Commissioner with a revolutionary vision of the role of the Fiji police as transforming not only themselves, but society as a whole. Unafraid of making such utopian promises as the establishment of the world's first 'crime free' city as well as the vow that within a few years all of Fiji will be 'crime free' (Fiji Police Force, 2010e), Teleni, and the reforms he advocated, were indeed radical. But Teleni's reliance on Christianity as a means of legitimization and popularization of his leadership was not. Christianity has long been used to buoy up political leadership in Fiji, particularly (but not limited to) 'revolutionary' forms of leadership seeking radical change.

In embracing the mantel of a man on a mission from God, Teleni engaged a frame of reference that is by now well-known in Fiji's political sphere. He did not (at least openly) set his sights on a position as powerful as that of Bainimarama or Rabuka before him. Teleni's attempt to re-cast himself as a significant political-religious leader and his promises to transform Fijian society as a whole, remind us that charismatic leadership may work within institutions--by converting them from secular sites to religious ones, for example--as well as against them. While transformative in nature, the effects of charismatic leadership are moreover, as Weber pointed out, not necessarily as wide ranging as the vision of those who embody it.

Whatever their limitations, Teleni and Vulaono emerged out of the Prime Minister's shadow as possible figures for galvanizing grassroots loyalty to Bainimarama's government. Alongside a few other Christian leaders, most notably Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Fiji, Archbishop of Suva, Petero Mataca who accepted Bainimarama's invitation to serve alongside the Prime Minister as co-chair of highly controversial National Council for Building a Better Fiji, they supplied a stamp of Christian legitimacy to a political leader whose actions had been otherwise denounced by high-profile religious groups, such as the Assembly of Christian Churches, as 'manifestations of darkness and evil' (Fiji Times Online, 2006). In bridging the state and the Church, Teleni and Vulaono's co-operation in the crusades attempted to stimulate Fijian society into recognizing the current regime as morally upright and religiously relevant, as well as attempting, literally through song and dance, to associate the government with a sense of excitement and pleasure. By lending the New Methodists the legitimacy of the state through their connections with the police, and simultaneously drawing the police closer to what are recognized as traditional Christian values, albeit those of a new religious movement, Teleni sought simultaneously to re-shape both the face of government and of Fiji's most widely practised religion. At its most fundamental level, Teleni's reforms can be interpreted as an attempt to recast the perceived standoff between a so-called 'democratic' state and an increasingly alienated public, by suggesting that the state does indeed embrace 'Fijian culture'--i.e. Christianity--but on its own terms.

In the process, an institution that was previously viewed as less politically prejudiced and more ethnically, and therefore religiously, inclusive than the military began to alienate not only Muslim and Hindu police and members of the public, but many (old-style) Methodists and members of other Christian denominations as well. Teleni was, moreover, promoting his own persona (rather than Bainimarama's) as a potential charismatic leader; his ability to encourage personal loyalty among the members of an armed security unit (i.e. the police) as well as among segments of the public are thus suggestive of the potential of yet another 'revolutionary' political force entering into Fiji's already fraught political sphere.


Many thanks to Matt Tomlinson, Knut Mikjel Rio, Andrew Lattas, and two anonymous reviewers for their commentary on earlier drafts of this article.


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Susanna Trnka

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(1) Various media outlets in Fiji have consistently described Atu Vulaono to be Teleni's 'brother-in-law.' Matt Tomlinson has, however, found that Vulaono and Teleni are frequently referred to in Fijian society as 'brothers' rather than 'brothers-in-law' (Tomlinson, personal communication).
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