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Solomon Islands: Ethnic conflict a legacy of imperialist exploitation

By Norm Dixon

July 2, 2003 -- Green Left Weekly -- Australian military intervention into the Solomon Islands, announced by Prime Minister John Howard on June 25, will not solve problems that are the legacy of more than a century of imperialist economic and political domination and the inability of the capitalist system to bring economic development to poor Pacific island societies in a socially just and democratic way.

The Solomon Islands has a population of around 450,000 and a gross domestic product of US$400 million. Its per capita GDP, $900 in 1997, is now around $600, with most of the population living on subsistence farming.

Australia is the principal source of the Solomons' imports — mainly fuel, manufactured goods and processed foods — accounting for almost 42% of all imports (worth A$98 million in 1998-99). The Australian-owned Gold Ridge goldmine, opened in 1998, generated more than half the Solomon Islands' GDP before it was shut down by its owner, Delta Gold, in June 2000.

Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, lecturer in history and politics at Fiji's University of the South Pacific, writing in the May 2000 Pacific News Bulletin, explained that when Britain granted the Solomon Islands independence in 1978, it was a group of largely undeveloped islands with an economy dependent almost entirely on the exploitation of natural resources for the world market by foreign companies.

The two main population centres in the Solomons are the mountainous island of Malaita (with a population of 100,000) and the main island of Guadalcanal. Due to its extensive areas of flat land, Guadalcanal was chosen by the colonists as the location for large plantations. From the early 20th century, thousands of Malaitans were brought to Guadalcanal to work the plantations.

There are an estimated 60,000 people of Malaitan descent on Guadalcanal — around one-third of the island's current population. Many Malaitan families have lived on Guadalcanal for generations.

After the Japanese imperialist army invaded the Solomons, an airfield was built in 1942 on the Guadalcanal plains. The US seized it in one of the most terrible battles in history. The airfield became the main US military base in the Pacific for the remainder of World War II.

Unlike the local Guadalcanal people, who owned and worked the land in common, the Malaitan plantation labourers were not tied to the land. As a result, the US military employed mostly Malaitans for its civilian labour force.

Uneven development

The US military base at Henderson Field, now the Solomons' international airport, soon became the cradle of Honiara. After the war, development in the Solomons continued to concentrate around Honiara.

Kabutaulaka pointed out that, as a result, Honiara was where job opportunities were concentrated: "Between 1971 and 1981, 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."

In the early 1970s, noted Hugh Laracy of the University of Auckland, writing in the June 6, 2000, New Zealand Herald, new foreign-owned large palm oil plantations on the plains east of Honiara also recruited more Malaitans.

The seeds of the conflict between the Guadalcanal customary landowners and Malaitan settlers were sown by the British colonial administration, which annexed the Solomons in 1893, and by Western capitalists. The private ownership of the land, upon which capitalist "development" of the Solomons was based, is in stark contradiction to the communal land ownership system still practised by the Guadalcanal people.

As Laracy noted: "Traditionally Solomon Islanders lived in small, self-reliant communities. Their loyalties did not extend beyond people of the same language group (of which there are 70) or from the same island. There were no overarching structures of unity."

Marginalisation

Capitalist development resulted in the uneven breakdown of traditional structures. Because of their traditional ties to the land, the Guadalcanal people did not benefit much from the expanding employment on their island home.

A small layer of Malaitans and other settlers came to dominate the professions, the political class and local business. It was this emerging elite that the British groomed to take over the reins at independence. Non-Guadalcanalans are also the majority of civil servants and the police force.

The landowners on whose land the city of Honiara and the plantations were sited felt particularly aggrieved. Kabutaulaka described Solomon Islands Plantation Limited (SIPL) on the Guadalcanal plains as "a classic example": "Established in 1971 ... for the indigenous landowners, the benefit from the plantation was marginal. They own only a 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 [A$35] per hectare per annum as land rental and SI$500 per hectare as premium.

"In 1997, when the government led by Bartholomew Ulufa'alu came to power, it proposed to sell two-thirds of the government's 30% share to CDC. The remaining 10% would be sold to Solomon Islanders but managed by the Investment Corporation of Solomon Islands, 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 20% of the country's GDP — the Ulufa'alu government did not respond positively to this request."

In the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, under pressure from Western "donors", the government cut public spending and reduced jobs. Conflict over the remaining jobs and increased pressure for land as unemployed Guadalcanalans returned to the countryside heightened tensions.

Unfortunately, the Guadalcanal people reacted to their economic and political marginalisation by directing their anger, not at the tiny Honiara elite, but at all Solomon Islanders of Malaitan descent. Opportunist politicians were not slow to exploit this ethnic chauvinism.

At the beginning of 1998, ethnic communalism took a dangerous turn when militant Guadalcanal youth, calling themselves the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), began arming themselves with World War II-vintage rifles and home-made guns. The IFM openly set about driving Malaitans from Guadalcanal.

Militias formed

In November 1998, Guadalcanal Province Premier Ezekiel Alebua fuelled the growing chauvinist fire with a speech that demanded "respect" from Honiarans for their Guadalcanal "hosts", that rent for Honiara be paid to the province and compensation for Guadalcanal people murdered in the capital. Soon after, Malaita settlers west of Honiara were attacked by the IFM.

By late 1999, at least 50 people had been killed in clashes between the IFM and police, and in IFM attacks on non-Guadalcanalans. More than 20,000 Malaitans, especially from near Honiara, had been forced to flee.

According to Kabutaulaka, the IFM had "support from all over the island and an organisational structure was established to regulate the work of the militants".

At the beginning of 2000, the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) was formed to defend the residents of Honiara from IFM attacks and to demand that the Solomon Islands government provide compensation for displaced Malaitans' property losses and do more to protect the lives and property of Malaitans.

The MEF is led by lawyer Andrew Nori, a former MP defeated at the 1997 general election. Nori is an unlikely "freedom fighter". He was first elected to the national parliament in 1984, was home affairs and provincial government minister between 1984-88, and leader of the opposition in the early 1990s.

Nori resigned as finance minister in 1994 after A$70,000 from an overseas source was discovered to have been deposited in his personal bank account. As finance minister, Nori implemented economic policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the Australian government. Such policies reduced resources available for development that could have helped prevent the latest conflict.

In early June 2000, MEF militants raided the police armoury and took control of Honiara. The majority of the Royal Solomon Islands Police (including the crews of the Solomons Islands' two Australian-supplied patrol boats) defected to the MEF, resulting in the ousting of prime minister Ulufa'alu.

Around 500 armed MEF fighters drove the heavily outgunned IFM from Honiara after several days of fighting, which left 100 people dead and 20,000 homeless.

A cease-fire agreement was signed in Townsville in October 2000. Since then there have been no serious incidents of militia fighting in Honiara or on the rest of Guadalcanal.

At a meeting with representatives of the International Monetary Fund and major donor countries, including Australia, in Honiara last June, Solomons Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza was forced to agree to further substantial cuts in government spending — retrenching about 30% of public sector employees. The number of government employees had already been halved from 8473 to 4337 between 1993 and 1999, under previous IMF-dictated programs.

Kemakeza's government, which is virtually bankrupt, is dependent on small amounts of financial aid from Australia and New Zealand.

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