Less then 6 months after Australian Government joined the US in the War on Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard is about to launch his own ’Coalition of the Willing’ in what can only be described as a colonial style intervention on the Solomon Islands.
Howard, still basking in the glory of his part in the Iraq ’victory’ and East Timor, is seizing the opportunity to assert his imperial dominance in the region. Howard has also cited ’threat to security in the region’ as a trigger for the intervention, conjuring up concern of terrorist threats unless Australia acts immediately.
The announcement of Australia’s plans to lead an armed intervention in the Solomon’s was made on June 10 by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in a paper titled ’Our Failing Neighbour’ by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. This paper indicates a dramatic shift in Australian foreign policy. While the plan does not propose to over throw the existing Government, it will result in an un-elected Australian dominated authority in the form of the Solomon Islands Rehabilitation Authority (SIRA). This will be responsible for the Treasury and the police force of the Solomon’s. SIRA is expected to operate in the Solomon Islands for at least 10 years.
The 2,000 strong Australian contingent sent to the Islands will comprise of around 1,800 defence force personal and with only 200 being from the police force. They will be supported by naval warships and air support.
All of this is of course without UN approval or consultation. The reason for which Downer says is that it would never get through the UN as China would veto the resolution as the Solomon Island Government does not recognises Taiwan over Security Council member China. This has again given the Government an excuse to go over the head of the UN and further cement its irrelevancy.
Unlike in East Timor, when the government still needed UN support for its mission, a new precedent has been set that allows it to act unilaterally. Australia did however summon a meeting of the 16 leaders of the Pacific Island Forum to gain approval and other pledges of assistance. New Zealand has committed up to 250 troops and police to the intervention and the other smaller states, which are reliant on Australia for support and aid, supported the call.
Five year civil war
Although there has been a low level civil war on the islands going on for almost 5 years, Australia is only now intervening and claiming that there is a definite threat to it’s interests in the Islands which are rich in natural resources and are a strategically vital naval route.
The current fighting also threatens to destabilise the region further. On July 8 a taskforce of 15 police and military officials was sent to the Solomon’s to finalise contingency plans for the arrival of the troops.
The Solomon Islands were granted independence from Britain in 1978 along with others around this time including Papua New Guinea. The Island though remained financially dependent on other nations, mainly Australia, as it was poor and underdeveloped after decades of British rule. This left the Islands open to exploitation of its wealth of natural resources. The economy has therefore mostly subsisted on mining and massive logging of their rainforests and foreign aid.
But the Asian economic crisis of mid-1997 saw almost all the logging companies, many of which were Australian owed, leave the Islands.
This loss, coupled with cuts to aid and IMF demands for market restructuring resulted in a sharp decline in the living standards the population. As always a collapse in living standards and class struggle leads to a rise in national division. Communal fighting broke out in 1998 on the main island of Guadalcanal between locals and settlers from the island of Malaita. Around 20,000 settlers were driven from their homes at gunpoint by the rival Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) with the Malaitans accused of stealing jobs and business opportunities from locals.
In turn, the sections of the Malaitan population set up the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF). This action eventually led to the coup in June, 2,000 by the MEF. Fighting broke out in the capital of Honiara between the IFM and the MEF and thousands fled the city – the population dropped from 50,000 to 20,000. Hundreds of Australians were evacuated and all major industries were shut down. The water treatment plant was blown up by the IFM and electricity was rationed.
The Prime Minister Sogavare (who declared that trade unionism had no place in the Solomon Islands) was controversially elected soon after the coup, and he threw the country into greater economic turmoil. Approximately 15% of the workforce lost their jobs during this period and exports fell by half.
Australia made feeble attempts almost two years after the initial civil war broke out to broker a ceasefire between the two militia groups with the Townsville agreement. The agreement only existed for Australia’s own interests. All aid was cut to the Islands until the agreement was signed by both parties.
This only fuelled the fires of ethnic division between the two rival groups as it allowed Australian regional police to supervise the ceasefire, granted amnesty to the past crimes of the IFM and promised separate economic development for the rival islands. The ceasefire only lasted for 5 months when it became apparent that no money existed for the various developments outlined in the Agreement including separate airports, roads etc.
The Sogavare Government, on the brink of economic collapse, entered into talks with both the Taiwanese and the Chinese governments seeking financial assistance in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Taiwan gave a $23 billion loan and in return was granted a generous tuna fishing license by the Solomon Islands Government. Of course none of this money made it to where it was most needed – such as the hospitals with no staff as there had been no money to pay them for 6 months. Corruption was rife within the government and the small elite of around 400 who remained on the Island.
Since the coup of 2000 there has been no improvement in the living standards of the people of the Solomon islands. The GDP yearly per head in the Islands is currently $US530, which places the people of the Islands as among the poorest in the world. Corruption and crime are a way of life.
The Australian government has ignored the problems of the ordinary people of the Solomon Islands, they are only interested when their profits or ’stability’ is threatened. A perfect example of their lack of real consideration for the islands’ people was seen earlier this year in the inaction of the Government when some outer islands were devastated by cyclones. It was thought that some islands had been totally wiped out – yet Howard took weeks to even send out a helicopter to check.
Not surprisingly, there has been little opposition to the Howard Government’s plans within Australia. The ALP has been nothing but supportive on the issue along with the Democrats. The Greens have also supported the armed intervention and have failed to devise any other way that the problems in the Solomon’s could be resolved. There can be little doubt that Howard will want to continue this type of intervention in other nations in the region that are also of strategic and economic importance to him. PNG is likely to be next in line for Australian ’support’ with its economic and social decline.
The Australian and New Zealand trade union movement, community organisations and all progressive forces should oppose this imperialist intervention into the Solomon Islands. Instead of supporting troops sent to back the profits of big companies as well as Australian imperialist power and prestige, we call for the cancellaton of all debts owed by the Solomon Islands to Australian and New Zealand banks.
We support a alternative socialist strategy for the Islands including the nationalising of the tourist, timber, and fishing industries under the control of local unions, and committees of workers, students, and poor farmers. The people must control their own resources to use profits to boost living standards rather than the pockets of foreign and local bosses.
Australia and New Zealand should send teachers and other skilled workers to the Islands to help the ordinary people rebuild after the devastation wrought on their natural and human wealth by imperialism.
We support a regional plan run by workers’ and farmers organisations to combat global warming that threatens the Solomon Islands and other islands in the South Pacific.
The population of the Solomon’s needs vital services rather then armed forces in their towns. Australia, rather then send in armed forces and impose their ’law and order’ on the islands, should assist by providing free education and free health care services.
The workers and unemployed must come together to overthrow the system that has created the current situation. It is only under socialism that imperialism and colonial domination will not exist. Workers internationally must support socialism in the Solomon Islands and throughout the region.
The Solomon Islands
Chain of islands extending 29,900 sq. km
Six main islands
340 small islands and atolls
Roman Catholic 19%
Seventh Day Adventist 10%
other Protestant 5%
traditional beliefs 4%
Alleged parliamentary democracy