SOLOMON ISLANDS: SPILLED BLOOD'S THICKER THAN WATER

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By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY, Australia (March 28, 2002 – Asia Times Online)---Where does one turn when the police can no longer be trusted to keep order on the streets, the judiciary has become corrupted and politicians have lost the will to act? Most countries in such a dire predicament would look to friends abroad to ease them back from the abyss with development packages that could help quench the fires of discontent. But this option is no longer available to the Solomon Islands government, which is finding allies hard to come by as it watches a proud island community disintegrate into anarchy, unsure even if it still has a popular mandate to rule.

The stabbing death of New Zealand envoy Bridget Nichols at her home, possibly with the coercion of a security detail, has understandably hardened global opinion toward the Solomons. Key donors Australia and New Zealand are both reappraising their aid programs, as are international development agencies led by the World Bank and its regional arm the Asian Development Bank. While the money flow is unlikely to be turned off, it will probably be tied more closely to performance, especially a stronger political commitment to reform the redundant police force and restore the integrity of the courts system.

On the face of it, the social upheaval that has effectively paralyzed the Solomons since inter-island rivalries erupted in 2000 can be traced to an institutional collapse. As many as 40 percent of the tiny police force of 1,000 officers are believed to have sided with Malaitan militants in their struggle with Guadalcanal islanders, and a further 15-20 percent with Guadalcanal.

When the Malaitans took over the capital, Honiara, in June 2000, they were actively assisted by the paramilitary Police Field Force (PFF), which has since become a de facto arm of the insurgents. Armed with looted military weapons, elements of the PFF and an ill-disciplined civilian force of "special constables" have set up a criminal network that terrorizes the city of 40,000 while politicians look on.

Judges, not surprisingly, are either unable or unwilling to function in this atmosphere of intimidation. Few policemen are ever called to account for the violence, and only one has been convicted.

Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza, whose own record has been spotty, promised to clean up both institutions when he was elected in December, but - like his two predecessors - has taken the path of least resistance.

Although it has one of the more liberal constitutions in the Pacific, with guarantees on individual rights and free association, the Solomons has surrendered at all levels to gangsters and extortionists. If this were the extent of the problem, the predictable diplomatic rallying call of institutional reform might offer a possible solution: get the weapons back in the right hands and turn back the clock to more peaceful times. However, there is little in the Solomons' past that offers much solace to international observers, who have never been comfortable with its ethnic complexities and rigid tribal laws.

Hiring new police will not compel officers to put their nation's interests first. Most Solomon Islanders believe that clan and communal interests should take precedence over nebulous political structures. In island dialogue it is known as wontok, or one talk: the obligation personally to advance the interests of family. For a policeman, this means letting the village elders lay down the laws of society. A politician has an obligation to grab as much cash for his own community as he can.

Ethnic strife was rampant long before independence in 1978, reflecting the wide diversity of languages and cultures, and more recent migration pressures from constant population movements. Getting Malaitans and Guadalcanalese to work together will never be a realistic objective as long as no effort is made to tackle the underlying social tensions that triggered the 1998-2000 conflict, such as employment inequalities and the rehousing of 30,000 villagers, mostly Malaitans, who were uprooted during island clashes or ethnic targeting by militants. Many were to be compensated from foreign-aid packages for the loss of their land, but most of this money ended up in the pockets of politicians and public officials instead.

The judicial system could be revived with a moderate amount of outside help. Internal reports have said that it mostly suffers from inadequate resources, especially funding. Yet none of this will work unless politicians can be convinced of the gravity of the situation, and of the need to instill some sense of national unity in the scattered population.

This is where international pressure should be applied, even if it requires a subtle interference in the Solomons' affairs. Give Honiara the cash it needs, but at a price: compliance with a rigid process of social and structural reform, preferably under close foreign supervision. If it can complete this process, without lapsing into further ethnic discord, the Solomons will really understand the value of having good friends.

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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