Beyond Ethnicity

Understanding the crisis in the Solomon islands

By Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka (May 2000)

This article was published in the May 2000 edition of Pacific News Bulletin, the monthly magazine of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement

IT WAS late afternoon when we approached the militants' checkpoint. The sun was beginning to crawl down behind the gently waving fronds of the oil palm trees. Apart from the rattling of our vehicle's engine, there was an eerie silence that canvassed the oil palm plantation around us - an elusive peace.

We had been driving for about 40 minutes east of Honiara, the Solomon Islands <> capital, into the heartland of the Guadalcanal militants <> : the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) as they call themselves. This is the organisation at the centre of the eighteen-month-old Guadalcanal crisis.

It is here, in the oil palm plantation abandoned by the Solomon Islands Plantation Ltd. (SIPL) that the IFM's "eastern troop" (as they refer to themselves) have made their headquarters.

In the past eighteen months many things happened here. The oil palm trees are mute witnesses to horrifying events.

In February this year, an officer of the Royal Solomon Islands Police, Scriven Ngatu, was killed during a shootout with members of the IFM about 200 metres from where our vehicle came to a halt. But there are many more untold stories of people going missing, most probably killed, families displaced and a country unable to deal with the enormous impacts of the crisis.

So far, the public media, government officials and commentators on the crisis have taken the easiest explanation and described it as simply a result of ethnic differences between the peoples of Guadalcanal and Malaita. But, while ethnicity should not be completely disregarded, there is a nationalist sentiment in the country.

This projection of identity creates tensions between the so-called nation builders - those who want to promote the ideology of the nation - and the nation buildees - those who will be caught up in the nation-building process, willingly or not, but whose participation in, acceptance of, and, ideally, identification with the values of the budding nation will be essential to the legitimacy of the national enterprise.

Despite this, Jourdan argues that amongst the younger generation of Solomon Islanders, especially in the urban areas, there is a new sense of national consciousness in the making. She identifies three factors - (i) the education system, (ii) pijin (pidgin) as a common language, and (iii) popular culture as the "stepping stones" toward a national consciousness; elements that are crucial in conveying to citizens of Solomon Islands a sense of shared values and expectations, out of which a sense of common purpose in the future is developing.

But, the relative weakness of national consciousness itself does not provide an adequate explanation for the Guadalcanal crisis; it does not tell us why there are violent tensions between groups of people who have been interacting with each other for more than a hundred years.

Apart from issues of nationalism, the British left behind a group of islands largely undeveloped and an economy dependent almost entirely on the exploitation of natural resources by foreign multinational companies. Infrastructure development concentrated around Honiara <http://www.solomonairlines.com.au/destinations/Honiara.htm> , the national capital, built out of the remains of a former World War II US Air Force base.

Honiara was also where most of the formal employment opportunities are concentrated. Between 1971 to 1981, for example, while Isabel, Makira/Ulawa, Temotu and Malaita Provinces accounted for 49% of the country's population, they had only 15% of formal sector employment. This difference was especially true of Malaita with 31% of the national population and only 7% of the employment. This imbalance was worsening and in the subsequent decade formal sector employment in those provinces scarcely increased.

In 1981 when overall employment increased, the level of employment in both Malaita and Santa Isabel fell. Thus, the provinces that were already better provided with job opportunities and generally have higher levels of development, have experienced the most growth. In terms of job opportunities the regional disparities since independence have worsened; one of the results has been the greater migration to employment centres such as Honiara.

Furthermore, by the time of independence the country's economy was dependent largely on agriculture and large-scale natural resource development projects. The distribution of benefits accrued from these developments became an issue in the decades after independence. Mamaloni, in 1992, stated that: "our natural resources are rapidly being depleted, not for the welfare of those who own them but to finance a government system that is far remote from the masses."

Ironically, much of the rapid exploitation of the country's forestry resources took place in the 1980s and 1990s when Mamaloni was Prime Minister for an extended period of time. The oil palm plantation in the Guadalcanal plains is a classic example. It attracted people from all over the country. Established in the 1971, the plantation is owned by the Solomon Islands Plantation Limited (SIPL). For the indigenous landowners, the benefit from the plantation was marginal. They own only 2% share in SIPL, compared to 68% share by the British-registered Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) and 30% by the Solomon Islands Government. In addition to shares, landowners receive SI$100 per hectare per annum as land rental and SI$500 per hectare as premium.

Despite persistent efforts by landowners to improve their benefits, the government and CDC have been reluctant to respond positively. Instead, in 1997 when the government led by Bartholomew Ulufa'alu <> came to power, it proposed to sell 20% of the government's 30% share to CDC. The remaining 10 per cent of government shares would be sold to Solomon Islanders but managed by the Investment Corporation of Solomon Islands (ICSI), the national government's investment agency.

The Guadalcanal Provincial government, however, demanded that instead of selling its shares to CDC, the national government should give it to the Guadalcanal Provincial government. But, pressed by the need for quick finance, - prior to the crisis SIPL was contributing to 20% of the country's $585 million GDP the Ulufa'alu government did not respond positively to this request.

Related to these developments was the issue of land. In the past decades many Guadalcanal people (predominantly males) sold customary land around Honiara to people from other provinces. This is in spite of Guadalcanal's matrilineal society where females are the custodians of land. Furthermore, many individuals were selling land without consulting other members of their laen (tribe). This often caused conflicts within landowning groups and between them and the new "owners". The sale of land has, over the years, been resented by women and a younger generation of Guadalcanal people who view the act as a sale of their "birth right".

The issues of land and natural resource development are not confined to Guadalcanal. In the Russell Islands, Central Islands Province, for example, the acquisition of land by the Levers Pacific Plantation Ltd. in the late 1800s, also contributed towards disputes when Marving Brothers Timber Ltd., a Malaysian-registered logging company began logging Pavuvu Island <http://www.greenpeace.org/~comms/forestry/chrono.html> in 1985.

Prior to that, in 1981, the Levers Pacific Timber was involved in another violent confrontation with landowners at Enoghae in North New Georgia. The issues became especially pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s when industries such as logging became prominent <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/24/029.html> and saw collaborations between state officials and multinational (mostly Asian) logging companies.

It was also at this period that the country's deteriorating economy saw the government accumulating debts well over its ability to repay. By the end of 1997, for example, the government had accumulated SI$1.2 billion in debt, more than double its 1998 budget. This was due partly to poor management practices such as uncontrolled spending and non-collection of revenue. For example, millions of dollars in potential government revenue was foregone through tax remissions on log exports, amounting to $109 million from 1995 to 1997.

The period also witnessed substantial fraud and theft by public servants and huge amounts of money were given to Member of Parliament through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). In many cases the CDF money was used as "handouts" to gain and retain the political loyalty of people who, as a result, became more dependent than before. Consequently, a majority of the country's population suffered; a few became very rich at the expense of nation-wide development.

Another issues that aroused major discussions at the time of independence were that regarding the system of government <http://rspas.anu.edu.au/melanesia/alasia97_7.html> . There were concerns that the provincial system of government was expensive and ineffective. Many people proposed that a federal (state) system of government would be most appropriate for Solomon Islands. The assumption was that federalism would cater for the devolution of power and the equitable distribution of development benefits.

In the report of the 1987 Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) one of the major recommendations was the establishment of a federal system of government. That, however, was ignored by successive governments.

There were other issues raised by the 1987 CRC report. One of the most important was that relating to the freedom of movement and settlement. Although the Solomon Islands Constitution guarantees to every person the "freedom of movement . . . [which] . . . means the right to move freely throughout Solomon Islands, the right to reside in any part of Solomon Islands . . .," the CRC report highlighted the need to control the movement and settlement of people. On Guadalcanal the issues of migration and settlement were compounded because of the rapid growth of Honiara and the expansion of squatter settlements in areas around Honiara.

In 1988, Guadalcanal people held a demonstration after the multiple murders at Mt. Austin behind Honiara. They demanded, amongst other things, the establishment of a federal system of government and that "immediate steps be taken to reduce the pressure of internal migration." Increasingly in the late 1980s and 1990s, Honiara became a town that manifested the country's national problems. In 1989, for example, there was a riot in Honiara after confrontations between Malaita youths and those from Rennell and Bellona. Police records indicate that most of those involved in the rioting were unemployed youths

Another 1990s phenomenon, which goes a long way in explaining the Guadalcanal crisis, was the Bougainville migration due to its ten-year war for independence from Papua New Guinea <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/cib/1996-97/97cib9.htm> . Upwards of 9,000 Bougainvilleans fled to the Solomon Islands with a vast majority of them settling in Guadalcanal for long periods of time. They have definitely influenced Solomon Islanders.

But, the highlight of the 1990s was the 1997 national election. For the first time in the country's electoral history, voters dismissed more than half of the sitting parliamentarians and elected two Chinese businessmen. It was the first time in four national elections that people had dismissed so many of its highest elected officers. The former government which had been in power for more than seven years was soundly defeated. The election results sent a strong message to politicians that people would no longer accept "business as usual." They were demanding change, and quickly.

The Current Crisis

By the beginning of 1998 a group of young Guadalcanal men, disgruntled with successive governments' failure to address developmental issues and the demands of the Province, plus the presence of settlers from other islands (especially Malaitans) on their island started collecting arms: licensed rifles around the island, old Second World War rifles and ammunition and home-made guns.

In November 1998, following a speech by the Premier for Guadalcanal Province, Rt. Hon. Ezekiel Alebua, demanding "respect" for their Guadalcanal "hosts", rent to be paid to the province for Honiara and compensation for Guadalcanal people murdered in Honiara, a group of armed men attacked Malaita settlers in areas west of Honiara.

Within months, the violence escalated and in December 1998 a Guadalcanal youth, Ishmael Pada, was shot by police. This incident attracted more Guadalcanal men to join an armed group who were by then referred to by the media and government official as "militants". By late 1999, the tensions had escalated to a stage where at least 50 people were killed and more than 20,000 people (mostly Malaitans) were forced out of settlements on Guadalcanal, especially in areas around Honiara.

The government first played down the crisis. Many state officials referred to the tension as a result of the work of a "few" disgruntled people. The Minister of State, Alfred Sasako, for example, was reported as saying that, "so far as I gather, there are actually two and at the most three very small groups of perhaps a total of 50 people. Some of those arrested on arms charges were disgruntled former police officers. Most other trouble makers appear to be young people who do not take it seriously, but who want a bit of fun and adventure."

Throughout 1999 there were continuous confrontations between the Royal Solomon Islands Police and the IFM. By April 2000 the police had killed about thirteen IFM members. The movement quickly attracted supporters from all over the island and an organisational structure was established to regulate the work of the militants. Although this has not functioned efficiently and there are dynamics within Guadalcanal, the general feeling throughout the island is that of agreement with the IFM.

By the beginning of 2000 a group claiming to represent displaced Malaitans was formed and called itself the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). This group's concerns centre around demands for compensation of properties damaged and destroyed by the IFM, the killings of Malaitans and the protection of Malaitan interests in Honiara.

The Search for Peace

Since early 1999, a number of attempts have been made to bring an end to the crisis. These processes involved attempts to address the underlying issues of the crisis and to deal with the demands of the various parties.

These attempts at resolution included a kastom (custom) feast ceremony held in Honiara on 23 May 1999 and four "peace talks" that have resulted in the signing of various documents: the Honiara Peace Accord <> (28 June 1999), the Panatina Agreement <> (12 August 1999), the Buala Peace Conference (4 - 5 May 2000), and the Auki Peace talks <> (9-10 May 2000).

If anything positive is going to come out of talks, all the parties involved in the crisis must be represented and the underlying socio-economic and political issues must be addressed. In the past attempts militant groups have not been fully involved in the peace process. Furthermore, there is a need to look beyond ethnicity as the only cause of the crisis. We must explore the socio-economic and political issues that underlie the issues raised by the various actors in the crisis. In a way, there is legitimacy in many of the issues raised by Malaitans, Guadalcanal and others who are involved. Ethnicity is merely the avenue through which people's frustration becomes manifested.

© Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka and Pacific News Bulletin

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