Back in 1989
a schoolmate of mine showed me some copies of Tribune, the newspaper of New Zealand’s
Socialist Unity Party. The SUP had for decades been convinced of the
infallibility of the leadership of the Soviet Union, and the pages of Tribune
were full of recycled press releases from the Kremlin and large airbrushed photographs
of crumbling Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Andropov.
though, the Soviet bloc was in crisis, and Tribune was obliged to report events
like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of a Solidarity government in
Poland. I remember one article which sat uneasily beneath a photograph of a
crowd of Germans tearing down the wall. According to Tribune, the crowd’s
exuberant vandalism was not a sign of opposition to the ultra-Stalinist East
German government, but rather a ‘part of the process’ of ‘building socialism’.
The SUP was incapable of dealing with a reality that contradicted its sanguine rhetoric. The party didn’t survive much longer than
about the confusions of the SUP when I read the latest issue of Islands Business, the monthly news
magazine published in Fiji. Every issue of Islands Business ends with a column
called Letter from RAMSI, in which the Australasian leaders of the Regional
Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands rave about their achievements. In
this month’s letter Nicholas Coppel, the Special Coordinator of RAMSI, sets out
to celebrate the tenth anniversary of RAMSI’s deployment to the Solomons.
correctly notes that the Solomons was a chaotic and violent place in 2003. The
government had virtually closed down, and armed militia were fighting for
control of the capital island of Guadalcanal. Coppel boasts that RAMSI’s
troops, cops, and administrators have re-established ‘law and order’ in the
Solomons, rebuilt the local police force, and given the country ‘functioning
government systems’. He enthuses over the Solomons’ economy, which is
supposedly booming, and says that RAMSI can be ‘very proud’ of what it has
given the country.
Coppel scrupulously avoids any discussion of the multiple crises that have beset RAMSI over the past decade. He has nothing to say about the riot that levelled large parts of downtown Honiara in 2006, RAMSI's habit of raiding the offices of Solomons politicans opposed to its policies, like former Prime Minister Mansseh Sogavare, and the steady resistance to RAMSI on the island of Malaita.
for Nicholas Coppel, the latest Islands
Business also contains an article by Alfred Sasako called ’35 Years on,
where is Solomons heading?’ Sasako notes that the Solomons has just marked
three and a half decades of independence, but he doesn’t feel in a celebratory
mood. The Solomons, he insists, is ‘a nation in rapid decline’. Sasako offers a
series of anecdotes which together demonstrate the sorry state of the government and
economy of the Solomons. He shows that the RAMSI-trained Solomons police force
is more interested in providing security for Malaysian logging companies than
investigating crime; that cops from the Prime Minister Gordon Lilo’s Personal
Protection Unit supervised a very public burglary on the island of Malaita;
that Cabinet Ministers rarely enter their offices, and many senior public
servants only turn up to work to collect their pay; and that Lilo’s regime has
taken three hundred million dollars from the public purse and distributed it
amongst members of parliament.
not share Nicholas Coppel’s enthusiasm about the performance of RAMSI in the
Solomons. ‘There is no appreciable sign’, he says, that the efforts of the last
ten years have moved the country anywhere ‘except downwards’.
Just as that
photograph of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall mocked Tribune’s
endorsement of the East German regime, so Alfred Sasako’s pungent contribution
to Islands Business refutes Nicholas Coppel’s claims for the success of
Unfortunately, not all media outlets have been prepared to acknowledge
the critics of RAMSI. Last week Australia’s state radio station marked the
tenth anniversary of RAMSI by interviewing Coppel and replaying a long and
fantastic speech by Lilo. No hint of the Solomons’ problems was given.
understand why RAMSI has been unable to create a functioning state, we need to
examine the sociology and history of the Solomons. Like other parts of
Melanesia, the Solomons traditionally consisted of small scale societies. The
kingdoms and empires which emerged in Polynesian and Micronesian societies like
Tonga and Yap had no parallels on islands like Malaita and Guadalcanal, where
language and topography tended to divide rather than unite people.
Sahlins and other scholars have shown how the small communities of Melanesia
would be brought together temporarily by ‘big men’ skilled in oratory and war.
Through his bravery and eloquence, a ‘big man’ might unite a dozen or so
villages so that they could wage a war or throw a feast. But the unity that the
big men achieved was always precarious.
Despite their different languages and
religions, though, Solomon Islanders were united by an adherence to kastom, a set of
traditional practices that provided forums where individuals and groups could
air complaints and settle disputes.
control of the Solomons late in the nineteenth century, but was very reluctant
to spend money there. Missionaries were encouraged to do the work of colonial
authorities by running schools and health clinics, and institutions – a
national university, for instance - that might link the colony’s different
islands were never created. On the island of Malaita resistance to colonialism
was continuous, and a dynamic nationalist movement called Maasina Rule emerged
after World War Two. Led by the Kwaio, a central Malaitan people who had
rejected the Christian faith and killed tax collectors, Maasina Rule demanded
the substitution of kastom for the rules and practices of the British. On other
islands, though, a nationalist consciousness generally failed to develop.
left the Solomons in 1978 it bequeathed the country a set of state institutions
that were incompatible with its culture. A Westminster-style
parliament, which relies on the existence of national political parties divided
ideologically, had little relevance to the Solomons, where identity is largely
local. A hyper-centralised government on Guadalcanal was always likely to fail
the needs of distant islands which valued their autonomy. The courts and jails
of a British-style legal system were alien to kastom.
Australians in nearby Papua and New Guinea, the British colonialists provided the
conditions for the growth not of Western-style capitalism but of a caste of
‘political big men’, who use state institutions to enrich themselves and
reward their supporters. Gordon Lilo is simply the latest of these modern big men.
By the late
1990s the Solomons state was factionalised and badly indebted. The response of
Australia, New Zealand and the International Monetary Fund was to
impose a neo-liberal ‘adjustment programme’ on the country. State spending was
cut, and large numbers of public servants were sacked. Neo-liberalism simply
accelerated the collapse of the state, and in 2003 the neo-colonialists of
Australasia decided that direct intervention was necessary to stabilise the
Solomons. But RAMSI has rebuilt the doomed state that the British gave to the
Solomons in 1978. There is the same irrelevant national parliament, the same
absurdly centralised government, and the same substitution of Western justice
for kastom. As Alfred Sasako shows, the state RAMSI rebuilt has already begun to
issue of Islands Business doesn’t
only discuss the problems of the Solomons. The cover of the issue features Moana
Carcasses Kalosil, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu. Kalosil is a member of
Vanuatu’s relatively small Green Party, but he leads a stable coalition
government. In an interview with Islands Business, Kalosil criticises the
excesses of Western capitalism and celebrates Pacific methods of
decision-making. In some ways, Kalosil can be seen as a successor to Walter
Lini, the legendary leader of Vanuatu’s independence struggle and the country’s
first Prime Minister. Calling himself a ‘Melanesian socialist’, Lini tried to
reconcile a modern state with traditional practices like kastom. Vanuatu is not
a paradise, but it has never experienced the violent chaos that has become a
symbol of the Solomons.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]