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Solomon Islands quandary

Betty Birsky has been an occasional commentor on Webdiary, but this is her first lead article. I've been pleased to see more articles on Webdiary about national politics in our region, especially on Indonesia and Papua. Betty has provided us with an introduction to another very close neighbour, the Solomon Islands, on the eve of their elections. Thanks Betty. I'd love to see more. Hamish Alcorn.

by Betty Birskys

Tomorrow, Solomon Islanders go to the poll. I hope they get a good government, they deserve it, but after only a short stay there I can’t help wondering if this is even possible, let alone probable...

A month ago a group of us, all whites, sat like survivors from some legendary colonial past, on a spacious verandah in the capital Honiara, overlooking the Pacific Ocean; sipping long cool drinks, while in the nearby kitchen local housegirls finished preparing dinner. (‘Local’ is the term now used instead of ‘native’).

In the house that night were representatives of many of the elements in the Solomon Island community: our hosts, long-term white residents, prosperous business people; expat administrators, one of them an officer from RAMSI, all paid at expat rates; expat volunteers paid at minimal rates but provided with housing; and back in the kitchen, the locals, cooking, serving, cleaning up.

A few nights before, we had dined at the Mendana Hotel, named for the Spanish explorer who made the first white contact with the islands in 1568. Local dancers entertained us as we tackled the famous Wednesday night smorgasbord, S$150 (about $A27) a head: a lavish feast, a full house, predominately white, only a few locals. Which was not surprising; most locals, even if employed, would be lucky to receive S$150 pay for a fortnight’s work.

In fact, between 70 and 80% of the Solomons’ population, which is around 460,000, still live a subsistence life style. Flying low over the sparkling blue lagoons, the green islands and atolls, you can see their isolated villages, clusters of traditional woven cane houses, along the beaches or - more commonly - back in the jungle, many with great red swathes cut through the trees - the loggers’ roads, often illegal.

Under the customary system of land tenure, land is administered not for the benefit of individuals but on behalf of families and groups. Traditional wantok (one talk) reinforces this relationship over land with strong obligations of sharing everything else with family, clan, community.

As in many undeveloped countries, young people drift off from isolated villages to the capital, ramshackle Honiara, on Guadalcanal - only to encounter severe unemployment. There is no Social Security, no free education; the newcomers fall back on wantok who have preceded them, and who are themselves usually established only precariously in the town. For most locals in Honiara, ‘home’ is somewhere else.

As on their traditional home islands, the locals cluster in villages, but these are not pleasant green settlements, with waving palm trees. The woven grass huts stand on dirt, for grass is said to encourage malaria-breeding mosquitoes. Few of the villages have electricity or running water. The roads, other than the main Mendana Road, are truly atrocious. Wharves, shops, Chinatown, are all like something out of Somerset Maugham. The look is bleak and poverty-stricken...

And here a little history and geography may be appropriate.

There are 992 islands in the Solomons, 347 of them inhabited. The locals are predominantly Melanesian. 87 indigenous languages are spoken; Melanesian Pidgin is common as a second language. The official language is English; the Solomons were colonised by the British in the 19th century. The natives, as they were then called, slaved on giant coconut plantations, which now stand degraded on many islands.

In World War 2, Japanese and Allied forces fought fierce air, land and sea battles over the islands; it was here that (later US President) Kennedy almost lost his life in PT109. Wartime wrecks (eg on Iron Bottom Sound) are now popular diving sites.

On 7th July 1978, the Solomons gained independence from Britain. The departing British passed on virtually no administrative or technical skills, and left little infrastructure or industry other than that built by the Americans during the war; Honiara was originally simply the largest American base.

In 1998, tribal rivalries over land and work erupted into hostilities on Guadalcanal, and in July 2003 Australia and its Pacific island neighbours launched RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.

In colonial times, missionaries moved in with the planters and 95% of Solomon Islanders are Christians. Many define themselves by their particular faith.

One Sunday, we drove to a large Catholic Mission, a hundred years old, an hour out of Honiara. The road is truly dreadful, but the trip worthwhile: the ocean over to our right, occasional villages with people waving as we pass, green hills rolling into the distance in what looks like pasture (but is really tall bladey grass) and far over, great mountains looming, mist topped.

The Mission is green and beautiful: a village square, a large church, further up the coast villages, schools, all owned and run by the Mission. A dozen laughing children swim in the blue clear waters - it is like paradise...

Sister Conciliata, the Mother Superior, with traces of faded tribal tattoos on her cheeks, tells us that in ‘the tensions’ the Eagle Force from Malaita, the large island over to the east, landed on her beach. They did not molest the mission, but burnt down neigbouring villages on their way to Honiara.

RAMSI has stopped the violence and confiscated the guns, but below the surface the same issues of work and land tenure and powerlessness simmer.

The Malaitans are valued as good workers in the larger businesses already open or planned for Guadalcanal - tobacco, palm oil, gold-mining - but are currently banned from working because of ‘the tensions’ and under customary land tenure, have no land rights on Guadalcanal. Thus, development is held up by these same two issues: employment and land tenure.

Thousands of expats throng in Honiara - business people, officials, administrators, volunteers (AustAid, EU. Oxfam, you name it). The expats mostly live in white enclaves, behind two-metre high wire fences topped with barbed-wire, often patrolled by a security guard.

Our young volunteer hosts had to move out of a ‘local’ area, after being broken into one night by three drunken midnight marauders armed with machetes, into a safer, white area. Thus, ‘suitable’ housing is at a premium, and expensive, and must consume a large part of aid and administrative budgets.

RAMSI personnel are regarded by many, both whites and locals, as inclined to arrogance, as they speed about in their 4-wheel drives. Occasionally a local opens up enough to ask ‘How long is RAMSI going to be here? And all the other white people? When will we be ready to run our own affairs?’

A week ago, I heard an East Timorese leader say that his people are now poorer than they have ever been; there are some in the Solomons, both white and local, who say the same is true of their country. And in poverty other evils flourish.

Local women are being ferried out to ships in the harbour to sell sex to loggers, seamen, fishermen; lately, for the first time, children are being included in this traffic.

There is talk of corruption in government: Are ‘the wrong people’ in prison from the tensions - the foot soldiers rather than the instigators? Is the blatant buying of votes in the coming election, with favours and gifts, merely ‘wantok’, or is it bribery?

As I fly home, I read a story in the Inflight magazine, about ‘the growing number of local entrepreneurs running small businesses, women at roadside stalls, selling betel nuts and children at the airport, selling coconuts,’ and I wonder: Is this really the best we can offer these warm-hearted, resilient, supportive people?

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Solomon Islands in trouble

Betty, thank you for posting this background piece as I have been wanting to know more about the real story of the Solomons. Obviously you will be very upset to see what is happening there now and clearly there is not going to be an easy solution. Goodwill toward the Australian presence is apparently evaporating and I think it will be an unsustainable presence now the tear gas cylinders have started to fly. Such a presence and its associated mandate always had the capacity to go belly up. One side or another is going to be aggrieved no matter what the troops/white police do, so as I see it, it is likely to be a no win situation for us to be in. I may be proved wrong of course. 

The number of languages spoken points to the diversity of the indigenous groups and has obviously fed into the political system with many competing interests. The drift of young people from poor rural communities to the towns is no doubt common across these small pacific nations, but when there is no employment and no hope then social breakdown and disorder is the natural and very sad consequence. The trafficking in child prostitution you point to is particularly abhorrent. I can only assume that the burning of the Chinese businesses is going to disrupt any economic balance that might have existed, let alone fuel underlying racial tensions with the Chinese population. And where you have dissent and competing interests, you will always find corruption. It seems to me things could get a lot worse before they get any better.

More please

Betty, A most interesting post.

The Solomons are a bit like New Caledonia and Fiji to us here in Australia, in that it takes some sort of social disturbance to arouse media interest in any aspect of life there. As for the question you ask in your last paragraph, it is in all Australians' interests, in my opinion, to answer a definite 'no' to that.

Tourism has its place in any Pacific island economy, but is a shaky base for the whole thing, particularly with rising travel costs. Education, in which Australia can play a big part, still appears to me to be the fundamental requirement for diversification and modernisation within a framework of the 'local' Melanesian culture, needs and concerns. Australia can play a significant part in that, providing that Australian politicians can step outside the mindset of inherited colonial attitudes.

The late Eric Earlie, an Australian who worked as a teacher in Niugini, had some fascinating stories to tell on education there. His view was that, thanks to the nature of the communities he knew, the educational experiences of the youth were vastly superior to those in mainstream Australia. He left one in no doubt as to the potential of the people he had been involved with there, the relatively superior return on the investment dollar, and claimed that this country had just as much to learn from them as the other way round.

Having said that, I think your views on the current unrest in the Solomons and the military intervention by Australia would be most welcome on Webdiary.

The poorer people are-

After spending a deal of time in a "third world country" whatever exactly that is, and having watched the issues you relate occurring there as well, it is a concern that we really don't see the necessity not just for education, but for appropriate education to enable local people to administer their own affairs.

The end product, sadly, is that the remnants of "The Raj" as it were, whether English or Australian or Indonesian, expect their situation to remain unchanged, irrespective of either the capacity of the locals to manage for themselves, or worse the requirement for these situational hooligans to remain in place, living high on the hog at someone elses expense.

If The Solomons are ever to move forward, they must be assisted not by "white fellahs" doing it for them, but by bringing the natives to the occupying country and properly educating them in the norms of administration as expected by the occupying power, in their own space. For The Solomons that means Australia. For many people, that would also cover West Papua, originally Irian Jaya, since Indonesia couldn't in general terms muster an uncorrupted educator to do the job, as is well known.

The article today in The Age was interesting, since it casts light on the possible "why" of Howard not doing anything positive for The Solomons (or Australia for that matter), about teaching the process and expectations of"good governance" to the locals.

Sadly I suspect, The Solomons has been offered to Indonesia as a "pie of friendship", based on our knowledge that they manage island populations quite well, so long as the Islanders are unarmed, underfed, and unhoused, and thereby providing a good living for the militias with whom Indonesia vests management of their "Island Population Management Scheme".

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