The Solomon Islands Crisis

Until the recent outbreak of violence in Honiara, Australian politicians and their camp followers were singing the praises of the "Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands" (RAMSI). This Australian-led military intervention was supposed to have put an end to ethnic fighting between rival tribes on Guadalcanal Island and restored stability to the politically and economically bankrupt Solomon Islands. As we saw earlier this week, it didn't quite work out that way.

RAMSI's biggest mistake was in not putting an end to corruption by the very politicians who invited them into the Solomon Islands in the first place. The tainted administration of Sir Allan Kemakeza, who had paid himself SI$800,000 in "compensation" out of government coffers a year before becoming prime minister, was propped up by RAMSI. Kemakeza was following a pattern established by the late Prime Minister Solomon "Solo" Mamaloni, who sold off his country's timber and marine resources to Asian companies at bargain prices in exchange for fat bribes. Mamaloni's sordid crew were voted out in 1997 and the progressive reformer Bartholomew Ulufa'ulu became prime minister.

Mamaloni-era politicians hoping to return to power and Asian businessmen who stood to lose from Ulufa'alu's reforms began working behind the scenes to destabilize the country as a way of getting him out. In 1998, indigenous Guadalcanal gangs launched ethnic cleansing operations against settlers from Malaita on the plains around Honiara. Ulufa'ulu declared a state of emergency in June, 1999, as the "Malaita Eagle Force" militia began "pay back" attacks on the Guadalcanal people. In March, 2000, Ulufa'ulu requested Australian intervention to restore order, but sadly his request was denied. In June, 2000, the Eagle Force and Malaitan members of the police staged a coup in Honiara and Ulufa'ulu's government was overthrown.

Australian interest picked up when an Australian-owned gold mine in the center of the island was raided by the Guadalcanal rebels. The Japanese-owned fishing company closed their cannery after one of their boats was hijacked, and the Solomon Islands was on the verge of financial default. But what really got the Aussie's attention were rumors that Prime Minister Kemakeza (elected in 2001) was secretly negotiating with Indonesia to intervene in the Solomon Islands. With Bush declaring victory in Iraq, Australian Prime Minister John Howard decided the Solomon Islands offered him a low-risk opportunity for a little military muscle flexing to enhance Australian influence. Kemakeza was called to Canberra and encouraged to invite Australia in. In July, 2003, some 2,250 soldiers, police, and public service advisors from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and several other Pacific countries landed in the Solomon Islands.

Initially, RAMSI seemed to be a success. Thousands of illegal weapons were collected, and the worst rebel thugs were rounded up and incarcerated. Corrupt elements in the police force were rooted out, and a few errant politicians were put on notice. But RAMSI failed to address the real problem which had been destabilizing the country: The ability of foreign companies (mostly Asian) to obtain easy access to the country's natural resources by bribing politicians and local officials, and the corruptive influence of local businessmen (again, mostly Asian) who could buy members of parliament for ready cash. Instead, RAMSI appeared to be propping up the Kemakeza government through military and economic aid. The Australian High Commission even pressured opposition politicians like Fred Fono to support Kemakeza, to give the appearance of stability so European Union aid money would be released.

The Australian RAMSI contingent was unpopular among Honiara residents. They appeared sullen and hostile, wouldn't say hello on the street, sped around in official vehicles without regard for other traffic, refused to allow their helicopters and planes to be used for humanitarian purposes, and hung out among themselves in expensive Chinese restaurants, most of which were burned down last week. The RAMSI presence led to a sharp jump in rental accommodation prices and an increase in prostitution.

In this climate, Kemakeza's former deputy, Snyder Rini, was closen prime minister in a secret ballot of parliamentarians elected on April 5, 2006. Locals who had been looking for a change were sorely disappointed, especially when rumors spread that wealthy Chinese businessmen had bought the votes of enough members of parliament to give Rini the job. But the spark which actually ignited the rioting and led to the burning of numerous Chinese businesses scattered around the capital was tear gas fired by Australian members of RAMSI into a restive but still non-violent crowd waiting for answers outside the parliament building in Honiara. Later, RAMSI and local police they had trained stood by on the left bank of the Mataniko River and took no action as a mob of around 1,000 Solomon Islanders looted and burned Chinatown on the river's right bank. Honiara's Chinese community, a large majority of whom took no part in the corruption and exploitation practiced by a few of their fellows, was forced to flee.

Hard times lie ahead for the Solomon Islands. The destruction of a large part of the capital's retail sector means there will be heavy inflation and a sharp drop in tax revenues leading to cuts in social services. Investors and tourists will stay away, even as large numbers of highly paid Australian officials, police, advisors, and worst of all, consultants, descend on the country. If RAMSI pursues its old stategy of working through opportunistic local politicians and business interests while largely ignoring community and church groups, Australian tax payers won't get very much for their money. And a lot of Australian aid money is going to have to go into the Solomon Islands very quickly, if only to shore up John Howard's reputation.

<< Home