Most of the media coverage of recent events in the Solomon Islands has focused on the sensational details of riot and disorder: burning buildings, beaten-up cops, and looted shops have all been paraded across our screens. Explanations of the reasons for the riots in Honiara have been hard to find. Some commentators like Russell Brown have resorted to racist stereotypes of an uncontrollable 'communalist' people; others like the NZ Herald's Audrey Young have ventured the slightly more sophisticated opinion that the riots were caused by resentment of Chinese and Taiwanese interference in Solomons politics
It's about imperialism
Missing from the mainstream media has been any sort of account of the role that the United States, Britain and their South Pacific deputy sheriffs Australia and New Zealand, have played in creating and maintaining the manifold problems of Solomon Islands society. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) has faced various criticisms of its handling of the riots, but no one has suggested that the Mission and the regional powers that back it are part of the Solomons' problems, not their solution.
When mainly Australian and New Zealand troops occupied the Solomons under the banner of RAMSI in 2003 the country was in the grip of a crisis that had been manufactured in the offices of the International Monetary Fund. Under pressure from the Australian and New Zealand governments, the Solomons government had implemented IMF 'reforms' that devastated its economy and profoundly destabilised its society.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1977, the Solomons found itself with a primitive infrastructure and an economy fashioned by the selfishness of colonialism that preferred plunder to sustainable economic development. Always heavily dependent on the prices it could get for exports of its raw materials, in particular timber and gold, the Solomons economy took a big hit when the 'Asian flu' of 1997 led to a drop in demand in its key export markets. In 1998 alone, the GDP of the country declined by 10%.
Pressured by Britain, Australia, and the US, the government of Bartholomew Ulufa'alu responded by implementing a programme of drastic economic 'reforms' drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. The country's currency was devalued by 20%, and hundreds of public employees were sacked. Conflict between the country's different ethnic groups followed, and at the beginning of 2000 a coup put Ulufa'alu into 'protective custody'. Continuing violence left the country's economy in ruins.
Instead of admitting the role that IMF policies had played in the collapse of the Solomons, the Howard government in Canberra used the chaos in its neighbour to demand even more brutal 'reforms' as the price of humanitarian aid. In November 2002 the government of Sir Allan Kemakeza began a new programme of spending and job cuts, sacking a third of public sector employees. Even worse, Kemakeza was forced to cede control of his government's Finance Ministry to Lloyd Powell, the Australian head of a New Zealand-based multinational company called Solomon Leonard. At a conference held in Honiara in June 2002, the IMF had demanded Powell's appointment as Permanent Secretary of Finance as the price of any new financial aid to the Solomons.
The second round of IMF reforms had predictable consequences. Even rudimentary health and education services collapsed in the slums of Honiara and in the provinces; power blackouts became frequent even in the capital; law and order broke down as police and judges went unpaid; and competition for scarce government funds renewed conflict between ethnic groups.
Howard rides in as US deputy sheriff
By the middle of 2003 it was clear that the reform of the Solomons economy by imperialism could only take place at gunpoint. The Howard government had become the US's most loyal ally in the Asia-Pacific region, having just participated in the invasion of Iraq. Proclaiming the Solomons a 'failed state' that like Iraq could become a base for terrorists and the cause of regional instability, Australia organised a force of 2,500 troops to occupy the country.
The real reason for the invasion was two-fold. In the first place, Australia and New Zealand feared that the chaos in the Solomons could damage their own economies, by ruining the many Australian companies that do business in the islands. In the second place, the Howard government's masters in Washington had become alarmed that the government of the Solomons might turn either to China or to France for aid money and help restoring security. With colonies in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, France still maintains a strong presence in the Pacific, and early in 2003 it had offered military aid to the Solomons government. Neither the US nor Australia wanted to see an expansion of French influence in an region they considered their own backyard. After the formation of RAMSI was announced in July 2003 the French offered troops for the force, but were brusquely turned down by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
With its economy booming, China is seeking energetically to expand its influence in the Pacific. The country's drive to build trade and diplomatic ties has become particularly urgent since the government of Taiwan began using 'chequebook diplomacy' to bribe small countries with votes in the UN and similar international bodies to recognise the government in Taipei rather than the government in Beijing. With its view of China as an emerging rival superpower and potential medium-term military foe, the Bush government was concerned by the possibility of increased Chinese involvement in the Solomons.
NZ follows as the Deputy's Dog
The government of New Zealand had extra reasons of its own for involving itself in the occupation of the Solomons. After tacking away from Australia and the US by siding with France and China over the invasion of Iraq, the Clark government was desperate to assuage anger in Canberra and Washington by proving that it could 'play ball' in the South Pacific. In addition to making up with its old allies, the Labour government believed that it could moderate the unilateralist tendencies of Australia and the US. Clark and her Foreign Minister Phil Goff trumpeted the multinational makeup of RAMSI and the consent of the Kemakeza government to RAMSI's intervention as triumphs of multinationalism over the 'Iraq approach'. In reality, the RAMSI force was dominated by Australia, and the Kemakeza government had already been stripped of most of its ability to make independent decisions. The Australian government treated the vote of the Solomons' parliament as a fait accompli: it had dispatched some 2,000 troops to Honiara before the vote had even been taken.
In the two and three quarter years it has occupied the Solomons the RAMSI force has made it abundantly clear that it acts on behalf of the Pacific's big states and international capital, not on behalf of the people of the Solomons. Like the army occupying Iraq, RAMSI's soldiers are exempted from prosecution or even investigation under Solomons law. They have authority over the Solomons' own police force. Soon after landing in the Solomons RAMSI had begun making sweeping arrests - by the anniversary of the occupation it had detained 700 people, most of whom had not faced any sort of trial. In August 2004 eighty prisoners of RAMSI staged a rebellion at Rove Prison in Honiara. After breaking out of their cells and overpowering guards, the prisoners shouted slogans condemning their inhuman treatment'. Most had been held in solitary confinement for a year. Despite the protest, hundreds of people are still detained without trial in the Solomons.
RAMSI has also felt free to intimidate the population of the Solomons and over-rule the country's government whenever it has felt the interests of international capital have been threatened. In March 2004, for instance, the Solomons' remaining public sector workers voted to stage a national strike to demand a pay rise. In an effort to avert a strike, the Solomons government announced a meagre increase of 2.5%. RAMSI's response was swift: the head of the Solomon Islands Public Employees Union was summoned by RAMSI staff to the Australian embassy, where he was warned that he was 'destabilising' the country. Shortly afterwards a RAMSI representative handed the same union leader a written warning that if he did not revoke the pay claim Australian aid to the Solomons would be suspended. Eventually the union capitulated.
Riots legacy of imperialism
The riots that have destroyed large parts of Honiara in the past week can only be understood against the backdrop of the history of imperialism's exploitation of the Solomons. The underdevelopment left by British colonialism has been exacerbated by brutal IMF policies which Australia and New Zealand have shown themselves prepared to implement at the point of a gun.
The rioters have accused Taiwanese and Chinese businessmen and diplomats of interfering with the electoral process by bribing key politicians, and condemned the new Prime Minister Snyder Rini as corrupt. But it is imperialism and RAMSI's occupation of the Solomons which has created the environment for such corruption. The arbitrary, arrogant, and self-interested behaviour of RAMSI has created an atmosphere in which corruption can flourish. IMF policies and RAMSI occupation have greatly weakened the institutions of the Solomons state and cowed the trade unions, which might have acted as watchdogs against corruption. The Chinese and Taiwanese dealmakers and chequebook diplomats have stepped into the economic vacuum created by the failure of IMF policies and Australasian businesses to deliver prosperity.
The Australian and New Zealand governments have responded to the riots in Honiara by sending more troops to prop up RAMSI. Alexander Downer expressed the contempt of the Howard government and RAMSI for the sovereignty of the Solomons when he said last week that:
“The situation there is inherently unstable and our police will have to remain there for a long time to come and we will have to be prepared from time to time to send in military reinforcements if it's necessary just as it is at the moment.”
Campaign for Australian and New Zealand forces to be withdrawn from the Solomons just as we call for their immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.