The South Pacific island nation of Fiji has lifted emergency law, more than five years after the military came to power in a coup and almost three years after Commodore Voreqe Frank Bainimarama imposed the martial rule.
Bainimarama also said the government will commence deliberations on a new constitution next month.
To facilitate this consultation process, the public emergency regulations will cease from 7 January 2012, he said in a New Years Day speech to the country.
However, he added that ''public order, protecting the vulnerable and safeguarding the economy, will always be paramount, suggesting any violation of the peace would be punished.
Bainimarama assured that the new constitution would guarantee equality to all Fijians, regardless of race and ethnicity.
There are certain features of the new constitution that will be non-negotiable, he said.
The constitution must establish a government that is founded on an electoral system that guarantees equal suffrage - a truly democratic system based on the principle of one person, one vote, one value; we will not have a system that will classify Fijians based on ethnicity; and, our young men and women, those 18 years old must have the right to vote.
He also promised new elections by 2014.
Bainimarama had imposed emergency law in April 2009 after a Fijian court ruled that his coup was illegal. As a result, public assemblies were banned and media was heavily censored. The prior constitution was also revoked.
Fiji, whose history has long been marked by tensions between its majority indigenous Fijian population and its minority of economically powerful ethnic East Indians, has endured four coups since 1987.
The country has been suspended from the British Commonwealth of Nations since 2009 due to the Fijian leader’s failure to call elections at that time.
Fiji’s most prominent neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, both of which imposed sanctions on the island, welcomed the decision, but guardedly.
''There is a long way to go in restoring democracy to Fiji. We are keen to see how these developments play out,'' said Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles in a statement.
Australia’s acting Foreign Minister Martin Ferguson said: ''Australia has consistently said that we are ready to provide support for elections, once the interim government takes credible and concrete steps to restore democracy.''
The New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, a long-time critic of Fiji’s military rule, stated: ''While there are a range of steps that will be required before free and fair elections can be held, these are important moves in the right direction.”