STILL LOOKING FOR THE ‘BIG FISH’ BEHIND SOLOMONS DISCORD

Commentary

By Frank Short

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Nov. 22) - The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Island [RAMSI] Special Coordinator, James Batley, last week addressed the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce when he was quoted as saying, "The incoming government, after the elections, must (also) be serious about reform otherwise we risk seeing the re-emergence of social tensions in one form or another."

As a former Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands and a person with an extensive knowledge of the Solomons social and political scene, I believe his comments should be taken seriously.

Reports from the Guadalcanal Weathercoast last week indicated that there is still some mistrust and fear amongst the community there and that full reconciliation has not yet been achieved.

A similar note regarding the need for restorative justice and reconciliation was contained in the recommendations of the excellent report of the Eminent Persons Group of the Pacific Forum, released in May this year. The same report also contained recommendations for the "continued focused support and strengthening of the Courts system (High Court, Magistracy and lower courts, and registrar services) and Solomon Islands police (both investigations unit and prosecution arm) to meet the challenge of investigating and prosecuting those involved in the ethnic tensions including the instigators.

I am also on record in calling for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomons and for the investigation of those responsible for instigating the violent and tragic past (See the many reports contained in the Archives section of the Pacific Islands Report since 1999).

RAMSI's move to a lesser interventionist role and a more development role should not preclude the active and urgent investigation of those responsible for bringing the Solomon Islands to its knees -for lasting reconciliation and healing will not, in my view, take place without catching and bringing to justice the "big fish" and establishing the truth.

There is another good reason why there should be a full investigation of the cause(s) of the ethnic tension without further delay. This is because there is the risk of material evidence being lost or witnesses being no longer available. History has a habit of distorting or concealing the facts and no time must be lost in documenting the real truth

In a recent review of the book The Manipulation of Custom, written by John Fraenkal, published by Victoria University Press, Michael Field, a Pacific Journalist, wrote when describing the uprising in the Solomons, "Guadalcanal Premier Ezekiel Alebua defined a starting point with an inflammatory speech on 30 November 1998, in which he called for S$2.5 million compensation for 25 alleged murders on the island. It spilled out with a group called the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army (GRA) targeting Malaita Islanders for harassment and, at times, violence." In the same review, Mr. Field went on to record, "It is interesting to note that Alebua's speech, which had regionwide implications, largely went unreported at the time."

The real defining point was actually another inflammatory speech made by then Premier Alebua at the Guadalcanal National Day, held much earlier in 1998 at Ruavatu High School, when Alebua called for the return of Guadalcanal land "stolen from its people." It was soon after that speech that the attacks on the Malaita plantation workers began and forced their mass evacuation into Honiara.

The local and regional implications for a lasting and violent conflict in the Solomons were contained in a report I submitted to the Solomon Islands Government in November 1998 and later supported by an intelligence document which clearly identified the strategy of the GRA, its base camps, its ammunition sources, its targets and the principal militants.

In a commentary written by Dr John Roughan (Self - Interest Holds Sway In Solomon Islands - October 20th 2005) He commented, "Our people--without a functioning police force, no prison service, little in the way of a justice system and a government that was more the problem than the solution - secured the nation for five years - 1998-2003! Yes, Guale's Weather Coast, parts of Honiara and a few other places went off the social rails but the rest of these islands, the vast majority of its people, acted well, basically obeyed the law and protected the most vulnerable."

Dr Roughan is another individual with a wealth of knowledge and concern for the Solomon Islands and it people and, while I concur with his comments about the vast majority of the islanders obeying the law, I do not agree with his observation that there was no functioning police force from 1998.

After the tragic incident which occurred on Bungana Island towards the end of 1998, during which a militant, Ishmael Panda, was unlawfully shot and killed by a police officer (one who had earlier been suspended from duty by myself for misconduct but allowed to join the Bungana police patrol by his Central Islands Police Commander (who himself was severely reprimanded for his actions), the police arrested and detained the militant raiding party, including Harold Keke and Joseph Sangu.

While in custody Sangu wrote a letter from his prison cell in which he called on the GRA to end the "struggle" but his plea was to no avail as the Chief Magistrate, at the urging of the Public Defender, released all the accused on bail put up by Ezekiel Alebua and another. As soon as the accused were released they breached their bale conditions and absconded to the hinterland of the weathercoast with the consequences, in the case of Keke in particular, that became all too tragic and clear.

An investigation which I initiated into the Bungana Island incident (and subsequently concluded with the assistance of the New Zealand Police) resulted in the early conviction and sentencing of the police officer charged with the murder of Panda.

In contrast to what Dr Roughan has written there was a functioning police force until I left the Solomons at the end of my contract in July, albeit with a decreasing capacity to respond to incidents because of hit and run tactics deployed by the militants, limited manpower, a lack of resources and equipment and weakened intelligence occasioned by regional authorities being unwilling to assist in intelligence gathering for fear of being involved in "operational" matters.

I firmly believe that the tragic situation that occurred in the Solomons could have been avoided if Keke and his group had not been released on bail and had been tried and convicted of the serious charges they were then facing, including armed robbery and attempted murder.

The pace of reform, justice and reconciliation has been too slow in the Solomons despite the intervention and good work of RAMSI, and the Government of the Solomon Islands should be further encouraged to adopt the practical recommendations contained in the Eminent Persons Group Report which is, after all, already six months old.

Frank Short is a former Police Commissioner in the Solomon Islands whose tenure, from 1997 to 1999, saw the rise of ethnic conflict between residents of Guadalcanal and Malaita. A founding member of the Australia Solomon Islands Friendship Association, he currently lives in Kuranda, Queensland

December 7, 2005

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