My Solomons

By Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka

I think it was Mark Twain, author of the American classics, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who said that there are two ways to boil a live frog. The first involves heating the water until it boils and then throwing in the frog. It is likely the frog will feel the heat and jump out. The second involves putting the frog in a pot of cold water and then slowly heating up the water until it boils. He asserts that the frog will not realize the slow increase in temperature. It will change its body temperature to balance with the surrounding environment. By the time the frog realizes the water is too hot, it would have been boiled to death.

I am not an expert on frogs. And I recall this story not because I have any intention of boiling frogs or encouraging others to do so. Such intent could get me into trouble with the Animal Rights Movement. I do not want that to happen. There is, however, one thing I know: it is not pretty to be boiled alive, whether for frogs, humans or any other creatures.

The reason I am telling you this story is because I think there is a semblance between the frog’s acceptance of increasing temperature and human society’s tolerance – or more appropriately, its acceptance – of a deteriorating social situation. If a society begins to accept deteriorating law and order, poverty, corruption, poor economic management, weak state capacity, etc. as normal, then it is a sign that there is something wrong and we need to either jump out of the pot or flip it off the stove.

The frog analogy could be equated to situations in some of our Pacific Island countries. For instance, in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands – and I am sure elsewhere –corruption amongst politicians is so widespread that people seem to think it is ‘normal’. This leads to a benign acceptance of the relationship between politicians and corruption, as though it is an ordained formula: politicians + corruption = normal.

In many of these countries, the rot eventually seeps down to the rest of the public sector. Classic examples are the Fiji Development Bank (FDB) and Agriculture scams in Fiji. In Suva nowadays, the word around the "wooden satellite dish" (the tanoa) is that there is a much more serious scam in the Public Works Department (PWD).

One could go around the Pacific Islands and identify a "boil the frog" situation in nearly all of them. However, my focus here is the situation in Solomon Islands and the Islanders’ reaction to it.

In the past couple of years, following the country’s civil unrest, Solomon Islanders seem to have developed a high degree of tolerance for the law and (dis)order situation and other social problems in their country. In a way, tolerance is a good thing because it helps people survive in a difficult situation.

But, it ceases to be a good thing when people begin to accept their appalling situation as ‘normal’ and is not bothered to change it. It is a bit like the frog accepting the increase in water temperature as normal until it meets its ultimate fate: death.

At the beginning of this year I spent two months in Solomon Islands: a month on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal, and the other traveling around various parts of the country. What amazed me was the subtle way in which a lot of people have come to accept criminals and the unlawful activities they commit as ‘normal’. This is reflected in the language they use and their reaction to events, which in the pre-civil unrest period would have caused alarm.

For example, instead of diving for cover or crying in fear, people would react to gun shots that pierce Honiara’s silent nights simply by saying: "Hem, narawan gohed moa" ("There goes another one"). Killings that five years ago would have brought the nation to its knees are now simply brushed aside as another addition to the statistics. It is now not uncommon for people – individuals and institutions such as the media and state – to refer to the leaders of criminal gangs as celebrated warlords who must be consulted on the future of the country. Their existence and activities are (both consciously and unconsciously) accepted.

This is a situation where tolerance transforms into complacency. When this happens, individuals (and society at large) – either consciously or unconsciously – develop an attitude of helplessness; "there is nothing we can do about our situation because it is normal."

This could also create a tendency to become dependent on someone else to change one’s situation. So, the Solomon Islands government looks to Taiwan to prop up the country’s ailing economy, and to Australia, New Zealand and the UNDP to reform the police and improve law enforcement. This creates a dependence on foreign governments and international institutions and a reluctance to make reforms and tough decisions within. It makes reforms difficult and unsustainable.

I know that some of you reading this article may be saying: "There he goes again! Very naïve, and from someone who enjoys the comfort of life outside the Solomons." That is partly true, and I accept the criticism.

But, I refuse to accept that what is happening in Solomon Islands – my country – is normal. It is not! It must not be tolerated. There is a need for people to tell the perpetrators of violence, corruption, public sector mismanagement, etc. that their actions are unacceptable. There is a need for a mass demonstration of people’s dissatisfaction.

The question is; how do we mobilize people to demonstrate their dissatisfaction? That is a much more difficult exercise that should involve education and persuading people that they can change their social situation.

We could wait for political processes such as the election. This, however, assumes that the electoral system and the cultures associated with it are capable of expressing the views of a majority of people. The results of the last election demonstrate that the country’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system is not capable of doing this. Most of those who are now in parliament received less than a simple majority of the votes cast in their constituency – some as low as only 13 percent.

I must acknowledge that there are people who refuse to accept Solomon Islands’ current situation and are proactively working to change it. The Civil Society Network, for instance, is a valuable beginning. We need to support them.

The important thing is to ensure that Solomon Islands (and other Pacific Island countries) do not slip further into the abyss of complacency. There is a need to shift away from accepting law and order problems, corruption, poverty, and public sector mismanagement as ‘normal.’ They are not normal.

Let us realize that the social temperature is increasing and jump out of the pot before it is too late.

June 24, 2003

Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, Chief Negotiator for Guadalcanal Province and the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) at the Solomon Islands Peace Conference in 2000, is a leading expert on the Solomon Islands. Born in Haimarao, Guadalcanal, Kabutaulaka is a former Lecturer in history and political science at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He has a doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University in Canberra and is currently a Fellow in the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu

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