DEMOCRACY RESTORING ELECTION IN SOLOMON ISLANDS WEDNESDAY AN ECHO OF EARLIER

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U.S. MILITARY OPERATION

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 2, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---The language of hatred is pretty stark in the Solomon Islands, which Wednesday holds a general election following a civil war and a coup.

Two years of ethnic unrest have sent the Pacific nation back to its primitive roots.

"Do you know what we call Malaitans," asked Solomon’s militant George Grey? "Dog’s sperm."

As American soldiers sit tensely on a dusty airstrip outside of Kandahr, Afghanistan, not a lot of thought will be extended toward the Solomons except that every Marine has knowledge of Grey’s home: Guadalcanal.

During World War II, the grandfathers of those in Afghanistan today were clinging onto the island’s Henderson Field, facing fierce assaults 59 years ago which, if they had of succeeded, would have seen Australia and New Zealand part of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Its not just history; the impact of that battlefield still defines the Solomons.

By most measures the Solomons should be prosperous. With just 446,000 mainly Melanesian people living on six large, lush islands and dozens of smaller ones totaling 28,530 square kilometers (11,412 square miles) it is not overcrowded. While blessed with awesome scenery, fisheries, forests and agriculture and lucrative gold deposit it is cursed with ethnicity problems and a deadly strain of malaria.

The islands have been occupied for around 3,000 years by often fiercely hostile tribal groups. Its name came from the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana who reached there in 1568, looking for King Solomon’s Mines. He didn’t find gold, although we now know the rugged mountain ranges offer fairly rich pickings. He named Guadalcanal after his birthplace.

Plundered by Australian "blackbirders," the British in 1893 declared a protectorate over the islands to halt what amounted to a slave trade for the Queensland sugar plantations. The capital was on Tulagi Island.

Japan’s sweep down into the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbor came to an end on 5,302 square kilometer (2,121 square mile) Guadalcanal, then little more than a series of scattered communities occupied by tribes people ruled in an essentially matrilineal tradition.

When the Allies learned in 1942 that the Japanese had nearly finished an airfield on Guadalcanal -- which would have threatened Australia -- they had little choice but to attack in what turned out to be the bloodiest American conflict since the Civil War. Around 50 wrecks, including battleships, lie in deep Ironbotton Sound, off Guadalcanal.

The airfield, christened Henderson Field in honor of a Battle of Midway casualty, is now the international airport of the Solomons, which became independent in 1978, with the capital -- Honiara -- on Guadalcanal.

During the war, Honiara did not exist; it was a copra plantation. The Japanese built a wharf there and then the Americans turned it into a base camp.

Attracted to the new capital were people from Malaita, a 3,840 square kilometer (1,536 square mile) island across Ironbottom Sound, population 70,000. Its people had been popular with the blackbirders, used as cheap labor by the colonial rulers and favored by the Americans as guides during the war. Malaitans, from a patralineal society, seem much more warlike to others and their arrival on Guadalcanal to work in Honiara -- and to take land from the indigenous people there -- created conflicts.

Making matters worse is that successive governments have been monumentally bad. The late Solomon Mamaloni was a by-word for Pacific corruption.

Mostly the Solomons go unnoticed, a popular adventure tourism destination and an attraction for war veterans.

In 1998 a group of Guadalcanal people, motivated, it appears, by a political battle, formed an indigenous movement on the island, aiming at driving Malaitans out. It quickly turned nasty with the militants able to use abandoned World War II weapons and ammunition in a struggle which saw about 100 people killed and 20,000 Malaitans chased off the island.

Honiara became a Malaitan enclave while the countryside belonged to the militants fighting under a traditional name, Isatabu. For a time they seemed to have control, but early last year a rival Malaita Eagle Force was formed, and on June 5 last year they staged a coup and seized the government, deposing Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu and eventually replacing him with Manasseh Sogavare.

Under the eye of observers from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, the Solomons on Wednesday will see 328 candidates seek 50 seats in a first past the post parliamentary system. At least seven parties will contest, although mostly not on ideological grounds, but on a kin basis.

Although violence is not expected, with a truce deal in place, the winner will inherit a country whose economy is ruined and whose foreign reserves are largely made up of loans from Taiwan, which Honiara recognizes.

Symbolically, the country’s only flourmill closed this week. Civil war has even ended the daily bread.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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