In the Solomon Islands, an intercultural conflict explodes as rebels place the Prime Minister under house arrest
By PATTRICK SMELLIE
At either end of the bridge across Alligator Creek late last week, fighters in the front line of the Solomon Islands' messy civil strife were dug in. At the town end near Honiara airport was the Malaita Eagle Force (mef), a police-dominated militia with heavy weapons stolen from the police armory. They were facing members of the rag-tag Isatabu Freedom Movement (ifm), many barely in their teens, who were carrying home-made pipe guns.
Just days after the mef had backed former Finance Minister Andrew Nori in his June 5 coup against the government of reformist Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, a stalemate of sorts appeared to have been reached. In a nod to constitutional respectability, Nori has since allowed the Prime Minister to continue working under mef guard and tied Ulufa'alu's future to this Friday's no confidence vote in Parliament--the first allowed against the Alliance for Change government since it survived three such votes in quick succession in 1998.
Nori and his backers hope to replace Ulufa'alu, who the mef believes has been ineffective in stopping the ethnic cleansing of Malaita islanders from Guadalcanal island over the past 18 months. The mef's attacks are also revenge against the ifm forces, whose terror tactics of murder, torture, rape and village burning have driven some 20,000 Malaitans back to Malaita and into the capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal. Since the purge began in October 1998, at least 60 people have been killed.
The future of this string of hundreds of islands between Papua New Guinea and Fiji, independent since 1978 and still defining its nationhood, now rests on how it deals with these ethnic tensions and its crippled economy. As in Fiji and West Papua, which added to the sudden surge in Melanesian instability by declaring independence from Indonesia last week, the issue underpinning the Solomons conflict is migration. The influx to Guadalcanal from all over the archipelago, but especially from neighboring Malaita, has fueled land disputes and resentment at the comparative success of the Malaitans.
In an effort to restore calm, Anglican Archbishop Ellison Pogo last week ordered the men of the church's Melanesian Brotherhood to split into two groups and meet with both rebel camps. A religious order whose high standing makes them a pivotal force for peace on the island, especially in the absence of an effective police force, the Brothers are based in ifm country. They travel unmolested despite their heroic efforts to protect Malaitans from ifm fighters during the terror campaigns.
The two [Anglican and Roman Catholic] archbishops and the Solomon Islands Christian Association have probably prevented civil war so far, says Amnesty International's South Pacific research director, Heinz Schurmann-Zeggel. But he adds that their success may also have lulled Australian and New Zealand peace negotiators into believing the situation was less volatile than the latest conflict shows. Now Archbishop Pogo wants limited foreign help to guard Honiara's fragile infrastructure. We have two petrol stations right in the center of town, he says. When they are blown up, that's the end of Honiara. It would be an act of national suicide.
Honiara's future as the capital is not assured, anyway. Established after World War II from the remains of an American air force base, the town of 45,000 is the country's biggest source of jobs, but it is now also effectively a Malaitan enclave. Ninety-nine point eight per cent of Guadalcanal is in the hands of Guadalcanal people--only Honiara is in the hands of the others, said European Parliament member and would-be mediator John Corrie after his plane was strafed as it prepared to leave the capital. I can't see that holding.
It was not clear whether last week's fighting would escalate as a Commonwealth ministerial mission headed to Honiara on June 10. Indiscriminate shelling of ifm areas by the mef from an Australian-supplied patrol boat seems not to have killed the 50 to 100 claimed, but it still represented a serious escalation of hostilities.
While the coup provoked comparisons with the recent one in Fiji, the greater influence on the Guadalcanal uprising is the decade-long independence struggle in Bougainville, says Pogo. Up to 9,000 Bougainvilleans fled to the Solomons during that fighting. Most settled on Guadalcanal and sympathized with the locals' resistance to migrants seeking work and land on their island.
Yet while ethnic tensions are at the heart of the conflict, there are other causes. Ulufa'alu was implementing an International Monetary Fund economic reform program whose measures upset powerful politicians and businessmen. Guadalcanalians were also angry that the government was selling its stake in the country's largest palm oil plantation, a major employer. Meanwhile, Malaitans were bearing the brunt of heavy cuts in the public service, as well as suffering ethnic purges. But the Solomons have never been a unified nation. The Western Province leans toward secession, and there are calls for a federal system to reflect the diversity of a country with 120 languages, where island of origin defines identity far more than national citizenship.
Amnesty's Schurmann-Zeggel warns the Solomons conflict is already more deadly than the coup in Fiji. The risk of people being killed in large numbers is far greater, he says. In Fiji, you have an army trying to create order. In the Solomons [where there is no army], police officers who have not joined the mef are reported to be staying at home or in hiding. There is no one to create order.