Solomon Islands: Ten years of Aus.-led occupation fails to create more than fantasy

Australian soldiers on patrol in the Solomon Islands

Back in 1989 a schoolmate of mine showed me some copies of Tribune, the newspaper of New Zealand’s Socialist Unity Party.

The SUP had for decades been convinced of the infallibility of the leadership of the Soviet Union, and the pages of Tribune were full of recycled press releases from the Kremlin and large airbrushed photographs of crumbling Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov.

By 1989, though, the Soviet bloc was in crisis, and Tribune was obliged to report events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of a Solidarity government in Poland.

I remember one article that sat uneasily beneath a photograph of a crowd of Germans tearing down the wall. According to Tribune, the crowd’s exuberant vandalism was not a sign of opposition to the ultra-Stalinist East German government, but rather a “part of the process” of “building socialism”.

The SUP was incapable of dealing with a reality that contradicted its sanguine rhetoric. The party did not survive much longer than East Germany.

RAMSI's fantasies

I thought about the confusions of the SUP when I read the latest issue of Islands Business, the monthly news magazine published in Fiji. Every issue of Islands Business ends with a column called “Letter from RAMSI”, in which the Australian and New Zealand leaders of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) rave about their achievements.

In this month’s letter, Nicholas Coppel, the special coordinator of RAMSI, sets out to celebrate the 10th anniversary of RAMSI’s deployment to the Solomons.

Coppel correctly notes that the Solomons was a chaotic and violent place in 2003. The government had virtually closed down, and armed militias were fighting for control of the capital island of Guadalcanal.

Coppel boasts that RAMSI’s troops, cops and administrators have re-established “law and order” in the Solomons, rebuilt the local police force and given the country “functioning government systems”.

He enthuses over the Solomons’ economy, which is supposedly booming, and said RAMSI can be “very proud” of what it has given the country.

Coppel scrupulously avoids any discussion of the multiple crises that have beset RAMSI over the past decade. He has nothing to say about the riot that levelled large parts of downtown Honiara, the capital, in 2006.

Nor about RAMSI's habit of raiding the offices of Solomons politicians opposed to its policies, such as former prime minister Mansseh Sogavare, or the steady resistance to RAMSI on the island of Malaita.

Unfortunately for Coppel, the latest Islands Business also contains an article by Alfred Sasako called “35 years on, where is Solomons heading?”

Sasako notes that the Solomons has just marked three-and-a-half decades of independence, but he doesn’t feel in a celebratory mood.

The Solomons, he insists, is “a nation in rapid decline”. Sasako offers a series of anecdotes which together demonstrate the sorry state of the government and economy of the Solomons.

He shows that the RAMSI-trained Solomons police force is more interested in providing security for Malaysian logging companies than investigating crime; that cops from Prime Minister Gordon Lilo’s Personal Protection Unit supervised a very public burglary on the island of Malaita; that cabinet ministers rarely enter their offices, and many senior public servants only turn up to work to collect their pay; and that Lilo’s regime has taken SI$300 million (about $46 million) from the public purse and distributed it among members of parliament.

Sasako does not share Coppel’s enthusiasm about the performance of RAMSI in the Solomons. “There is no appreciable sign,” he says, that the efforts of the past 10 years have moved the country anywhere “except downwards”.

Just as that photograph of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall mocked Tribune’s endorsement of the East German regime, so Alfred Sasako’s pungent contribution to Islands Business refutes Coppel’s claims for the success of RAMSI.

Unfortunately, not all media outlets have been prepared to acknowledge the critics of RAMSI. ABC Radio marked the 10th anniversary of RAMSI by interviewing Coppel and replaying a long and fantastic speech by Lilo.

No hint of the Solomons’ problems was given.

Colonialism

To understand why RAMSI has been unable to create a functioning state, we need to examine the sociology and history of the Solomons.

Like other parts of Melanesia, the Solomons traditionally consisted of small-scale societies. The kingdoms and empires that emerged in Polynesian and Micronesian societies like Tonga and Yap had no parallels on islands like Malaita and Guadalcanal, where language and topography tended to divide rather than unite people.

Marshall Sahlins and other scholars have shown how the small communities of Melanesia would be brought together temporarily by “big men” skilled in oratory and war. Through his bravery and eloquence, a “big man” might unite a dozen or so villages so that they could wage a war or throw a feast.

But the unity that the big men achieved was always precarious.

Despite their different languages and religions, though, Solomon Islanders were united by an adherence to kastom, a set of traditional practices that provided forums where individuals and groups could air complaints and settle disputes.

Britain took control of the Solomons late in the 19th century, but was very reluctant to spend money there. Missionaries were encouraged to do the work of colonial authorities by running schools and health clinics. Institutions ― a national university, for instance ― that might link the colony’s different islands were never created.

On the island of Malaita, resistance to colonialism was continuous, and a dynamic nationalist movement called Maasina Rule emerged after World War II. Led by the Kwaio, a central Malaitan people who had rejected the Christian faith and killed tax collectors, Maasina Rule demanded the substitution of kastom for the rules and practices of the British.

On other islands, though, a nationalist consciousness generally failed to develop.

When Britain left the Solomons in 1978, it bequeathed the country a set of state institutions incompatible with its culture. A Westminster-style parliament, which relies on the existence of national political parties divided ideologically, had little relevance to the Solomons, where identity is largely local.

A hyper-centralised government on Guadalcanal was always likely to fail the needs of distant islands which valued their autonomy. The courts and jails of a British-style legal system were alien to kastom.

Like the Australians in nearby Papua New Guinea, the British colonialists provided the conditions for the growth not of Western-style capitalism but of a caste of “political big men”, who use state institutions to enrich themselves and reward their supporters. Lilo is simply the latest of these modern big men.

By the late 1990s the Solomons state was factionalised and badly indebted. The response of Australia, New Zealand and the International Monetary Fund was to impose a neoliberal “adjustment program” on the country. State spending was cut, and large numbers of public servants were sacked.

Neoliberalism simply accelerated the collapse of the state, and in 2003 the neo-colonialists of Australia and New Zealand decided that direct intervention was necessary to stabilise the Solomons.

But RAMSI has rebuilt the doomed state that the British gave to the Solomons in 1978. There is the same irrelevant national parliament, the same absurdly centralised government, and the same substitution of Western justice for kastom.

As Sasako shows, the state RAMSI rebuilt has already begun to collapse.

A different path

The latest issue of Islands Business does not only discuss the problems of the Solomons. The cover of the issue features Moana Carcasses Kalosil, the prime minister of Vanuatu. Kalosil is a member of Vanuatu’s relatively small Green Party, but he leads a stable coalition government.

In an interview with Islands Business, Kalosil criticises the excesses of Western capitalism and celebrates Pacific methods of decision making. In some ways, Kalosil can be seen as a successor to Walter Lini, the legendary leader of Vanuatu’s independence struggle and the country’s first prime minister.

Calling himself a “Melanesian socialist”, Lini tried to reconcile a modern state with traditional practices like kastom. Vanuatu is not a paradise, but it has never experienced the violent chaos that has become a symbol of the Solomons.

[Reprinted from Reading The Maps, via Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Scott Hamilton works at the Atenisi Institute, a small radical school on the western edge of Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga.]


Comments

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