July 2003 #1

The Solomon Islands - In Whose Interests

Over the last few days we have heard that our fearless "man of steel" and his buddies in Canberra are planning to forego multilaterism and, as announced by foreign Minister Downer (how can we, as a nation, take this man seriously after his ludicrous attempt at being an political leader), undertake to join "coalitions of the willing" at the government's whim and pleasure.

Remember when the conservatives and many on the left ridiculed Paul Keating's "presidential" style of Prime Ministership. Well, I don't think it's too much of stretch to state that John Winston Howard has outdone Keating by the proverbial country mile in the presidential stakes. But in the latest colonial adventure (but we wont call it that OK) about to get underway in the Solomon Islands just whose interests are being protected?

The history of the Solomon Islands is, like so many of our Pacific neighbours, little understood and largely ignored in our school history curriculums. Also, without looking too closely we find that there is a real colonial attitude within our culture that implies that if a an island is smaller than our mainland, and if somewhere in its past it was grouped together with another, then that grouping of people must have been transformed into an homogenous, culturally similar and unified nation. Moreover, if there is violent conflict between the different groups then it is due to "separatists" or "militants" which is ruling class code for 'savages'.

Of course what this attitude covers up it also reveals. That is, that these island communities are not homogenous, culturally unified populations (the Solomon Islands are home to about 60 different cultural groups), but are, in fact, ethnically diverse and see each of their individual home islands as sacred, national entities. In the case of the Solomons, this is exactly how it is (just like Aceh, West Papua, Ambon and a range of other occupied or suppressed states in our region).

Beginning in 1568 when the Spanish first occupied what they named 'Guadalcanal' there were sown the seeds of ongoing division and conflict. It was not always this way as the Malaitian population traded with the Isatabu (as Guadalcanal residents were known) and there were also intermarriages between the various island tribes. This is not to say there was not conflict, but it does indicate that peace was the norm, not the exception. In 1569 the King of Spain received a letter that said that one of most profitable benefits from exploring the islands would be the slave trade that could be established from there.

Over the next two hundred years the Solomons endured Spanish reign and the export of slaves to such places as Pauline Hanson's home state of Queensland. About 9,000 Malatians were press ganged into the Queensland sugar slave trade. 

By the end of the 1800s the Spanish had retreated from most parts of the Pacific and the British took over the Solomons in 1896. Their first act was to declare all land "terra nullius" and begin to divide it up among the capitalist exploiters, settlers, the Crown and favored chiefs. In fact the Levers Soap Company was the first major concession holder and was granted access to about200,000 acres of the most fertile land.

By the end of World War II the indigenous population realised they had been not only dudded by their colonial masters, but that their land, fisheries and cultures were being raped and changed forever . unless. Unless they fought back.

The Maasina Ruru movement formed the basis of the first land reclamation movements and in the 1950s the Moro movement became the most vociferous advocates of a return to self rule and independence following a near death vision in 1957 by its founder, Chief Moro.

In 1978 the British formally pulled out and left behind them, as was so often the case when the colonial powers failed to provide adequate support for the emerging nations they abandoned, the Island's leaders returned to traditional and customary practices. Having been forcefully engaged in integration programs under their colonial rulers, the underlying tensions erupted. The fact that convenience had seen the shift of the administrative centre from Tulagi on Malatia to Honiara on Guadalcanal brought to the fore resentment by the Isatabu who saw their land rights extinguished. 

In short, the conflict in the Solomon Islands, the latest version of which began in 1998, can be traced back to the typical colonial attitude to customary traditional land ownership and usage practices.

The current conflict can also be traced back to the way the latest neo-colonial exploiters, the huge Malaysian timber and agricultural businesses, run the Island's economies. After the hurricanes of 1998 the focus of the multinationals was to get their export businesses back up and running. This left few resources from the aid that flowed in available for the restoration of civil and social infrastructures.

With a history of displacement and, to put not a too fine an edge on it, terrorism by firstly the imperial colonists and then the raping of their lands by Malaysian multinationals, the conflict in the Solomons and, more interestingly, our Governments decision to intervene, raises the question of why now?

Here are my thoughts on that.

Firstly, the vast wealth to be exploited from palm oil. Were you aware that the oil drilling industry uses tonnes of the stuff in the "drilling mud" it uses to lubricate, cool and assist in the drilling process? Refined palm oil is also an effective diesel fuel replacement, not to mention its nutritional characteristics. Did you also know that Malaysia is the world's largest producer of palm oil closely followed by Indonesia? A Malaysian company has just won the rights to supply the worlds largest distributor of palm oil used in oil drilling wells. However, the best palm plantations are those that grow within forests using the large trees to shelter the growing palms. Given the Solomons regular devastation by hurricanes, one wonders if the palm oil proposals are a ploy to divert attention away from the main issue

Second, the main issue is that the logging concessions are very rapidly running out of the raw material - logs. With local labour being paid less than a dollar an hour, the returns to the Malaysian logging companies is unparalleled. Add to that the tax and excise holidays they have bribed out the Island's administrators and we begin to see why the Solomon Islands is one of the world's poorest nations.

Furthermore, the civil unrest has almost stopped the flow of export logs and for the last three or so years the companies have been losing money hand over fist as they attempt to bribe local chiefs into allowing them free reign. However, this practice has only increased tensions as the clans attempt to "stand over" each other in order to gain better handouts. In short, the break down in law in order is a direct result of the capitalist imperative.

Finally, I believe Howard's little neo-colonial adventure is his (or should I say our government's) way of paying back the loyalty of the Malaysian government and their capitalist friends during our little sojourn in Iraq. With a large, potentially militant Islamic population, Malaysia could be seen as a "threat" to us. In cutting deals with Indonesia I would argue that in return for their loyalty Howard agreed to remain blind to the claims of our other neighbours in trouble in Ache, Ambon and West Papua. The most pressing reason to subdue those calling for sovereignty in the Solomons is that there is the potential for the populations of other colonised territories to rebel leading to the end of access to the raw materials needed for capitalist enterprise.

In other words, in return for Australia doing the dirty work in the Solomons and ensuring the continued rape and pillage of that land and the continued use of its people as slave labour, Malaysia would not oppose our involvement in Iraq and, in return for us turning a blind eye to the continued Indonesian atrocities to our North, we also gained a wink and a nudge from them.

The fact that our political leaders are prepared to aid oppressive regimes, to forgo our involvement in multilateral agreements (but we did that a long time ago when it comes to human rights) should be of utmost concern to us.

We are too small a nation and too fragile within our geographic location to allow those who rule us to be allowed to implement their strategy of 'grand Pacific adventures'. To allow them to do so with blind regard for the colonial history of the region and our own history is to risk not one more Bali, but many.

If you feel helpless in all this, you are not. A few days in the library and a quick review of history books will demonstrate that for us to allow this to happen, and more so, to pretend that our "man of steel" leader really knows what he is doing, is to allow us, our families and our children to be exposed to untold danger and retribution. Australia cannot "go it alone" and be the US "deputy sheriff" in the South Pacific.

If you do one thing this year, if you decide to take part in one protest, one march or one letter writing campaign, I urge you to begin now and let your elected representative know that you want this policy "shift" reversed. Remember Labor supports it, so write to them as well.

The killing and viciousness of the conflict in the Solomons has to be stopped, I am not disputing that. What I am disputing is the way our government will attempt to intervene. Our troops, police and civilian administrators should not and indeed ultimately cannot halt the conflict by applying more force.

Only by mediating a systematic restorative, culturally sensitive return to the Solomon Island populations what is rightfully theirs - their traditional  ands, their human rights and their pride can peace be restored. This will mean the renegotiation of land and sea access by the multinationals with the indigenous peoples and the establishment of sustainable industries. It will also mean the establishment of social services, education and training facilities and the rewriting of the constitution to acknowledge traditional kinship structures.

Only then will the conflict subside and meaningful development occur. If we do not force, by whatever means we have at our disposal, our government to at least attempt this process before it sends in the guns, nothing meaningful will be accomplished that we, as a nation can be proud of. And, indeed, it may well lead to more attacks on Australian nationals.

As has been said before, only fools disregard history and so far this year our leaders have been allowed to make fools of all of us. If we don't act now, we will remain nothing more than mute pawns whose only use is to justify at the polling booth support for ruling class imperialist ambitions and its consequences.