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John Roughan: RAMSi failed us!

RAMSi failed us!

By John Roughan
22 May 2006

Whether the Solomons was a failed state or not, there is no doubt that in the hour of our greatest need, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) failed us. The heroics of police personnel, ordinary citizens, both men and women, fortunately spared the nation the agony of mourning its dead. Startling as it was, during the whole two-day riot--Black Tuesday and Black Wednesday--not a single person died although some experienced narrow escapes. But the bottom line remains: the rowdy crowd that surrounded Parliament Building spun out of control and became an uncontained, rock throwing mob. What happened?

In last week's Star, Thursday edition, Solomon Islands Police Commissioner--Shane Castles--presented a spirited defense of his force's actions during the riot days. He set about getting the record straight, at least from the police's point of view. But so many unasked and unclear answers still hang in the air awaiting explanation.

The Commissioner refused to accept that any police action--tear gas use, police overreaction and protective shields only for Australian Police members but not for Solomons' police--should be faulted. If the police crowd-control procedures of that day were so faultless, what then sparked the riot off? Was it mostly, as the Commissioner states, the work of shadowy figures who worked out a "level of prior planning and coordination" and pre-planned the whole ugly episode?

Was the burning, looting and near mayhem primarily a case of faulty intelligence or were other factors at play? During the critical moments of keeping a restless crowd at Parliament Building under control, no megaphone was at hand for Solomon Island leaders--Sir Peter Kenilorea, Bart Ulufa'alu, etc.--to address the increasingly agitated crowd from growing into a howling mob?

Black Tuesday caught the police flat footed! Can the no-intelligence excuse be trotted out to justify Black Wednesday's events, more than 14 hours after Chinatown was gutted? Burnt out police vehicles should not stop security forces from commandeering taxis, trucks and buses from the public during a time of emergency!

I was hoping that the Police Commissioner would have been the first official voice to call for a Commission of Inquiry not only to verify the police version of events but more importantly to undermine the 'coconut wireless', rumor and 'tok stori' that now circulate among ordinary citizens. An official inquiry could nail down the actual events as they happened. Part of this fact-finding exercise would be to review and study the more than one and a half hours of TV footage shot during the crucial period around Parliament House before things exploded.

A review of the TV footage of that day would show that the thin blue line of police were made up mostly of new, untested officers, women included, with not an aged veteran to be seen. Such crowd-control tactics would certainly raise the Commission of Inquiry's members' eyebrows at least! Although this valuable TV footage was offered to Australia's Four Corners program as part of its recent documentary on what happened during those critical two hours, it never bothered getting back to us.

During the nation's most critical time to strengthen democracy and deepen good governance habits, RAMSI's law and order regime failed us spectacularly. Its assertion that it was essentially an intelligence failure hardly reflects the Solomons reality. UNIFEM'S December 2005 report: Monitoring Peace and Conflict in the Solomon Islands actually predicted that "corruption in government has the highest risk score"--88% is the mark given. This insightful study continues: "Corruption often features among the issues which trigger conflict". Other factors like lack of participation in government decision-making, weak women's participation in governing processes and distrust among political groups all score high in trigging conflict. All these factors were clearly in abundance before and during the riot period.

These written columns also have, over the past months in the Solomon Star, been ringing alarm bells. The first election for MPs (5 April) is not as important as the second election, that of the PM (28 February; 6 March, 4 April), How much advanced intelligence is enough for authorities to take notice?

If a quarter of Canberra, Wellington, Suva, etc. had burnt to the ground, it would have taken much less than a week for their respective governments to mount a Royal Commission, a Select Body, a Commission of Inquiry to find out the sequence of events, who did what and who did nothing, etc. A Commission is not an exercise in finger pointing but to assure the nation that there's not going to be a next time.

April's riots didn't set the country back a few months but more like back to the 'bad old days' of 1998-2003! Military convoys visiting Honiara's outlying settlements, throwing lollies to the kids and the showing of gun power doesn't come to grip with the problem. Canberra should be informed of its failure in trying to micro-manage the Solomons scene. Place an embargo on all 'experts' jetting in from all over Australia but set up a local reference group--pastors, elders, women's groups, youth reps--to help re-direct RAMSI in its work. This is not an opening wedge to get rid of RAMSI but a plea for it to re-order itself to nation building with the majority of Solomon Islanders.


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