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John Roughan: Time Is Not On Our Side!

Time Is Not On Our Side!

John Roughan
12 June 2006

Dili, East Timor's capital, PNG, our big brothers and sisters west of us and Bougainville, literally on our western boarder, all suffer different degrees of social unrest. Dili, of course, is currently in the grip of something we experienced back in April, major burning of homes and looting of shops and businesses. Australia rushed in its troops to bring back a sense of peace and order. Unlike the Solomons, however, many Timorese were killed and wounded. PNG, although not racked by riots, faces a bleak future. A senior UPNG Political Science professor states that the country "is in an administrative and political mess and on the verge of collapse".

What about ourselves? Where does our country stand when it comes to peace, order and tranquility? A quick look at this so called 'arc of instability' reflects a number of common themes. In all cases these troubled countries are overwhelmingly Melanesian in origin, have interacted closely with Australia over a number of years and all are relatively 'new' nations. Dili is 4 years old, PNG, the oldest in the group can only boast of nationhood for more a bit more than 30 years, Bougainville is recently on the nationhood road while our own country is just 28 years old next month, July.

But there are, however, other common traits, ones much less attractive that lie at the centre of our troubles as well as these other nations. In a recent issue of the American based weekly magazine, TIME, the author speaks about Timor's deep problems (and the other Melanesian nations) when he declares: "suffers not just from ethnic violence but from chronic crime, severe poverty and unemployment". Solomons' life echoes many of these same sicknesses.

Up until the middle of April citizens could have presented to the world with some confidence a rather up beat report: 'Yes, we did live through some rough patches in the 1998-2003 social unrest period, but since RAMSI entered the picture, things have been looking up!' Such a report can not be given now! April's Black Tuesday and Wednesday witnessed the burning down of millions of dollars worth of property. Fortunately not a single person was killed and only a handful of people hurt, none seriously. However, that lucky escape only masked the depth of anger that not a few of our people still carry about in their hearts.

The 5 April election day had our people peacefully vote into parliament 50 members, half from the old house and half new ones. It went off well, perhaps not perfect, but both the international election observers and our own domestic poll watchers gave the election day process a thumbs-up vote of confidence. There was, however, some feelings of disappointment when half the members from the old house, were voted back in. Frustration boiled over when old government members were voted back into power. The 2006 election, in the hearts of most people, was suppose to have been about change. Money politics, corrupt practices and business-as-usual conduct was to have been flushed out of the system by the new election. But that didn't happen!

People Power forced the issue. Black Tuesday and Wednesday's riots sent a clear message to parliament members that people were thoroughly dissatisfied with parliament's first choice, Snyder Rini, and members had better come up with another candidate and fast. Of course such conduct was undemocratic and clearly illegal but with good sense, Mr. Rini read the writing on the wall and resigned the PM's office after only 8 days in power. All this drama showed clearly that people's deep frustrations could only be properly heard and acted upon when they demonstrated to their leaders how deep their anger and frustrations had grown.

But these same feelings still burn deeply in people's hearts today. Jobs for youth (more than 1500 jobs were burnt to ashes in the Chinatown torching) was never a Kemakeza government priority. The new administration must address, with a sense of urgency, this issue. But government on its own is unable to deliver the goods on this vital area without serious and prolonged help from the private sector, business houses, investors, village groups, etc.

The poverty gap--the select few who live quite well while the majority scrape together enough food for the day--has not lessened but has in eyes of many village and town people only widened. A healthy economy, strong and across the board, not simply for those living in Honiara, must be on the front burner. New sources of income--yes, the old stand-bys of copra, cocoa, chilies must offer higher prices but also coconut oil for biodiesel, villagers harvesting their own timber, new markets for local fishers, sea foods of all sorts, etc. must be enhanced.

A sense of hope for a robust future for the next generation generates ownership. On Whit Monday last week, for instance, a small army of volunteers massed on Honiara's streets, roads and pathways to clean, brush, pick up trash and beautify our city. One fall out of that work day was a sense of ownership . . . this is our only city and if we don't take care of it who will? That's what we all have to do to bring this nation to a better future. If we don't then we could find ourselves repeating DIli's troubles. If this were 1978 our first days of independence, then we had some time to make good. Unfortunately, time is no longer on our side. Things, major changes, have to happen before the end of this year!


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