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EDITORIAL The Press Christchurch, New Zealand

June 7, 2000

The long swells of the Pacific are carrying more than coconut husks and plastic bottles. The breakers are throwing up rebellion on the region's scattered shores, fracturing the image of Arcadian contentment. The Pacific way is in danger of becoming the way of the rifle and the hostage.

Fiji's coup has evidently been copied in the Solomons, where the kidnapping of the Prime Minister and Governor General in an attempt to make them resign is a sudden worsening of the tiny nation's conflicts. It is too much not to believe that the Honiara hostage-takers were not inspired by George Speight's action in Fiji, which to the region's malcontents is an example of a determined individual and a handful of followers ousting a government and almost grabbing power.

Both Fiji and the Solomons are being subjected to rapid social and economic change and their democratic traditions are shallow. The worry about the coup infection spreading is heightened by the fact that other of the region's States are under similar pressure and many of them show signs of serious instability.

In 1997 Papua New Guinea experienced a partial coup in the midst of an interlocking crisis involving the Bougainville revolt, corruption, and government instability. It is racked by lawlessness. Tonga is ripe for rapid change, with a strong group pressing for more democratization and a new monarch inevitable before too long. The Cook Islands nation is still emerging from a severe economic crisis and has had difficulty putting a government in place. Western Samoa suffers from corruption and a Cabinet minister has been assassinated. New Caledonia has still to make the transition to independence, and has a bitter legacy of ethnic violence with which to come to terms.

All these conflicts are different in their particulars but general conclusions can be drawn from them. The area is plainly chronically unstable and will remain so into the foreseeable future. That is likely because of what now can be seen as the thin layer of democracy overlaying tribal practices that have little to do with nationhood or civil liberties.

Adding to the potential for stress fractures are the economic changes that the South Pacific must undergo, for it is becoming increasingly locked into the world economy, needing and getting foreign investment and subject to the disciplines that brings.

All these Pacific nations are subjected to similar pressures but their troubles show in different ways, which is certainly the case with Fiji and the Solomons. The latter nation is not witnessing a struggle between two races but between tribes of the same race. The people of Guadalcanal are attempting to push immigrant Malaitans off their island, a campaign that has been so successful that an estimated 20,000 people - almost a quarter of the Malaitan population - have been forced to flee.

It has been carried out by the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army and the Isatabu Freedom Movement, and it is opposed by various Malaitan groups. Both sides have carried on small-scale but effective operations of terror and intimidation which have killed about 60 people and caused rioting in the Solomons capital, Honiara, with power and water cuts interrupting regularly.

The Commonwealth - particularly Australia and New Zealand - have been active in attempting to broker a settlement. Central to that was the appointment of Sitiveni Rabuka as a mediator, and he did negotiate a truce last year. But, as the Tasman nations learned in the Bougainville conflict, peacemaking in tribal societies is difficult. Leadership tends to be multi-headed and communications partial. It therefore came as no surprise that the truce broke down this January.

Fuelling the conflict is the encroachment of Malaitans into Guadalcanal lands and into the nation's power structure. They are the most successful of the Solomons' tribes and this causes jealousy. The Prime Minister, Bartholomew Ulufa‘alu, against whom the coup was directed, is a Malaitan, for instance, as are the rebels, who call themselves the Malaita Eagle Force.

Their action greatly complicates the conflict. It inflames tempers, for one thing, and seems to block a negotiated settlement. The Guadalcanalians must reasonably be coming to the conclusion that arms are indeed the only way to get a fair share of the nation's power and resources.

It is tempting to discount the Solomons trouble on the grounds that it is taking place in a small nation of limited strategic importance. But that is to overlook the nasty human toll such civil conflicts can exact, the heightened instability civil war would cause in the area, and the obligations New Zealand and Australia have as neighbors.

Both countries are already stretched with the deployment in East Timor but have backup from the Commonwealth. It appointed Major General Rabuka as Solomons mediator and its executive head, Don McKinnon, is well versed in the area's problems from his days as New Zealand Foreign Minister. But the Commonwealth in turn is preoccupied with Zimbabwe and Fiji and might have to raise peacekeeping forces for both countries.

The little wars of this millennium are becoming a permanent rash on the skin of the world, and New Zealand is caught up in containing the outbreak.

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