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Constitution consultation launched

A plan by Fiji's military rulers to institute a new constitution is raising hopes among those eager to see democracy restored to the Pacific island nation.

Fiji leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama announced a year-long process for Fijians to discuss, debate and approve a new constitution.

Fiji has enlisted Yash Ghai, a Kenyan-born expert on constitutional law, to chair a commission overseeing the process.

Mr Bainimarama seized power in a coup in late 2006 and in 2009 played a role in suspending the constitution and imposing emergency regulations after a court ruled his government was illegal.

He has promised a return to democratic elections in 2014, but many have remained sceptical of both his timeline and his true intentions. Earlier this year, Mr Bainimarama lifted the emergency rule provisions but also imposed tighter controls on public order.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, a Pacific expert with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank, said she considers the announcement the most positive step she's seen from Mr Bainimarama since he seized power. "Assuming he's serious and follows through with it, it's very positive," she said. "The announcement suggests there's going to be some genuine consultation and some genuine freedom of speech."

Ms Hayward-Jones said Mr Ghai is perhaps the leading expert in his field and his appointment is a good sign. She said even if the military rulers starts to have misgivings about the constitutional process after it begins, it would be hard for them to stop it.

But Ms Hayward-Jones said the proof will be in Mr Bainimarama's actions, not his announcements. Indeed, Mr Bainimarama has broken earlier pledges to return democracy to the nation of 850,000.

Murray McCully, New Zealand's foreign affairs minister, said in a statement that he regards the announcement as "a real step in the right direction".

In his announcement, Mr Bainimarama said certain principles in a new constitution were "non-negotiable". Those included having a secular state, an independent judiciary, and a ban on ethnic-based voting that in the past has separated the votes of native Fijians from Indian Fijians.

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