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John Roughan: The Honeymoon Is Over!

The Honeymoon is over!

By John Roughan

(Honiara) 8 February 2004: The Solomon Islands/RAMSI honeymoon is definitely over! It's great that the mutual cooperation, sincere fondness and true thankfulness lasted more than 6 months but the honeymoon period is definitely over. Islanders are forever grateful that RAMSI collected the guns (almost 4,000 of them), helped jail the murderous warlords and chased our youthful Rambos off Honiara's streets back to their villages. Yet, all this is history. Today's life and tomorrow's uncertainties loom large and difficult for most.

Poverty levels haven't changed much and if truth be known, have dropped even further from already low levels. People's pockets remain empty with little hope that at any time soon they will gain much. Not that poverty reduction and job creation were in RAMSI's job description but for people who don't have much and live on less, there was a fond hope that the basic life of before would not only return but be better as well.

SIDT's second survey (only partially completed)--six months after the landing of the military in July last year--is turning up a different understanding from the first survey taken three weeks before the first troops landed. Then, in July 2003, people across the nation gave RAMSI a 94% acceptance rate. In this second survey, however, the acceptance rate has dropped significantly as would be expected. People, villagers as well as town folk, have had a first hand experience of the 'invading' military. They have experienced both the good as well as the bad.

One area of concern is that, in spite of the spectacular gun-collection success, people's daily lives haven't come back to what was expected. Daily living, making a few bucks, paying school fees and enjoying a bit of the Better Life hasn't returned. Over the past five years of Social Unrest many had convinced themselves that when guns no longer dominated, the militants were locked up and the killings ceased, then life would surely flow back to what it was back in 1997, the Solomon's last peaceful year. But not so!

People's basic lack of power comes flooding back into their lives, daily. Of course people know that the life they enjoyed before 1998 would take time to flow back but for most, 6 months, IS a long time. Low paid workers--public servants, Patrick workers in the RAMSI camps, teachers, etc.--hear of millions of dollars coming from EU, Australia, NZ, Japan, etc. to pay for everything but their attempts to keep a family feed, clothed and schooled. It's not hard for them to think that everyone else in the country is considered first but not that of the poor.

Public servants seek a tiny wage increase . . . 2.5% addition in their pay packet. RAMSI's reaction is to immediately wheel out the 'big guns'--diplomatic pressure, political leaning on union leadership and threats to review the nation's aid package. Patrick, the Australian service provider for the military camps out at Henderson airfield which made a $800 million dollar profit last year, is even more harsh. RAMSI's camp cooks, cleaners and general clean up people, mostly women, are curtly informed that their take home pay will be slashed from $70 a day to $32. No dialogue, no discussion, no comprise . . . just a 'take it or leave it' attitude. The miserable little amounts of money earned by these workers before, now disappears. Is that money returned to the Australian tax payer or does it flow into the already well stocked bottom line of Patrick? One would like to know!

RAMSI camps' cooks, cleaners, clean up people, etc. desperately need the work. It would be a brave women indeed who could screw up enough courage to complain to the boss that this drastic cut in their wage is unfair. How would they complain when at least 200 other women and men wait outside the camp doors to jump at the chance of getting work? Know well, however, that other RAMSI camps workers are saddened and disheartened by the way they have been treated.

There is a list of other concerns--RAMSI personnel public decorum, the gap between those who seem to have everything and the bulk of people struggling to make ends meet, etc. RAMSI and Solomon Islanders have to face these issues in the next six months to insure that what started out so well grows from strength to strength. RAMSI needs Solomon Islanders as much as the other way around. It's no one way street! The Howard Government wants to showcase the RAMSI experiment in nation building as a resounding success. Next year or so, Australia probably goes to the polls and the government would love to showcase the Solomons experiment as a feather in its cap rather than a millstone as Iraq is around George W. Bush's neck.

A successful outcome from the Solomons Experiment is fondly hoped by all but can only be accomplished through discussion, dialogue and discourse with all levels of society and not simply with those who have been the failed architects of our crippled nation. Solomon Islanders want it so! Certainly RAMSI's involvement and investment is clearly in that direction. Let's see if the next 6 months can accomplish this end.


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