Backing horses: Australia’s Solomon Islands intervention

December 9, 2021
Australian Defence Forces in the Soloman Islands.

The history of “humanitarian” or policing missions is one of taking sides, disruptive partiality and the forfeiture of the very object powers claim when intervening in another country. Things become particularly absurd when the individual, or government, pleading for such help is struggling to survive.

Take Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare of the Solomon Islands has made full use of the 2017 security agreement with Australia to make meddling in his country a smooth affair.

That understanding was reached after 14 years, when Australian-led forces found themselves involved in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. “We know that a failed state in our region on our doorstep,” Prime Minister John Howard stated in July 2003 “will jeopardise our own security”.

Since 2017 the Solomon Islands has continued to sunder under the stresses of poverty, uneven development, corruption and tensions between the capital and the provinces.

The Sogavare government’s decision to ditch a longstanding relationship with Taiwan in 2019 became a matter of contention between it and the Malaitan administration of Premier Daniel Suidani. Emboldened, companies and entities linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to exert influence.

Malaitan Premier Daniel Suidani, unpersuaded by Honaria’s pro-Beijing drive to foster development, initiated his own provincial measures. The 2019 Auki Communique noted how the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business licenses to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)”.

The document contains a barb directed against the CCP; it acknowledges “freedom of religion as a fundamental right” and that the “Christian faith and belief in god by Malaitan and MOIan [Malaita Outer Islands] peoples” was in opposition to the “CCP and its formal systems based on atheistic ideology”.

In May last year, Suidani was unsettled by the Sogavare government’s insistence that the China Civil Engineering Corporation (CECC) conduct a feasibility study on Malaita North East Road from Fouia to Manu. “We are strongly opposed to PRC communist ideology and investment,” the Malaitan Premier said.

When Suidani fell ill that year, he refused to accept medical assistance from China and instead asked Taiwan. The Chinese Embassy in the Solomon Islands issued a statement of dismay.

Suidani has also accepted development aid from the United States, the latter opportunistically furnishing the Malaitan administration with US$25 million in October last year. He has also maintained warm relations with Taiwan, a move which has been reciprocated.

A motion of no confidence was presented to the Premier in the Malaita legislature in October. It was said to have been the brainchild of the Sogavare government in Honiara.

Protesters marched through the provincial capital of Auki to seek its withdrawal. Sogavare’s backers relented.

The Solomon Times reported that the sentiment of the protests as unequivocal. Outside the Assembly Hall, the marchers spoke of how “this is a government of the people, so if the central government cannot listen then we have to stand up and talk”.

Suidani, with an almost authoritarian air of confidence, declared that: “There is no such thing as an opposition group, the [Suidani] MARA government is the executive and non-executive”.

It is this patchwork of tensions and confusions that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is shoring up. Prime Minister Scott Morrison hopes that local flavour, allegiances and factions can be ignored with judicial care.

“Australia’s response,” he said, “is under the treaty that we have with the Solomon Islands and that is with the people of the Solomon Islands — that is between two governments, and that is there regardless of who is running either of those governments.”

Inconsistently — and incredulously — Morrison also said that Australia sought to “take no part in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands but simply to ensure that any issues can be addressed in a calm and peaceful way”.

The moment those forces were deployed, Australia became a standard bearer for the status quo and a defender of Sogavare.

Celsus Talifilu, an advisor to Suidani, asked a pressing question. He said the presence of the ADF “on the ground gives a very strong moral boost to Prime Minister Sogavare and his government. They are here at the invitation of Sogavare — how can you be neutral?”

Only the Malaitans, suggested Talifilu, were the ones defending democracy. “We were thinking Australia would see the stand we are taking,” he said.

Australian police and the ADF now find themselves in Honiara, ostensibly to restore order. Papua New Guinea has sent a small contingent and Fiji is promising to.

Their broader aim is to shore up a regime that is dying of democratically-induced causes.

Prior to the intervention it was reported that the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force were having discussions with Sogavare about his possible resignation. Now, the regime is digging in, warning of “another evil plan” by anti-government protestors to devastate the capital.

Canberra is doing all it can to place Sogavare on Australian life support and suppress the local resistance movement. The Prime Minister of the Solomons has every reason to feel smug.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.]

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