by The Rt Revd Terry Brown
[ACNS source: Anglican Church of Melanesia] All attention is now focusing on the upcoming Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Island "intervention" in the Solomon Islands. Focus is on numbers of troops and police, strategies and possible dangers. Friends overseas tell me that the Solomons have been portrayed with great bleakness, full of violence, hostage-taking, anarchy and chaos. Old newsreels from 1999 and 2000 have been dusted off and brought out to try to convey this picture. Every recent killing has been highlighted and surmised upon. Ex-militants and their hangers-on are interviewed but not ordinary people.
As someone who has lived safely in the Solomons for the past seven years, including through the height of "ethnic tension", and as someone who has known the country for almost 30 years, I would say that the Solomon Islands has serious economic and security problems but it is NOT in a state of anarchy and chaos.
The three institutions of Solomon Island’s life are the traditional culture ("custom"), the church and the civil state, listing them in the order in which they reached the Solomons. Over the last century, the first two have been strong, the third weak. This is still the case.
However, this means that when the civil state fails, as it has increasingly done over the past few years, the other two institutions take over - "custom" and the church. Custom and church leaders and institutions, in rural and even urban areas, have over the past few years often taken over functions such as conflict resolution, control of criminal elements, education, medicine, vocational training, public works, and strengthening of civil society.
These two institutions are very strong and sometimes not noticed by the outside world, which concentrates on the state. For example, a few weeks after the signing of the Townsville Peace Agreement in October 2000 between Guadalcanal and Malaitan militant leaders, a massive public reconciliation service was held in Honiara, organised by the Melanesian Brothers and signatories to the TPA. Guadalcanal militants, led by the Brothers, converged on Malaita-populated Honiara from both sides. When they met, there was a tremendous, emotional three-day public reconciliation in which Guadalcanal and Malaitan militants and their supporters were reconciled. This event was barely mentioned in the international press. Since then, there has been little real "ethnic tension" in the Solomons.
The present problems are different but related - the collapsed economy, ex-militant leaders from both sides trying to maintain their economic and political dominance, a very weak, demoralised and partly corrupt police force, and the very violent campaign of the renegade Weather Coast Guadalcanal militant leader, Harold Keke, who did not sign the TPA, for an independent Guadalcanal.
But most of the country, including Honiara, the provincial capitals and the rural areas (except for the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal) is peaceful. There is the occasional killing and act of violence. There are still many guns about. But because the vast majority of Solomon Islanders stay close to their customary and Christian values, even if there is no state, they generally live in peace and quietness.
Most Solomon Islanders support the coming international intervention - because of the very violent situation on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal which the Solomon Island’s Police cannot handle, the weakness and unreliability of many of the local police and ex-militants still holding guns and intimidating the government and the general population.
I too, as an Anglican Bishop, a Canadian, working in Malaita, support the intervention, as long as it is appropriate to the need, culturally sensitive, addresses the real problems and is linked with a broader Australian and New Zealand policy towards the overall economic and political situation of the country.
Therefore, I want to make 10 concrete suggestions about how Australia and New Zealand can help the Solomons. They are not so exciting as an armed police and military intervention but they are crucial to the future of the country. I list them in order of priority:
1. Support a programme for the registration of customary land
Over 90 per cent of the land of the Solomons is indigenously owned through "customary land tenure" - that is, corporate ownership of land by a whole tribe. There is no current system of legally registering this land with clear boundaries, genealogies and land trusts. The result is an endless string of land disputes, dividing communities and bringing on violence. Cases are appealed to the High Court, which treats the land as virtually individually owned, giving ownership to a single person "on behalf of the tribe". That person is then free to register or sell the land as alienated land, bringing him into conflict with his relatives who suddenly discover they have lost their land.
The system also makes for unjust exploitation of natural resources, such as timber; whereby unscrupulous overseas investors (usually from Asia) are able to get control of the resources through payment of bribes to the person whom the court declares owns the land "on behalf of the tribe". The result is more court cases and sometimes violence. Armed ex-militants have also pushed into this situation and claimed ownership of customary land when they clearly have no right by custom or law.
For the Solomons to develop economically, the customary land situation needs to be sorted out. The immediate answer is not, as some in the World Bank would have it, to encourage more and more alienation of customary land, including land ownership by foreigners. Before there can be any more alienation of land, the base customary land situation has to be sorted out - otherwise, endless conflicts will ensue. One reason Vanuatu does not have the troubles the Solomons has is that at its independence, all land was registered to its customary owners and leases re-negotiated for alienated land.
Just before "ethnic tension" hit in 1999, a good programme of customary land ownership was under way. This programme needs to be restored, as a long-term investment in the Solomon’s economic future. The temptation to jump suddenly to individual ownership of land, registering it as alienated land, needs to be resisted. The only reason the Solomons is not starving is because of its customary land tenure system.
2. Rebuild the Judiciary
The country’s bankrupt status means that certain fundamental institutions have slid downward. The Judiciary (unlike in Fiji) basically retained its independence during the period of "ethnic tension" but local Magistrates fled and offices such as that of the Public Prosecutor and Public Defender ceased to receive government funding. In Auki, the provincial capital of Malaita, there has been no Magistrate for almost four years. This means that Police have no place to go after they make an arrest and imprison someone - there is no Magistrate to hear the case - so prisoners are simply released after a night in jail. Despite repeated requests from provincial government leaders, the church and even the police, no Magistrate has appeared.
3. Help the country move to free primary and junior secondary education
With the current system of high tuition fees for all secondary students (and now, increasingly, even primary students), more and more parents simply cannot afford to send their children to school. As a Bishop, there isn’t a day when I am not approached about paying someone’s school fees. For a few years at least, until the country regains some of its economy, perhaps overseas aid donors simply need to increase their subsidies to education to make free primary and junior secondary school possible. Otherwise, the pool of illiterate, dissatisfied, disappointed youth will simply increase and increase. They are the pool that will produce the "terrorists" that Australia is so afraid of.
To point the United Nations Charter of Human Rights at the Solomon Islands government and tell it to provide free universal education does nothing. The country has no money and is always in arrears in its payment of salaries to teachers and grants to schools. Except for church schools, very few schools stay open all year – there are often gaps of weeks when there is no money to run the schools or pay the teachers.
4. Listen to what the Solomon Islands people want in the armed intervention
My impression is that there is a fair degree of unanimity amongst the people of the Solomon Islands about what they expect of the upcoming intervention. They want police who will do what the Solomon Islands police often have not done - respond quickly to crimes in progress, patrol the streets, take evidence and pursue cases, collect illegally held arms (including from ex-militants), arrest those making public disturbances even if they are drunk and be actually present at the police station, even in rural areas.
The "hands off crime" attitude of the International Peace Monitoring Team (IPMT), even though it was their mandate, was a great disappointment to many people in the Solomons. Whenever the IPMT were in danger, they left the scene. They held constant evacuation exercises, often by helicopter. The impression they left was that "we’re not going to get involved in policing or even in halting crime, and when our lives are in danger, we’re out of here". Of course, they were unarmed and their presence was of some benefit. But it did not look very good when the IPMT (many of them police and military) just stayed in their houses during shoot-outs - only to go down to the police station the next morning to count spent cartridges and chat with those who did the shooting. By the end of their time in Auki, at their last arms collection, they had to depend on the stolen vehicles of the ex-militants for transport - not much different from the Solomons police!
Another public expectation is that the police in the intervention force will help in the investigation of serious crimes committed over the past few years. The Townsville Peace Agreement gave an amnesty only for killings and other military activities associated directly with the conflict - though not for torture, major human rights abuses and war crimes. People hope that the detectives and other police coming in will help prosecute those who committed major human rights abuses during the conflict. Witnesses are still alive.
The Townsville Peace Agreement also provided for no amnesty for any criminal activity committed after the signing of the TPA on 15 October 2000. Since then there have been several serious killings in which it is suspected that ex-militants and/or the police themselves have been involved, not to mention assault, robbery and other crimes. It is difficult for local police to investigate these cases. It is hoped that the police coming in will help in these investigations and prosecute, even if those charged are police or politicians.
5. Rebuild Rove Prison in Honiara, train prison staff and make sure they are paid
Presently Rove Prison in Honiara is almost porous. No prisoner accused of murder is safe from retaliation by the family of the deceased, especially when the family also includes members of the police. After the police worked extremely hard to arrest Edmond Sae, the accused killer of Sir Fred Soaki, he walked out of Rove Prison and is still loose, causing great fear around Auki. Prison conditions are often very poor, with the government having no money to buy food for prisoners. Last year, scurvy was discovered among the prisoners at Rove.
6. Help rebuild tertiary education in the country, including local scholarships for tertiary students
The Solomon Islands College of Higher Education (SICHE) has been virtually closed for the last three years because of the government’s failure to pay a small counterpart required by the European Union for their funding of SICHE. This closure has produced another pool of disaffected young adults, turning them to crime, alcohol and drug abuse and loss of hope. Surely such a situation is not in the interest of Australia and New Zealand. SICHE has resorted to short and expensive "summer school" courses for its own self-support but with the effect of exploiting students and their parents with very high tuition fees. If the present situation continues, the Solomons will have to import skilled labour. This is ridiculous as there are many qualified people in the Solomons who want to have technical training. Even teachers’ training is barely functioning. It would be helpful to have local scholarships for study at local tertiary institutions, not putting everything into overseas scholarships. Many more people and the whole country would benefit, not just a few.
7. Help train out-of-school youths
Because of the small number of secondary schools and very high school fees, the majority of students are pushed out of formal education at the end of Grade 6, Form 3 (Grade 9) or Form 5 (Grade 11). Many do not even get to grade 6 and there is much illiteracy, even among the young. Many of these students are still highly motivated and gifted. Historically, the government and churches focused on formal education. However, in the last 20 years, churches of all denominations have developed "vocational training centres", in both rural and urban areas, to teach carpentry, home economics, mechanics, agriculture and other vocational subjects. Officially, the government also supports "non-formal education" but has put little resources into it. The European Union has given much assistance in this area but more is needed as there is a demand for more centres and the increase in capacity of the existing centres. Literacy is a particular concern.
8. Help the Solomon Islands economy work from its strengths
It feels like Australia and New Zealand - and the Solomon Islands government - still hope that the economic future of the Solomons lies in the re-opening of the Gold Ridge mine and the vast oil palm and cocoa plantations on Guadalcanal. Yet it was the land and labour arrangements of these economic activities that largely brought on the "ethnic tension" problem. Guadalcanal landowners, who used to grow rich on subsistence gold mining, suddenly discovered, after their small royalties were paid by the gold mine, that they could no longer practice subsistence gold mining on their customary land. They also resented the well-educated Malaitans running the mine - who reported that the mine was also secretly producing silver, unreported to the Solomon Islands government. Customary land ownership of the mine is still disputed - point one above - with Weather Coast people continuing to exert their claims. The same is true of the vast plantations. Now Guadalcanal people are doing subsistence harvest of the cocoa plantations - the price of cocoa is high - and they have nothing to gain from the plantation system being reimposed.
Timber and fish remain the country’s two greatest natural resources. Yet harvest of timber (almost always round-log production, of the least economic benefit to the Solomons and the greatest to the exporters) has been beyond sustainable levels for years. Because of corruption and bribes, on both the provincial and national level, the government has lost enormous revenue and timber as a natural resource is being depleted beyond recovery. The same is increasingly true of the sea - with illegal fishing by overseas vessels going on with the country incapable of doing anything. Are there not Australian and New Zealand technicians with a conscience in these areas who can provide some help? Cannot the Australian or New Zealand government help in the surveillance and capture of illegal fishing boats?
Likewise, any government agriculture extension and education service for farmers is now non-existent. Indeed, sometimes agriculture stations have been taken over by private farmers, even ex-militants, privately benefiting from the government infrastructure. There are all sorts of exciting possibilities - vanilla, black pepper, spices, rice, honey, taro, fruits etc - but no programme, no support, no sharing of expertise.
Why cannot Australia and New Zealand sponsor Solomon Islands trade offices in their countries to facilitate the import of Solomon Island’s products? Solomon Island exporters tell me that the Australian and New Zealand importing rules and regulations are often very complicated and seem more designed to keep Solomon Islands products out than in. Can one really tell the exact weight of one’s catch of fish two weeks in advance?
The Solomon’s greatest resource are its peoples, cultures and landscapes - the friendliness and openness of its people, the beauty of their art, dance and worship, the beauty of the country (both above water and below water), the beauty of beaches, rain forests, rich wildlife, traditional villages and lagoons. For many people, it still remains a beautiful tourist destination.
Overseas travel advisories and the events of the past few years have frightened off the majority of the tourists. But one aim of the intervention should be to make the country again safe for visitors. I believe they are basically already safe. We in the Diocese have been hosting many overseas visitors, including students, without incident. I am sure the Solomons remain safer, both in Honiara and rural areas, than many popular global tourist destinations, including some in the "developed" world. So as the country becomes safer and safer, overseas countries and media should recognise this and not labour to find yet another horror story with which to paint the country. We are amazed that Australia and New Zealand have no murder, rape, theft, violence or crime.
9. Assist the country with its transportation and communication needs
If the Solomons are to have any economic future, they need greatly improved communication and transportation. The Solomon Telekom monopoly provides poorer and poorer telecommunication service to the country at higher and higher rates. The company is seeking a 25-year monopoly from the Solomon Islands government in all communications services including telephone, fax, email, Internet and television. Telephone services during the day between Honiara and provincial capitals are almost non-existent. Pay-card calls within Honiara and beyond are often impossible to make. Internet and email are often impossible to access from congestion. The whole system is overloaded and often breaks down. True, Solomon Telekom lost many assets during "ethnic tension" but it has not bounced back well and is very user-unfriendly. It could use some competition.
The privatisation of the Post Office has been a disaster. The government’s Post Office debts were also privatised to the new Postal Corporation but all government financial support withdrawn. Many provincial post offices receive mail only once every few weeks, despite daily flights and ships. Overseas mail piles up in Brisbane or Honiara as the Postal Corporation apparently has no money to pay freight or take mail to the airport. The Solomons Postal Corporation must be the only one in the world where you have to pay to receive your mail. The Post Office could use a bit of outside administrative expertise.
Similarly, the privatisation of government shipping has been a disaster. Remote provinces and outer islands no longer have regular shipping, contributing to the loss of national unity. Honiara has become the hub of all provincial shipping companies as they all seek the most lucrative routes. The MV Temotu seldom sees Temotu Province; the MV Ysabella seldom sees Ysabel Province, etc. People become stranded in Honiara, draining their relatives dry and contributing to social tension. The country’s national airline also struggles, with usually only one or two planes operating on its domestic services. The Solomons could use some help in appropriate ways in which the government might intervene to put all provinces on an equal playing field in terms of transportation and communication. Otherwise, the Solomon Islands will eventually break up into more countries.
10. Cut down the racist rhetoric
The Solomon Islands I hear described in the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, British and American media is not the Solomon Islands I experience. Yes, there are problems and they are serious ones. But amongst the general population there is an incredible richness of peaceful relationships and friendships that is often lacking in so-called "developed" countries, where personal alienation is often the rule. For example, in Vanuatu, where tourism has succeeded, tourists often find themselves taken into people’s homes and hearts. That also happens in the Solomons. With very few exceptions, to paint Solomon Islanders as militants, potential terrorists, rapists, hostage takers, criminals and masters of corruption is simply wrong. Journalists write about the country without ever having visited it. They put imaginary motivations into events they read about. They confuse the past and the present.
The Solomon Islands are an incredible web of friendships, relationships, family ties and cultural ties which, despite "globalisation", are holding up well. But social change has brought up a small group of militants who are themselves quite capable of being reintegrated back into their communities. The upcoming intervention should help strengthen the Solomons in its positive human resources and community life. It should also assist in its economic development - not engender more racist highlighting of problems without any solutions, which has often been overseas countries’ and media’s view of the Solomons. Finally, come to the Solomons; get out of Honiara, into a country that is incredibly beautiful, in its peoples, cultures and landscape, despite its very 21st century problems.
The Rt Revd Dr Terry Brown is Bishop of Malaita in the Church of Melanesia. He first came to the Solomons in 1975 as a theological lecturer on Guadalcanal for six years. He returned to Canada where for 11 years he was Asia/Pacific Mission Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Canada, based in Toronto. He returned to Malaita to become bishop there in 1996. He lives in Auki, the capital of Malaita Province. The Diocese includes some 34,000 Anglicans in Malaita Province.