The diplomatic row that has erupted this week between the Solomon Islands
and Australia demonstrates once again the neo-colonial character of Australia’s
intervention into the small Pacific Island state since 2003.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced on Monday that his
government intended to expel Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole for meddling
in his country’s internal political affairs. Cole had been holding closed-door
meetings with opposition politicians as they prepared to mount a challenge to
the Sogavare government.
Far from apologising for Cole’s blatant interference, Australian Prime
Minister John Howard defended the ambassador and went on to denounce Sogavare’s
rather timid assertion of national sovereignty and to threaten unspecified “consequences”
if the expulsion proceeded. In a letter, later released by the Solomons government,
Howard described Sogavare’s decision as an “unfriendly and unwarranted
act” and warned, “your action will oblige us to review our bilateral
Canberra, however, is not about to end the Australian-dominated Regional Assistance
Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), under which hundreds of troops and police,
accompanied by a small army of officials and lawyers, have taken over the country’s
key levers of power, including the courts, prisons, prosecuting authorities,
finance office and economic planning agencies.
The Howard government’s threats are aimed at destabilising the Sogavare
government and installing a regime more amenable to Australian interests. Foreign
Minister Alexander Downer denounced Sogavare’s action as “outrageous”
and “abominable” and, as a first step, imposed travel restrictions
on Solomon Island members of parliament, preventing them from visiting Australia
on multiple-entry visas. In a country where political loyalties are notoriously
fluid, Downer has calculated that threats from Canberra and the loss of privileges
could well be sufficient to encourage a few MPs to join the opposition.
On Thursday, Howard warned that Australia would consider cutting aid, insisting
“we have to see some improvement in growth and some reduction in corruption
and some improvement in government.” Echoing the prime minister, the Australian
media is now prominently featuring stories of the Sogavare government’s
alleged corruption. Just months after a sustained—and successful—Australian
campaign to oust East Timor’s prime minister Mari Alkatiri, “regime
change” is now on the agenda in the Solomons.
Opposition leader Fred Fono immediately aligned himself with Australia, calling
Cole’s expulsion “regrettable” and declaring Sogavare had
become “an embarrassment to the country”. Fono tabled a no-confidence
motion in parliament, which resumes on October 2—a sure indication that
his backroom discussions with High Commissioner Cole went beyond polite formalities.
As well as shoring up his government, Sogavare’s expulsion of Cole was
designed to head off growing popular discontent with RAMSI’s reign. Sogavare
went out of his way, however, to emphasise that he was not challenging RAMSI.
In a letter to Howard on Tuesday, Sogavare said he hoped that, despite his move
against Cole, relations between the two countries could be “further strengthened”.
Sogavare has been performing a desperate balancing act since he was elected
prime minister in the aftermath of the anti-government and anti-RAMSI unrest
that erupted in Honiara, the capital, on April 18-19. The rioting was triggered
by parliament’s initial election of Snyder Rini as prime minister, following
a general election that saw the defeat of the pro-RAMSI government of Allan
Kemakeza. Rini, previously Kemakeza’s deputy prime minister, was widely
seen as a member of the corrupt elite that had collaborated with RAMSI since
In an attempt to contain the protests, which continued despite the rapid arrival
of 400 Australian troop reinforcements, Rini quit after eight days to make way
for Sogavare, who postured as a critic of RAMSI. Once in office, however, Sogavare
quickly accommodated himself to Canberra’s dictates. He dropped his calls
for a RAMSI “exit strategy” and moved to adopt new foreign investment
laws to facilitate Australian and transnational exploitation of mineral and
other natural resources.
Nonetheless, the RAMSI authorities ramped up the pressure on Sogavare. Two
key members of his precarious parliamentary coalition—vocal anti-RAMSI
politicians, Nelson Ne’e, the MP for Central Honiara, and Charles Dausabea,
the MP for East Honiara—were framed up on charges of inciting the April
riots. They were arrested at gunpoint by heavily armed officers and denied bail
by Australian-appointed prosecutors and magistrates.
The two MPs became Canberra’s scapegoats after eyewitnesses, including
the official parliamentary speaker, accused RAMSI officers of provoking the
rioting by opening fire with tear gas on demonstrators outside parliament. Sogavare
sought to maintain his anti-RAMSI reputation on May 5 by appointing the two
jailed MPs as cabinet ministers, only to back down on May 19 by replacing them.
Downer had denounced the appointments as a “disgrace”.
On July 13, in a bid to appease local resentment, Sogavare announced a four-member
inquiry, chaired by former Australian Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld, into
the causes of April’s “civil unrest”. One of the inquiry’s
11 terms of reference asked whether the MPs’ continued detention was “reasonably
justified and not politically motivated so as to deprive them and their constituents
of their constitutional rights and responsibilities”.
For the Howard government, such an inquiry poses an unacceptable risk. Apart
from the immediate questions over the actions of RAMSI officers, broader questions
are clearly posed. Most obviously, why was there such hostility not only to
Rini’s government, but to RAMSI as well?
Moves began to derail the inquiry. On August 4, Attorney-General Primo Afeau,
whom Sogavare later sacked for working closely with Canberra, took court action
against the inquiry being held. But a local High Court Justice, John Brown,
dismissed the legal challenge on September 6.
In the meantime, the Australian media provided another means of stopping the
inquiry by launching a witch hunt against Einfeld, ostensibly over an unpaid
$77 speeding fine. Sensationalised newspaper reports began just five days after
Afeau initiated his legal action.
On August 29, RAMSI authorities raised the stakes by charging former Solomons
foreign minister Alex Bartlett with conspiring with Dausabea and Ne’e
to plan the April 18-19 violence, kill members of the former government, including
Kemakeza, and wipe out Chinese businesses. Conspiracy to murder is a serious
charge that could lead to lengthy imprisonment.
Sogavare declared that the country’s judicial system was “systematically
falling into the control of foreign governments” and accused the Australian-appointed
Director of Public Prosecutions, John Cauchi, of misconduct. “Locking
Solomon Islanders up on allegations that are based on shaky evidence is akin
to pursuing a strategy of legalised slavery and clearly not in the best interest
of peace and national unity.”
Howard’s latest threats are yet another attempt to stop the commission
of inquiry at all costs. He and Downer accused Sogavare of “subverting
the legal process” by establishing the inquiry while the two MPs face
trial, even though Justice Brown declared it to be perfectly legal.
Sogavare moved to expel Cole just after Downer announced he would send a special
envoy to the Solomons—his departmental deputy secretary David Ritchie—to
register his “serious concerns” over the inquiry. New Zealand diplomat
John Larkindale joined Ritchie’s mission, displaying the New Zealand Labour
government’s close collaboration with the Liberal-National coalition in
Australia in the RAMSI operation.
Warning of aid cuts on Thursday, Howard declared: “I have no doubt that
the people of the Solomon Islands want Australia to remain involved and committed.”
The truth is that ordinary Solomon Islanders have become increasingly hostile
to RAMSI’s occupation of the country. An Oxfam report issued in July warned
of “a pervasive sense of exclusion from government processes and decision-making”.
Oxfam reported “simmering dissatisfaction evident among both rural and
urban communities in the Solomon Islands” toward the pro-market “economic
reform policies” being implemented by RAMSI.
The report, Bridging the gap between state and society. New directions for
the Solomon Islands, also punctured the Howard government’s claims, repeated
ad nauseam in the Australian media, to have brought “security” to
the population. One woman interviewed said: “Peace and security for women
means that ...women and their children are free to move around at any time,
day or night [but] even if we have peace if we can’t feed our family,
it is still not balanced, if we can’t pay our school fees we still struggle”.
After more than three years of the Australian intervention, the Asia Pacific
Report Card on Education ranked the Solomon Islands among the worst in the Asia-Pacific
region. Less than 40 percent of children complete primary school while functional
adult literacy is as low as 22 percent. The country has one of the worst infant
mortality rates—66 per 1,000 live births—while its under-5 mortality
rate, 73 per 1,000 live births, is second only to Papua New Guinea.
As these statistics demonstrate, the purpose of the RAMSI operation is not
to uplift the living standards and safeguard the well being of ordinary people.
The Howard government dispatched troops to assert its military, diplomatic and
economic hegemony over the Solomons and the Asia-Pacific region. As part of
its involvement in Washington’s global agenda, Canberra is also acting
as a regional policeman for the US, warding off potential rivals.
The real calculations behind the confrontation with Sogavare were acknowledged
in the pages of the Australian Financial Review on Thursday. Political correspondent
Geoffrey Barker noted that Australia could not pull out of the Solomons “without
leaving a vacuum to be filled by a potential regional competitor”. Barker
complained that Sogavare “knows that other powers—China, Malaysia,
Taiwan—would be eager to expand their influence if Australia abandoned
the Solomon Islands”.
Sogavare has made no secret of his government’s relations with Taiwan.
Despite initially supporting a shift of diplomatic recognition to China, he
has twice visited Taipei since becoming prime minister. He is due to fly to
New York next week where he reportedly will speak at the UN General Assembly
in favour of admitting Taiwan as a member state. As they compete for influence
in the Pacific, China and Taiwan have each offered substantial financial inducements.
The Asia Pacific region is rapidly becoming another battleground of major and
minor power rivalries. The Australian government’s response has been to
threaten and bully to assert its interests, followed, in the case of the Solomons
and East Timor, by the deployment of troops. Howard’s decision last month
to expand the Australian army to deal with “increasing instances of destabilised
and failed states in our own region” indicates that more such neo-colonial
interventions are already being planned.
Read from Looking Glass News
Australia orchestrated "regime change" in East Timor
installs its man in East Timor: Jose Ramos-Horta
Australia wants "regime change" in East Timor
brushes aside East Timorese sovereignty in oil and gas deal
New Era Of Domestic Surveillance In Australia
military occupation of East Timor proceeds "full steam ahead"
phone-tapping powers in Australia
Rise of Islamophobia in "White Australia"