The Australian government has decided to send troops to Solomon Islands in response to riots in Honiara. However, structural changes must follow to combat the deeper issues at play in the region.
As the men and women who looted Asian stores hide their stolen goods from police checks, the prime minister and leader of the opposition each blame the other for the unrest. Isolated incidents of people from one ethnic group harassing or threatening another ethnic group online or in person continue to occur, while Honiara City Council leaders point to Honiara’s multi-ethnic nature and the need to go beyond tribalism in order to maintain order. Premiers from all the largest provinces call for peace through devolving governance to a more federal system, while the anti-China premier of Malaita stresses the need for not just domestic but international policy to be locally informed. After the initial days of the riots in Honiara, Solomon Islands, there are plenty of actors to blame. However, as I have argued before, riots are a symbolic action and the causes are systemic, meaning there are many to blame in a web of power that excludes most indigenous people.
The blame game is also international. Several commentators in Western countries blame a monolithic “China” for creating the problem in Solomon Islands. However, in Solomon Islands, a nest of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indonesian companies – the main players in the extractive industries – are also gaining contracts in other sectors, and are receiving special exemptions from current political leaders. Many of those families with Chinese retail businesses that were burnt down in the riots had a loose relation to the state, and some were actually from Hong Kong or were Australian Chinese. They provided an easy scapegoat for the broken trust between Solomon Islands citizens and the government over the unpopular switch in bilateral relations from Taiwan to China in 2019 and the perceived rise in secrecy, corruption, and repression of free speech by the current political coalition.
Blaming China also allows the West to conveniently forget the role of British colonialism, which set up foreign controlled land use, exploitation of labour (mostly from Malaita province), a centralised system of state control, and a Westminster system of governance for which the Solomon Islands was ill-prepared for after its independence in 1978. Solomon Islands is highly diverse, with different ethnic identities and languages between tribes and provinces, that naturally require a careful balancing act in representation and power sharing. At the same time, colonial and neocolonial stereotypes and frames fuel ethnic animosity.
Australia too has its share of blame. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), bankrolled by Australia, spent an estimated A$2.6 billion over ten years. However, its changing focus over the years from disarmament and security to governance included investing heavily in Australian advisers, who were paid on average four times higher than local professionals with the same qualifications. This created resentment, parallel structures in government, and failed to institutionalise accountability. Missed opportunities for systemic change include delinking justice sector appointments from politics, establishing an accessible and actioned complaints service for the public to complain about police misconduct and gender discrimination, and an independent agency to investigate allegations of bias and corruption in the judiciary.
The need for structural change has been identified repeatedly, for example in the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and the Commission of Inquiry into the 2006 unrest. More specifically, there is a need to increase transparency and stop corruption, devolve state powers to a more federal and local system, increase preference for indigenous control, and create opportunities for economic development and stemming youth unemployment and exclusion. However, provincial level governance and youth programs – particularly for young women – remain neglected by the development sector, and discussions on federalism have typically floundered due to a lack of political and civil service will to devolve powers, particularly in relation to finance.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force deserves commendation for protecting the Central Business District (CBD) from destruction over several days of repeated threats. Community policing has also worked in some areas, notably to prevent the Naha Police Station from being burnt and from the looting extending into White River. However, as rioting escalated, police officers, who numbered in the hundreds, were unable to contain the thousands on the streets and spread out across several locations.
Given this situation, there is no doubt that the Australian government’s decision to send troops – including troops from other Pacific countries as “third parties” under its bilateral security arrangement – was the right decision. Without this support, it is likely that the CBD would have faced widescale destruction as well, creating hardship and other uncountable costs, especially given that most government offices still are highly dependent on paper files for everything from crime reports to immigration, land titles to finance. Even in the three days of unrest, an estimated $534 million of damage and costs was incurred, which the Central Bank of the Solomon Islands describes as exacerbating an already weak economy.
The lull in violence that the troops provided is an extremely fragile gift. Intimidation by political leaders of their enemies has continued, despite the presence of the troops. The use of former militants and men from specific ethnic groups that were engaged in violence during the civil conflict from 1998-2003 for this repression is alarming. New Chinese businesses were largely spared looting and damage due to their employment of specific tribal groups as security. This creates a potential conflict risk if these ill-trained security staff fight with each other. There is also the risk that Malaitan groups in favour of the current political regime and those opposed to it could engage in violent conflict in Malaita or Guadalcanal.
Amongst this situation, the claim by the Australian government that it will not “interfere in internal affairs” may prove to be naïve. Domestic and international politics are highly charged regarding the current situation in Solomon Islands, and the rioting itself, while more chaotic than usual, is a patterned action with political meaning.
The Australian government can attempt to not take political sides, but it should insist on several principles of engagement going forward. The first is that in exchange for security support, political leaders must engage in talks for a political solution to the conflict. Brokers for these talks could come from Solomon Islands or from across the Pacific Island region. Church leaders, female leaders, and the premier of Guadalcanal Province have already offered assistance.
The second is that the troops, police, and Solomon Islands government must return normal services to the public. Education, COVID-19 vaccinations, and interprovince travel were suspended during the chaos, which added hardship to many islanders who were stranded in Honiara or unable to undertake key activities needed for work, study, and temporary migration.
Finally, there must be some accountability for acts of violence, particularly those who have been beaten, harassed, had their social media sites hacked, or were threatened based on their ethnicity or for expressing their views about current political or business leaders. This will require listening to local people and encouraging the reporting of incidents. Intervening forces could broker a short-term mechanism for this, which can then feed into criminal prosecutions or alternate avenues for accountability.
Freedom of expression and freedom from racial vilification and targeting must be upheld in the current partnership between troops and police. If it is not, the gift of security from Australia and its Pacific partners could easily shatter in violence in 2022 and once again raise the question: who will pick up the pieces?
Dr Anouk Ride is an Affiliate Researcher with Australian National University and with the Initiative for Peacebuilding, University of Melbourne. She researches conflict, interpersonal violence, gender and social inclusion and is based in Solomon Islands. www.anoukride.com
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.