On July 24, 2003, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) — an Australian-dominated force of police, military and bureaucrats — was deployed in the small island nation at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government.
Coming within months of the invasion of Iraq, this intervention was justified by the Australian government by labelling the Solomon Islands a "failed state" and, outlandishly, a potential source of terrorism.
According to its website, RAMSI was tasked with restoring law and order (which had broken down following ethnic conflicts over land in 1998), rebuilding the "machinery of government" and "encouraging broad based economic growth". However, a report released by the Sydney-based NGO Aid/Watch suggests that behind this mandate was a predatory economic agenda.
The Aid/Watch report argues that RAMSI has created an expatriate-centred "bubble economy", which has impacted negatively on the local population.
While the former Howard government made much of figures from a RAMSI-commissioned survey in 2007 that reported 90% of Solomon Islanders surveyed were supportive of RAMSI, the Aid/Watch report analyses the finding to reveal widespread economic dissatisfaction.
While the broadest support for RAMSI was in the area of security, a majority of respondents did not think law and order had improved or that their villages were "safe and peaceful".
This contradiction is partly explained by a loss in confidence in the Royal Solomon Island Police among sections of the population due to its partisan role in the post-1998 ethnic conflicts. It also reflects that most Solomon Islanders have very little to do with either the RSIP or RAMSI. According to the 2007 survey, only 12% of respondents had spoken to a RAMSI officer.
"Most people haven't seen them, but they like the idea of the security", the author of the Aid/Watch report, Sydney University lecturer Tim Anderson, told Green Left Weekly.
Furthermore, the Australians who comprise over 90% of RAMSI personnel are notably less popular than those from other countries. The mission, formally under the control of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), also includes contingents from New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga.
"Even the New Zealanders act differently", Anderson said. "They talk to people. The Australians don't talk to local
people. They are arrogant and people don't like trucks full of people with guns."
Significant resentment has been created by the economic aspects of the intervention. As has been the case in other instances of Western "aid caravans" in poor countries — for example Cambodia, Mozambique and East Timor — the presence of large numbers of highly-paid foreigners has led to a parallel economy.
Support services for RAMSI are contracted to Australian companies. Goods and services consumed by the foreigners are largely imported, meaning most of the money they spend is repatriated to Australia. The Australian government has refused to give figures as to how much of the much-vaunted $800 million aid to the Solomon Islands goes to Australian companies.
This has led to rental inflation, which has created suburbs of the capital, Honiara, that locals are excluded from. Even Solomon Islanders working in the public service are increasingly living in squatter settlements on the edge of Honiara.
More ominously, Australia's then-PM John Howard advocated privatisation, including the registration and commercialisation of communally-owned land. While this would benefit Australian and other foreign corporations, particular those in the mining and logging industries, it would be disastrous for Solomon Islanders — 84% of whom depend on communal land for subsistence.
In April 2006, Honiara was rocked by riots. These started with protests against the nomination of Snyder Rini for prime minister, following elections where there had been a strong vote against the government in which he served as deputy PM.
This government was unpopular due to corrupt ties with logging companies. In a typically heavy-handed response, Australian RAMSI officers tear gassed the crowd, which responded by marching into the commercial district of Honiara and burning shops and RAMSI police vehicles.
Following the riots, parliament elected opposition MP Manasseh Sogovare as PM. RAMSI responded by arresting two pro-Sogovare MPs.
Acting on the advice of his senior legal advisor Julian Moti, Sogovare nominated Australian jurist Marcus Einfield to head an inquiry into the riots that would include the role of RAMSI police in its investigations.
Within weeks, Moti was charged under extraterritorial laws for sex crimes that allegedly took place in Vanuatu. A Vanuatu court had already dismissed the charges in 1999. Einfield became the subject of an investigation over unpaid parking fines.
This began a period of confrontation between the respective governments of the Solomon Islands and Australia, which only ended this year.
The confrontation has restrained Australia's agenda of extending its neocolonial control. "One of the good things the confrontation brought about was the scaling back of RAMSI's mandate. Land registration [and] privatisation were off the agenda. Howard and Downer backed off", Anderson explained to GLW.