Tacit support for local resistance to the Fiji coup shows what's wrong with Australia's policy for the South Pacific, argues Graham Davis.
Of all our Pacific neighbours, Fiji is like the Russia described by Winston Churchill; a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Just when you think you understand what happens there, something else occurs to blow your conclusions apart.
The locals have always tended to tell people what they want to know rather than an unpalatable truth.
For Australian diplomats and journalists, this poses a particular problem.
It explains why many have learned from bitter experience not to chance their arms too much in predicting the course of events in Fiji.
But what happens when that Australian happens to be the country's police chief?
This week, the now ousted commissioner Andrew Hughes predicted a popular uprising against the coup of the nation's military chief, Voreqe Bainimarama.
"I hope it will remain non-violent, but my fear is that as these chiefs and the youths become more and more angry and incensed by what he's doing ... realistically it is a possibility,'' he told ABC television's The 7.30 Report.
Of course it's a possibility. Unlike Fiji's three previous coups, which were largely anti-Indian in nature, this one pits indigenous Fijian against indigenous Fijian and is bound to open up longstanding rivalries.
But Hughes' comments left many in Fiji aghast.
For he went on to say about the military chief: "All he's finding is resistance ... I can see that resistance is growing. The determination to overcome this fellow is wonderful to behold.''
Were these the comments of an impartial and responsible chief law enforcer at such a time?
Or was the clearly partisan police chief as blinded by the limelight as the man he described as "not mentally sound'', Bainimarama?
Until he was formally sacked on Wednesday, Hughes had been "in full command" of the Fiji police from Cairns, where he'd fled when things in Suva got too hot.
He says he chose to take early leave because of explicit death threats made against him and his family.
Yet he'd already taken refuge in the Special Air Service-fortified Australian high commission compound in Suva and was arguably much safer than his senior officers who stayed at their posts.
Until his flight into exile, the Australian had enjoyed a dream run in the public estimation for reinvigorating the force.
But he left behind a perception that the toughness of the man the locals had dubbed James Bond didn't go much past shooting his mouth off.
Not that he's alone among Australians in this crisis. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer lost Australia friends this week by advocating a campaign of civil disobedience against the coup.
"I don't think public servants should co-operate with the commodore and the military,'' he told parliament.
"I think they should show passive resistance to this regime.''
Commodore Bainimara-ma made clear in his response that any resistance would be met by force.
Australia clearly has a double standard in its response to such events based on the size and relative importance of a particular country.
Why, for instance, didn't we encourage the Thai people to resist this year's military coup against prime minister Thaksin Shina-watra?
The usual diplomatic response under such circumstances is to express regret, say it's an internal matter and express the hope that things are settled quickly and peacefully. Not in the case of Fiji.
This is the fourth coup in 20 years but the first in which Australia has advocated civilian resistance.
Why weren't such calls made in the two coups by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987 and the coup by George Speight in 2000?
Was this because they were coups against Indian-dominated governments and Australia feared a racial bloodbath?
The potential for violence now is arguably much worse.
Fiji's Indians are traditionally passive but indigenous Fijians have a relatively recent history of clubbing each other to death.
A more plausible explanation for a frothing foreign minister is abject frustration that Australian efforts to influence events in Fiji have failed.
The Government's policy of active engagement in neighbourhood affairs has already produced messy outcomes in East Timor and the Solomons and alienated leaders such as Papua New Guinea's Michael Somare.
Now that its policy of strong support for the ousted Qarase government has unravelled, it's time to examine the wisdom of siding with a particular local cause, especially one so flawed. Constitutional niceties and talk of upholding the rule of law have drowned out the real reasons for the crisis in Fiji.
Particularly galling is the sudden elevation of deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase to martyr status in the pantheon of democrats.
This is a man who first came to power because of the 2000 coup, described it as "God's plan" and once said democracy in Fiji was based on a "dangerous delusion'' that its people were all the same.
In power, Qarase turned a blind eye to burgeoning corruption, pursued blatantly racist policies that favoured Fijians and marginalised the 40 per cent of citizens of Indian extraction.
Encouraged by the extreme nationalism Qarase promotes, Fijian thugs routinely intimidated and beat the poorest Indians eking out an existence in rural areas.
Commodore Bainimarama, who'd handed Qarase the job of prime minister after jailing Speight, stood by for a long time as the understandings they'd reached were eroded.
With mounting frustration, he witnessed a parade of convicted and suspected coup-makers appointed as ministers in Qarase's cabinet. But when Qarese set out to pardon those involved in the Speight coup, it was too much for the military chief, who'd barely escaped with his life in a subsequent mutiny.
Compounding his anger was legislation that would extend Fijian ownership of land to the seas and make other citizens pay for the simple act of going fishing.
Right until the end, Qarase could have withdrawn the legislation, but his sole concession was to have its constitutional validity tested in court.
Which was the bigger gun at his head? The one in Commodore Bainimarama's hands or in the hands of the fellow nationalists around him, desperate for pardons and fresh income?
None of this explanation for what produced the latest coup has emanated from Downer or Hughes.
And where is the apology from Downer for calling deposed president and high chief Ratu Josefa Iloilo a disgrace for allegedly backing Bainimarama when he hadn't?
While Australia so vocally supports the fair-weather democrats of Fiji, it risks alienating much of the population.
Judging from one local opinion poll and comments on global websites, most Indo-Fijians appear to support Bainimarama as their sole hope for any future against the nationalist tide, whatever reservations they may have.
Many also wonder why Australia was less vocal when their own Mahendra Chaudhry was deposed as PM in the coup of 2000.
If democracy and the rule of law is as absolute as Canberra maintains, shouldn't he have been reinstated when the rule of law was restored?
Australia must re-evaluate its Pacific policy.
Mao Zedong's famous dictum of power coming out of the barrel of a gun will be no different in Fiji and Bainimarama could wield that power for a long time.
Publicly encouraging his overthrow may serve only to deprive Australia of any influence for an equally long period.
A dictator? For now, yes. But China is also a dictatorship and when did Downer last call for passive resistance there?
Of course, Australia should support democracy.
It just needs to be a lot more sophisticated in understanding Fiji.
Graham Davis is a Fiji-born journalist who investigated the 2000 coup for Channel 9's Sunday program in May.