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Flag as Inappropriate?

Fiji debates whether to ditch the Union Jack, a symbol of previous colonial rule, and redesign their national flag.

Earlier this month, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama decided that it was time to scrap his nation’s flag. As flag changes are incredibly rare, and major overhauls usually coincide with a regime shift, revolution, or emerging cults of personality, Bainimarama’s decision may seem like a warning sign to some observers. But the PM, who’s been floating a change since at least January 2013, has good reasons for his campaign for a new national symbol.

Fiji’s flag is a pale blue rectangle featuring the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner. The English cross of St. George and a lion are imprinted over a crest containing bananas, a palm tree, a peace dove, and sugar cane. This imagery firmly connects the nation to its history as a British colony, which only gained its freedom in 1970. As the country approaches the 45th anniversary of its independence this October, Bainimarama declared that there was no longer a place for symbols of the colonial past in Fiji’s future. Instead, he opened a national competition to design a new flag, communicating an inclusive and free Fiji with its eye on a self-determined future.

While Bainimarama’s push might sound like an unambiguously good, inclusive idea, Fiji’s flag change may not be an easily accepted affair; the prime minister faces a good amount of dissent, not from the British aboard, but from native Fijians. Having grown accustomed to the old flag, many locals are raising questions regarding when an archaic symbol of colonialism can be reclaimed by an independent peoples as their own, what role the remembrance of the colonial experience has in a modern nation’s march forward, and just whether or not Bainimarama even has the right to change the flag in the first place.

The Union Jack (a combination of an English Cross of St. George, Irish Cross of St. Patrick, and Scottish Cross of St. Andrew adopted by the United Kingdom in 1801) is a British icon inherently symbolic of empire, and many post-colonial states have removed it from their national emblems. Aside from the Britain’s current foreign territories, only four non-British sovereign nations still feature the imperial totem: Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and Tuvalu. Of the four, Australia and New Zealand, despite their pro-Commonwealth and pro-Queen stances, have both considered ditching their Union Jack-laden flags for something more recognizable and distinct to their nations.

Australia’s bid for a flag change floundered in 1999, thanks in part to campaigners, who tied the issue to a movement to break from the British Monarchy completely. However the struggle continues in New Zealand, where last year Prime Minister John Key proposed a referendum that would change the flag, to be held this year and fully decoupled from the issue of the nation’s connection to the British Crown. Only Tuvalu seems to have made no real move towards flag separation, but as little news comes out of that nation in general, it’s very possible that within the country this is a widely discussed issue that we just haven’t heard about yet.

Fiji has better cause to consider ditching the Union Jack than Australia or New Zealand, as its experience of colonialism under the British from 1874 to 1970 was quite different from theirs—often not for the best. And unlike the other three Union Jack users, as of 1987, Fiji functionally ceased to be a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, fully severing itself from Queen and Crown. And anyway, these days there’s no real British resistance to a nation changing its flag. Just last year, the majority of Brits got behind the idea of scrapping the Union Jack themselves for a new flag if Scotland’s bid for independence went through. Upon hearing of Bainimarama’s plans this month, British vexillologists (flag experts) actually offered some good advice on how to design a new flag that would be both representative, memorable, and unique to Fiji as a distinct nation.

Frank Bainimarama. Photo by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

Yet Fijians still have their doubts about ditching their current flag, colonial holdover or not. Many worry that alternative flags will stress one aspect of the multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation over another—existing flag proposals seem to trump either Indian, Muslim, or Polynesian heritage. Others complain that the flag, designed in 1970 for the nation’s original flag selection competition by still-living Fijian citizen Tessa McKenzie, now has unique meaning and sentimental value that transcends their colonial history. It’s their symbol now, they say. (Australian and New Zealand flag supporters have said much the same of their own Union Jack-inspired flags as well.)

Beyond these symbolic anxieties, Fijians are also concerned because Bainimarama proposed the changes unilaterally. The Prime Minister was elected just last September, but he first took power in 2006 as the head of a military coup. Once in power, he forced through a series of cosmetic transformations, such as scrapping the Queen’s Birthday as a public holiday and removing her face from the local currency. Opposition parties see the PM’s flag change decree as bypassing parliamentary discussion and as a sign of continued dictatorial tendencies.

All parties involved in Fiji’s flag debate present valid arguments for their points of view. Bainimarama is right that Fiji has very little reason to still attach itself to the Union Jack, a symbol that seems to be moving towards obsolescence in much of the post-colonial world. But his opponents are right that this decision does not rest with one man and must reflect the people’s belief that their flag no longer represents them.

If all goes as currently planned, the new flag will be unveiled this October 10, Fijian Independence Day.

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