PACIFIC: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Solomon Islands: nightmare in paradise
, June 28, 2003
While the Australian media have been preoccupied with the fall-out from the Crean/Beazley duel and the controversy over Australian Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, more important developments were taking place in the troubled Solomon Islands, which lie just off the south-east coast of Papua New Guinea, in the Coral Sea.
The Solomons were administered by Britain since the 1890s and, during World War II, was the site of bitter fighting, particularly on the island of Guadalcanal.Violence
The Solomons became independent in 1978, but have been characterised by increasing levels of inter-communal violence and criminal activity, and a bankrupt civil administration which has been unable to pay its employees or maintain law and order.
The breakdown is particularly tragic as the 500,000 people living on the islands are overwhelmingly Christian (mainly Anglican), and the country has untapped mineral deposits of gold, nickel, lead and zinc.
The causes of the country's lack of development relate partly to land disputes, and ethnic divisions between people living on different islands.
About five years ago, ethnic violence erupted between rival armed militias, one run by indigenous people from Guadalcanal and the other, the Malaita Eagle Force, people from the neighbouring island of Malaita who had been attracted to the economic opportunities offered by the capital, Honiara.
In June 2000, a coup led to the ousting of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu by the Malaita Eagle Force.
A peace agreement in October, 2000 failed to end the violence and armed militias are still active on Guadalcanal. In late August, 2002, a Cabinet Minister was assassinated and a rebel leader, Harold Keke, claimed responsibility.
Cabinet Ministers have been blamed for attacks on a local newspaper office and a threat to kill a petrol station attendant who asked a Minister to wait in line. The former Police Commissioner said in August last year that the government was 'scared' of the police, many of whom, he said, were running illegal businesses and had refused to hand in weapons they had stolen from police armouries.
Recently, some 30 people have been taken hostage on Guadalcanal, in an area controlled by rebels.
The breakdown in law and order prompted a visit to the capital, Honiara, by a joint Australia-New Zealand mission, seeking a solution to the long-running decline of the Solomons.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said that intervention was being considered because the three years since a coup in 2000 had left Solomon Islanders living in fear.
He said, "The rule of law is not upheld by senior police officers and the [Solomons] Government is unable to operate without intimidation and extortion by armed former militants and other criminal elements.".
However, he pointed out that Australia and New Zealand wanted to be sure there was support for intervention: "that this is not simply a case of two countries at the bottom of the South Pacific imposing their views on another country."
The response by the political leadership in Honiara was positive: Governor-General Sir John Ini Lapli said intervention was "long overdue", and that the government was under siege, due to the breakdown of law and order.
The economic problems stem from the extent of subsistence agriculture and the virtual absence of any local manufacturing industry, which means that almost all manufactured goods are imported.
The increasing role by Australia in the Solomon Islands comes against a background of continued instability in the "inner rim" of nation states near Australia. In Indonesia, the Government continues to be involved in brutal military operations in Aceh and West Papua, the effect of which is likely to be to aggravate internal tensions. Papua New Guinea faces continued political and economic crises, and East Timor faces long-term development problems, quite apart from the current food crisis caused to the recent drought.
In the Pacific Islands, only Australia (and to a lesser extent, New Zealand) are able to guarantee stability, although the Australian defence forces have only limited capacity for engagement due to existing commitments in the Middle East.
The reluctance of past Australian governments to become directly involved in sponsoring the social and economic development in the immediate region could well haunt the next generation.
Further, the run-down of Australia's defence forces over many years, due to a combination of "no threat" scenarios developed by so-called "defence experts" on whom the government has relied, coupled with the mistaken strategic doctrine of continental defence, leaves Australia highly vulnerable to the collapse of governments in the island states which lie between Australia and the great nations of Asia.