A FAILED STATE -- OR A POLITICALLY MOTIVATED UPRISING IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS?

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

July 30, 2002

Australian academic Mark Otter, from the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, recently argued that Australia isn't taking East Timor-style action to help solve the crisis in the Solomon Islands.

In his opinion piece, which was first broadcast on the ABC's Radio National program, he mentioned among other issues the fact that the two countries share long historical ties that influence Australia's foreign policy, including providing aid for poverty alleviation and the socially disadvantaged. The full text of Mr. Otter's thought provoking article can be viewed by referring to: http://www.goasiapacific.com/focus/pacific/GoAsiaPacificFocusPacific_607591.htm on 7/15/02.

Reaction to Mr. Otter's comments prompted several responses by contributors to the Asia Pacific Guestbook (see http://www.abc.net.au/cgi-bin/guestlst/guestbook.pl?asiapacific). One contribution, by Jason McIivena on July 27, 2002, caught my eye and I quote from the recorded remarks: "I don't know how long Mark Otter was or has been in SI, But I was there for 8 years from 1993 to 2001. In 1998 Frank Short, the police and Field Force used guns to suppress the then GRA. It was working and it nearly put an end to the conflict then and there. But the Prime Minister at the time put a halt to it saying "we can't have Solomon Islanders shooting Solomon Islanders" - at the same time doing nothing about the land dispute. Right there was the key turning point. Soon after Frank resigned or was sacked. And things proceeded rapidly downhill."

However well intentioned Mr. McIivena's comments were meant, they are inaccurate and create the wrong impression at a critical time when the truth about the so-called ethnic uprising is needed in order to promote reconciliation and healing in the Solomons. As I have said previously, the urgency for national unity and peace cannot be ignored, but neither can the victims of the violence be forgotten. There is no doubt that gross violations of human rights occurred in the Solomons from the onset of the ethnic war that began to escalate in December 1998 and resulted in a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. But there is now an urgent need for understanding and the truth, not further vengeance or further victimization.

As the Commissioner of Police in the Solomons when the troubles first began, I made it my first duty to advise the government of the day of the political nature of the ethnic factionalism and I presented a detailed report on November 27, 1998 warning of the dire consequences of the situation getting out of hand if a political solution could not be reached. Quoting from part of that report, I said, "There is a political dimension to the whole situation and this must be addressed in the shortest possible time frame if we are not to see growing militancy that could cause untold damage to national unity and inter-island relations, let alone serious infringements of the criminal law. There is a need for an effective and reliable, trustworthy police service capable of providing accurate and informed intelligence on which to base advice and action. The situation cannot be allowed to continue and the police service is coming under increased pressure to deal with crime trends, let alone having to deal with politically motivated activities that seem to develop from misinformation and a lack of national unity and provincial loyalties. Despite the often lack of in-depth intelligence, this report must be taken with seriousness and looked at in the political context to avoid an escalation of the situation."

Soon after that report was tendered, there was increased militancy in the western part of Guadalcanal and a security guard was found murdered at the Tambea Beach Resort after, allegedly, aiding the Police with information regarding a raid on the property. Further criminal acts were to follow which saw many Malaitan plantation workers attacked, beaten and forced from their homes, often in the most brutal circumstances. The police patrols sent to investigate the many incidents came under armed attack from gunmen concealed in the surrounding bush and it became highly dangerous to respond to reports when the police officers had no protective clothing and were traveling in open, unprotected, vehicles.

Given such dire circumstances, I gave permission for the policemen sent on those missions to carry arms, but I also insisted on the weapons being concealed and used only in self-defense in accordance with laid down orders on the Use of Firearms -- orders which were examined by the New Zealand Police officers sent to investigate the Bungana Incident, which occurred following the armed raid on the Tambea Beach Resort in late December 1998. I fully reported on this incident in my letter entitled "The Truth is Critical to Lasting Peace and Reconciliation in the Solomon Islands," which was published in the Pacific Islands Report dated April 2, 2002. The same report referred to the early release from custody, on bail, of the men who had been arrested on Bungana Island, despite each of them facing very serious charges, including attempted murder, armed robbery and theft of firearms. Had the accused not been released by the Chief Magistrate, at the urging of the Public Defender, I believe the uprising would have ended promptly if the four men had been tried, convicted and sentenced. Once they were bailed, they absconded back to the rugged Weather Coast to further intensify their criminal activities, which, ultimately, led to the closure of schools, the collapse of industry, the forced eviction of people and horrific violence on both sides of the conflict, the 2000 coup and the compromised police service.

If anyone should be blamed for the statement, "We don't want Solomon Islanders shooting Solomon Islanders," it should be myself, not the Prime Minister of the day. I was against the use of firearms, unless for self-protection, and my order dated December 23, 1998, at a time when armed attacks on key installations were expected, adds further evidence of my position. This read: "The utmost care must be exercised if firearms are issued to personnel, especially those on static guard duties in isolated locations. Firearms must be kept secure and watched over at all times. The rules for opening fire must be known by everyone and I suggest that Senior Superintendent Hosking makes quite sure that every person on the standby detail is fully briefed about the rules of engagement, including the requirement to order the dispersal of persons in three languages before any order to open fire is given -- and that must be an absolute last resort when an officer's life is in danger."

When I took up my duties in Honiara in mid-1997, I soon discovered that the police armory contained a vast quantity of highly powerful, automatic weapons and huge stockpiles of ammunition. These stocks had been acquired by the government at a time when the Solomons was facing armed intrusions on her territory during the height of the Bougainville war. It was very largely my concern that such weapons should be properly handled and minimized and the reason why Senior Superintendent Hosking, a British weapons expert, was brought in to teach the members of the NRSF proper handling methods and to draw up a human rights training program. At my suggestion, Hosking also submitted a detailed report to the government in which alternative -- less lethal arms -- could be acquired in the event of dealing with internal security problems. I referred to this in my letter to the Pacific Islands Report dated June 14, 2001.

There is no truth, whatever, in reports, which have been circulated, that I was "sacked" or asked to resign my post in the Solomons. Despite having been requested to stay on, I declined and, to stop further speculation on this issue, I am now prepared to publish my resignation letter, which I submitted to the then Police Minister.

"I confirm my intention to leave the Solomon Islands on the completion of my current contract on 23 July 1999.

"The decision to decline a further contract has not been taken lightly for I came to this country with a determination to reform the entire police service and to win respect for an organization that had been devoid of leadership, resources and facilities for many years.

"I can honestly say that I have devoted my whole time to trying to achieve my aims, including outlaying large sums of my personal funds to acquire essentials when funds were not provided.

"The cosmetic changes that have been made and the service delivery that has been enhanced cannot be sustained without effective, committed and loyal officers and money to acquire logistical equipment, improve and build police facilities, recruit personnel and re-train the entire organization.

"The inherited debt burden faced by the Government on assuming office has worked to prevent these reforms. No amount of personal initiative or encouragement can succeed, in the long term, without the realization that an effective police service, of adequate strength and capability is necessary at all times to provide security and aid the development of the country.

"I have had to appeal for funds and equipment from many sources, including our development partners. I have also taken the initiative to have a security review undertaken of the nation's security needs, but a Police Commissioner should not be expected to have to continually beg for money to maintain an essential service.

"My calls for the early retirement of senior officers (

"The press criticism is but a small part of the major picture and I have warned, repeatedly, of the adverse effect it is having on morale. Despite this, and until yesterday, there was little time, if any, to curb the critical attacks on myself and the Police as a whole. The Police are now accused of brutality without any evidence or proof and the Royal Commission, which I requested and which could have discounted the allegations, if evidence had been presented, has still not been formed.

"I am now subjected to calls for my termination and removal from office. I have even been told by the Deputy Speaker of the National Parliament to "pack my bags" and calls are being made for police officers to improve their image in Guadalcanal.

"I have taken independent advice about my decision to leave and advised that my staying will not help in promoting community policing on Guadalcanal for some years. The hatred caused by the divide that has developed between the people of Guadalcanal and Malaita will work against community policing. Given that this is true, and I believe it is, I would not wish to oversee and armed constabulary forever standing between two aggressive tribes.

"It was my initiative, largely, that saw the Commonwealth Mission arrive and begin the peace talks and one which we all hope will lead to a settlement and a return to normality. Normality will be fragile, however, based on the massive social disruption that has been caused and pay back is at the core of the custom of the people.

"It is true that the expatriate advisers that I had earmarked to come from the United Kingdom will not come out when I leave and the European Union assistance program that I had engineered will also be shelved; perhaps cancelled if the security situation does not improve.

"It leaves me saddened to have to leave the Solomons when there is so much to be done in re-building the police service and, indeed the country, but there is only so much that one individual can do without the tools to do the job and the realization is that no one is indispensable.

"Frank Short

"30 June 1999"

The SIAC Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, did their utmost to broker a peaceful settlement to the grievances made by the Guadalcanal Provincial Assembly and the militants, even calling upon the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat to intervene when the militancy intensified into hit and run operations that stretched the Police with their limited resources, including land and sea transport. But at no time did the Prime Minister or his Ministers direct the course of Police action or operations, as hinted at by several ill-informed commentators.

As to whether Australia should have intervened with armed force to put down what was, after all, a domestic issue at the onset of the so called ethnic uprising (albeit with longer term consequences), my personal view is that Australia was correct not to have become involved militarily and correct to have rendered practical aid and assistance -- a continuing process which is often not acknowledged or is taken too much for granted. The Solomon's current Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, said as recently as Monday of this week, "We are dependent on the goodwill of our neighbors in the region like Australia, New Zealand and good friends in Asia like Taiwan and Japan, as well as those in Europe who care for us through the European Union and the USA." He also added, " While these countries are kindly assisting us, we can't expect them to keep bailing us out forever."

When I had left the Solomons someone wrote an article in the Solomon Star newspaper in March 2000 which said, in part, "After so many years of interactions, inter-marriages, co-education, co-sports, co-employment, co-worship and co-existence as one nation, it is difficult to accept that one major community would merely resent another without any convincing causes or reasons. Silent resentment of Malaita people by certain Guadalcanal and Western communities have been known to exist for many years but, in time, through socio-economic progress and social interactions have either evaporated or been forgotten." Here, I believe lies a basic truth and adds further proof, if any were needed, that the sooner the truth is known about the cause of the national tragedy, and reconciliation occur, the better it will be for all.

Yes, the Royal Solomon Islands Police was compromised when several officers involved themselves in the coup and aligned themselves with one of the militant groups. A full investigation of the causes of the ethnic uprising will, however, reveal the depth of suffering and hardship the Police had to endure, even the deaths of some of their members, while trying to maintain the peace and restore order in a community bent on pay back and revenge. The Police was caught up, essentially, in a political situation which was out of their control, a situation they did not wish and in which they were unable to act effectively with inadequate equipment, training, and resources and lacking support by way of information and public support hastened by ill-informed reporting, intimidation and violence. I can only comment on the time when I was in the Solomons, but I do consider when a full disclosure of all the evidence can be made, the vast majority of police officers tried when I was at the helm to contain the situation without resorting to unnecessary force and in accordance with their orders.

The major keys to the Solomons existing crisis is the reinstatement of an effective, trusted and competent police service and a return to the rule of law, as well as an understanding of the tragic past and promoting lasting healing among all he people of the Solomon Islands. Australia is involved in the advancement of the police service and in other areas of law and justice. If anything this needs further support, but I would not, personally, be advocating armed intervention. Sadly, however, from what I have tried to illustrate it has taken a major civil war and a tragedy in the Solomons to get the kind of support for the police service that I called for during my term in office to enhance the Solomon's development and aid regional security.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Short, CBE

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