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Alternative view on Solomon intervention

GPJA Special: Alternative view on Solomon intervention

ASAP statement & background briefing on Solomons

ASAP is an Australian solidarity group

No troops to the Solomons! People aid not military aid!

Statement by Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, 8 July 2003

We oppose the planned Australian-led military intervention into the Solomon Islands later this month to "restore law and order" because it is against the interests of the Solomon Islands people and heralds an assault on the independence of other Pacific nations.

PM John Howard says that the intervention will take place at the invitation of the Solomons Islands’ people. But press reports say that most of the 465,000 Solomon Islanders have been kept in the dark.

Solomons PM Sir Alan Kamakeza, who invited the Australian intervention, has stolen thousands of dollars of aid money. The Solomon Islands parliament, which has yet to pass a motion inviting the invasion, is a notoriously corrupt institution.

The intervention will prop up a corrupt political elite that serves the interests of foreign corporations. Many MPs and police officers are part of the criminal gangs that the intervention is supposed to be aimed at.

It is aimed at defending Australian business interests, as the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (which called for the intervention earlier this year) verifies.

Australia's aid program to the Solomon Islands is part of the system of neo-colonial corruption and exploitation. According to Aid/Watch most of the $37.4 million in aid goes back to Australian companies with some going to Australian multimillionaire Kerry Packer's GRM International to strengthen the law and justice sector.

Instead, Australia should pay reparations to the Solomon Islanders for years of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation and support an immediate reversal of the privatisation and other neo-liberal policies that have been forced on the Solomons and other Pacific nations. Australia should support the nationalisation, under community control, of the mines and plantations and help end the destruction of its forests and fisheries by international corporations.

This will begin to address the root sources of ethnic conflicts and corruption in the Solomon Islands.

On top of that, we support Aid/Watch's call for an aid program to the Solomon Islands that should be "focused primarily on alleviating poverty, thereby promoting sustainable development within the country and attacking the problem of internal conflict directly by addressing the urgent needs of the people of the Solomon Islands".

One such measure could also include fully funding young Solomon Islanders’ travel, board and tuition to study in Australian schools and universities. Canberra should repudiate the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention and instead cultivate peaceful relations with its Pacific and Asian neighbours.

The new imperialist interventions are the armed component of corporate globalisation when local elites can no longer be trusted, or be relied on, to implement the intensified exploitation that neo-liberalism demands.

***********

Australia in the Solomons: Security in whose interests?

A Background Briefing Paper by Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, 8 July 2003

Colonial legacy

The Solomons crisis is rooted in the debilitating colonial legacy that goes back for more than a century. Selective and distorted economic development, arbitrarily-drawn borders, racist colonial administration, and the exploitation of ethnic divisions were the basic features of Britain's control of the Solomon Islands.

The present ethnic tension stem from Britain's policy of privileging Malaitan employment in its colonial industries and administration. This began when thousands of Malaitans were brought to work on plantations in Guadalcanal in the early 20th century. As the predominantly male Malaitian workforce intermarried with Guadalcanalese women, the Malaitans benefited from the Guadalcanalese custom of matrilineal land inheritance. Over time, Malaitans came to dominate the professions, business, public service, police and military.

By the time of independence in 1978, the legacy of colonial de-development left the Solomons economy reliant on a few primary resources - the lion's share of which remained in British and Australian corporations’ hands.

The Solomon Islands Plantation Limited (SIPL) is almost wholly owned by the British Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), after Honiara sold its 30% share to the CDC in 1999. Indigenous landowners have only a 2% stake.

The dependence on primary industries is also responsible for a debilitating trade imbalance: in 2001-02 the Solomons imported $64 million of Australian products – nearly half its total imports – while exporting only $2 million of goods to Australia.

This huge shortfall is made up for by a program of "boomerang aid" from the Australian government. This means aid is tied to contracts given exclusively to Australian companies, of which 100 were operating prior to the 2000 coup.

According to AID/WATCH, 70% of all Australian aid is directly tied to Australian companies. One example is the $17.2 million allocated to the Solomons for "reforming" the legal sector, directly tied to the services provided by Kerry Packer's management firm, GRM International.

Neocolonialism

Like many former colonies, the Solomons was only de-colonised at the formal level of government administration. Beneath this veneer, structures of deep economic dependence and exploitation remain in place.

The Australian-owned Gold Ridge mine, which opened in 1998, doled out just 3% in royalty payments to the Solomons, divided between three parties: 1.5% to the central government, 0.3% to the Guadalcanal province, and 1.2% to the landowners.

Deteriorating global economic conditions and the concomitant pressure to open national economies to global competition and neo-liberal restructuring have opened up new avenues for exploitation and dependence by imperial interests, chiefly Australia.

When the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis nearly halved the value of timber exports to Asia - the largest source of Solomons’ foreign earnings – a sharp economic austerity drive followed: unemployment skyrocketed and social services were slashed.

In June 2002, the Solomons government asked the IMF/World Bank and "donor" countries for a substantial injection of funds to stave off a crisis. The Australian government led the charge in demanding a further slashing of jobs and government spending in return for the aid.

That same month, Honiara ceded control of its finances with the appointment of a New Zealand "public sector and economic reform" consultant, Lloyd Powell, as Permanent Secretary of Finance. Powell heads a NZ company with a history of overseeing neo-liberal "reform" in more than 20 Third World countries, including the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga and Kiribati. At Powell's recommendation, Honiara retrenched 1300 public sector workers in November 2002.

Corruption

The root source of today's ethnic conflict is a mixture of the divide-and-rule legacy of the colonial era and the grinding economic austerity program. Opportunist and corrupt politicians have exploited tensions resulting from the drastic shortage of jobs, services and land to deflect blame from themselves and their policies. Much is being made of the problem of corruption when explaining the failure of aid and development funds. However, no finger is pointed at the overarching neocolonial system - now reinforced by neo-liberal economic policies - that fundamentally governs every sphere of Solomons society, economy and politics.

A patron-client relationship has developed between the foreign multinationals, Western governments’ aid programs and neo-liberal financial institutions, on the one hand, and the local (Malaitan) political elite on the other. The latter was cultivated by the former (and the British colonial regime before that) to do its bidding and administering which, until now, the local elite has done adequately even while ordinary Solomon Islanders have suffered.

In order to justify a military intervention, Canberra now feigns concern for the Solomons people. But the Howard government's lack of concern was amply revealed in January when it took Canberra a week - and only after public and regional pressure – to send assistance to several Solomons islands in the wake of Cyclone Zoe.

Stability for capital

The Australian intervention in the Solomons is fundamentally aimed at restoring the stable conditions for Western - primarily Australian - economic interests. Specifically, it wants the neoliberal restructuring continued, the Gold Ridge mine and the SIPL's palm oil plantations reopened, the re-entry of 100 Australian companies which have departed and the resumption of Australian imports.

The planned intervention does not represent the beginning of Australia's neocolonial project in the Solomons, but its extension.

The guiding policy is summed up by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute ’s (ASPI) paper, Our failing neighbour: Australia and the future of Solomon Islands, which states unequivocally that "our policy towards Solomon Islands must be designed with the aim of serving our national interests".

What are these interests? It says that while business and investment opportunities are "not huge", they are "potentially valuable".

"Prior to the ethnic conflict, bilateral merchandise trade between Australia and Solomon Islands peaked in 1997-98 with $106 million (comprising $101 million in exports and around $5 million in imports). Since then it has almost halved to a low in 2000–01 of $56 million ($52 million in exports and $4 million in imports), before recovering slightly in 2001–02 to $64 million, comprising exports of $62 million, but only $2 million in imports."

ASPI proposes the formation of a Solomon Islands Rehabilitation Authority (SIRA), staffed predominantly by Australian officials, to take over the Solomons police force and treasury department. SIRA would also need to have "a strong focus on stimulating private enterprise", ASPI says.

In a clear reference to Canberra’s new role in the Bush World Order, the ASPI warns that "state failure reflects badly on Australia" and "Australia's standing in the wider world - including with the United States - is therefore at stake".

Preemption

The Solomons intervention is Canberra's first step in leading a pre-emptive intervention.

Foreign minister Alexander Downer told the National Press Club on June 26: "We will not sit back and watch while a country slips inexorably into decay and disorder. Already the region is troubled by business scams, illegal exploitation of natural resources, crimes such as gun running, and the selling of passports and bank licences to dubious foreign interests. The last thing we can afford is an already susceptible region being overwhelmed by more insidious and direct threats to Australia."

The ASPI report claims the Solomons could become a "petri dish" for the growth of transnational crime and terrorism. ASPI director, Hugh White, told SBS's Dateline on July 2: "You don't always have the luxury of making strategic policy on the basis of empirical evidence of problems that have already arisen … The question … is whether we want to stand back and see whether that [i.e., crime and terrorism] happens in our part of the world, or whether we want to acknowledge that as a serious risk and take sensible steps now to prevent it occurring."

In its 2002 "strategic assessment", Beyond Bali, ASPI considered Australia's broader imperial interests in the south-west Pacific, including the potential for transnational crime.

"But our interests go deeper than that", it goes on to say. "The arc of islands which those countries occupy has been the traditional focus of Australia's most acute strategic sensitivities, and remains important to us today. As long as we are concerned about defending Australia from direct military attack, we need to be concerned about the ability of any potentially hostile power to operate from bases in those islands.

"These countries are also potential havens for terrorist groups … For many decades we sought to protect Australia's interests by supporting colonial rule in one form or another. When the tide of post-war decolonisation reached the South Pacific in the 1970s, we recognised that the best way for Australia to continue to manage our strategic interests was to build close bilateral relationships with our near neighbours as independent states, supported by generous aid programs.

"But despite our efforts the continued viability of PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu as nation states is now uncertain. Their Governments are weak, transient and hard to deal with. Corruption is rife and control over territory is uncertain. Economies are stagnant and law and order is poor. Their ability to resist penetration by outsiders – whether states or non-state entities - is almost nil.

"This poses an urgent problem for Australia … In the Solomon Islands … the collapse of effective government means that there may be no point in trying to work with the national authorities …

"Australian policy since decolonisation has consistently stressed the need to allow these countries to manage their own problems … It seems that as far as our Melanesian relationships are concerned, this approach will no longer work."

The Australian's hawkish and racist foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, is less restrained. In a column in March 2001, he warned: "Ultimately having sub-Saharan African conditions in a raft of nearby micro-states means the people flee to Australia. They come from increasingly lawless gun-filled societies where they have not had the opportunity of a decent education. Inevitably, guns, drugs, crime and disease will make their way to Australia … Melanesia is on fire and the flames will one day engulf Australia."

In the wake of the US-British-Australian pre-emptive strike on Iraq, the Solomons military intervention - the largest since the second world war – marks Canberra's turn to a more interventionist US-style foreign policy doctrine in which, in the words of Downer, "sovereignty is not absolute".

Given the explosive social conditions created by neoliberal economic policies, Canberra is nervous about the Pacific elites’ ability to reliably manage Australia's business interests, contain social unrest and spurn the advances of other foreign powers (notably China and France).

As Downer told the National Press Club, "What underpins our approach … is a determination to advance the national interest in a pragmatic and hard headed way". All disguises of multilateralism and respect for sovereignty are thrown out in Canberra's Brave New World.

The Solomons intervention will further exacerbate social tensions and will not resolve the underlying economic and social problems.

AFP's Pacific correspondent, Michael Field, quotes a highly placed contact in the Solomons in his June 26 report: "One suspects he [Solomons PM, Allan Kamakeza] sees foreign military intervention as his only chance to stay in power (while the opposition sees it as a chance to depose him) …’

"Many of those actively engaged in the Solomons fear the instability will worsen with military or para-military involvement … the fear is that military thinking with rules of engagement and exit strategies is not a long-term solution to an issue few in Canberra and Wellington really understand."

Assist the Solomons people

This pre-emptive flexing of Anzac muscle must be opposed by all those who support a progressive and humanitarian outcome for the Solomons people. It is a complex issue: many here, in the Solomons and throughout the region agree that something needs to be done - and immediately.

An immediate expansion of employment by reversing the IMF-dictated privatisations and cuts to social services would be a good start, and much more effective in dealing with the law-and-order problems.

This must be funded by a full resumption - and more - of aid funds with no strings attached. This will relieve pressure on land in Guadalcanal and remove the support base for the armed gangs, presently feeding on the disaffection and resentment bred by high unemployment.

Such a program must be placed under the democratic control of the Solomons people, including the many local civil organisations and technical and administrative personnel that are currently powerless in the face of Canberra's intervention.

It is also under this sort of control that new policing bodies can be democratically reconstituted from the majority of ordinary Malaitans and Guadalcanalese. Further, Australia, New Zealand and Britain must inject both funds and personnel to undertake a long-term, comprehensive program of training medical staff, teachers and other skilled workers, and reconstructing infrastructure.

References

"Ethnic conflict a legacy of imperialist exploitation", Norm Dixon, Green Left Weekly http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2003/544/544p17.htm

"John Howard's new colonialism", Doug Lorimer, Green Left Weekly http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2003/545/545p3.htm

"Troops should not go", Chris Latham, Green Left Weekly http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2003/545/545p3b.htm

Australian Strategic Policy Institute: http://www.aspi.org.au

Aid/watch briefing paper by Tim O’Connor: http://www.aidwatch.org.au/index.php?current=1&display=aw00385&display_item=2

"Aid has failed the Pacific", Helen Hughes, Centre for Independent Studies: http://www.cis.org.au

"Beyond ethnicity: Understanding the crisis in the Solomon Islands", Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, University of the South Pacific: http://journalism.uts.edu.au/archive/fiji_coup/beyondethnicity.html

"Free markets add to woes of Solomon Islands", Geoff Tucker, New Zealand Herald, 3 July 2003 Security in an unstable world, speech by Alexander Downer, 26 June 2003: http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/

"Paradise lost in the Pacific", Rowan Callick, Australian Financial Review, 1 July 2003

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