From ‘ethnic tension’ to ethnic war: Focus on the Solomon Islands

When I left the Solomon Islands more than two weeks ago, rumours were rife that the government was going to bring in Cuban troops to restore order to this troubled island. It was, if anything, a measure of desperation. On the other hand, two different sets of peace accords had just been signed, laying out a process to quell the ethnic-based disquiet that has claimed more than 60 lives in the past 18 months.

This week, according to news reports, Honiara lawyer Andrew Nori led an attempted coup that has seen the house arrest of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, the imposition of a curfew in the capital, Honiara, and a suspension of all flights in and out of historic Henderson Field. Mr. Nori, a few weeks before, had been a signatory to the Auki peace accords.

Things have obviously changed quickly since I left. It is unclear from news reports, whether there has been an attempted coup or an actual one such as the one that occurred in neighbouring Fiji May 19.

And in almost three weeks worth of attempts, I have been unable to telephone Anglican Bishop Terry Brown of Malaita, who was my host during my six-week sabbatical visit. Circuits are busy, noise intrudes, lines go dead, and except for the brief news items about Mr. Nori’s offensive, all is silence.

Bishop Brown, a former Asia-Pacific Mission Coordinator for the Canadian Anglican Church, was elected to the see of Malaita four years ago. He is a most genial host, an energetic traveller, and a very political bishop.

Whatever is going on, Terry will be neither dispassionate, nor, with his penchant for writing news releases, very quiet about it.

The church is a respected institution here on these predominantly Anglican islands, and it involves itself in politics when it’s leaders feel a point has to be made. Ministry is holistic and that includes the political. The Anglican Melanesian Brothers, for instance, have mounted courageous ministry initiatives to all sides in the conflict.

In many ways, the conflict that has plagued the Solomon Islands, which lie east of Papua New Guinea and north of Australia, is a conflict not unlike the country itself: understated in conversation, steeped in history and tradition, fierce at times and somnolent at others, sometimes as gentle as a tropical wind and other times as barbaric as the cyclones that sweep through here during the rainy seasons.

The people of the Solomon Islands call their difficulties “ethic tension”. It is a misnomer. “Tension” is when people scowl at each other and make threats across a negotiations table. But here, people are dying, in a conflict that has uncomfortable elements and sometimes even the vocabulary of ethnic cleansing to it.

The official death toll is about 60 in the past 18 months, a figure much too low to have attracted the attention of the western world’s media, at least before this week’s upheaval. The actual toll is impossible to describe: there have almost certainly been a great many more deaths than 60, and one should add to that a good number of disappearances and the pain of the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people, the turmoil of a resultant depressed and ruined economy.

On the face of it, the “ethnic tension” of the Solomon Islands pits the people of the Island of Guadalcanal against those of the island of Malaita.

Malaitians, with a historic reputation for resourcefulness and asserting themselves, settled in large numbers on the neighbouring island of Guadalcanal, and over the years, prospered. They went to work, they bought land, they established businesses and commerce and eventually, they achieved an economic and social position, as a class, that gave them predominance over the much more relaxed natives of Guadalcanal.

About 18 months ago, certain groups arose in Guadalcanal that are fervently nationalistic and that set out to reclaim the island for its natives, one way or another.

Unwanted and threatened, Malaitians left Guadalcanal in droves and went home, abandoning employers, businesses and plantations. At one time, it was estimated that the population of Honiara, had plummeted by between a third and half. The tourist industry on Guadalcanal, home of innumerable World War II sites and coral reefs beloved of divers, all but died.

Eighty miles across the water to the north, however, Malaita prospered, as enterprising people came home, some after generations on Guadalcanal, bringing their families, their money, their sense of initiative and in some cases, even vehicles and buses. Auki, the capital of Malaita province, normally a sleepy little town with a Wild West flavour to it, experienced the first traffic jams in its history.

New villages were born; families were reunited. If there was any downside to the influx at all for Malaita, it was in the strain it placed on the service infrastructure such as hydroelectric power, telephones and the delivery of drinkable water – services that are delivered haphazardly at the best of times.

And then, as almost inevitably happens in a conflict based on “ethnic tension” which, after all, can be a relatively simple phenomenon, things got complicated and out of hand. Militants groups arose around narrower issues than the original ones, and other groups appeared to oppose the first groups; checkpoints went up, the verbal battles escalated; the conflict lost its easy definition as militants took to the hills, and then, inevitably, shot were fired and people started dying.

The Solomon Islands lack a national army that could have been used early on to impress a presence and restore order. Instead, the country relies on provincial police forces, members of which, it is widely felt, were quick to line up behind one militant group or another. There have been shootouts between militant groups and police, but they seem more for show than anything else. Police and the militants set up checkpoint around Honiara and maintain an uneasy standoff, a mile or so apart.

The violence is elsewhere. Both sides are taking captives off to the hills and torturing them hideously. In one case for instance, an eye-witness spoke of a man tied and trussed up like a pig on a spit, beaten, forced to eat excrement for several days, until he died. In Honiara while I was there, a headless body was dumped in the central market with a note pinned to it saying the Prime Minister would be the next casualty. The head has never been recovered.

The militants, originally armed with knives and muscle, are now much more dangerous. Early this year, a group of them arrived in Malaita on board the Ramos II, a ferry that services the island twice a week, raided the police department downtown and made off with the entire arsenal.

There are caches of weapons and ammunition hidden away during World War II, which are now resurfacing in the hands of young men, many of whom with their headbands and camouflage appear enamoured of the Rambo image.

Such is the history, and now comes news of a coup attempt that sounds as much, from news reports, as an actual coup as an attempt. There are very few westerners in the Solomon Islands and other than the odd foray by Australian journalists, most of who cover the Solomons from a comfortable distance, there are few sources of information.

At a meeting of the Malaita diocesan council held at Bishop Brown’s Auki residence shortly before I completed my visit, the Bishop sounded this cautionary, and somewhat prophetic note:

“The ‘ethnic war’ cat has been let out of the bag and no matter what political solution is found, some will still follow it. While both the IFM (Isatabu Freedom Fighters) and MEF (Malaita Eagles Force) have some good reasons for their conflict, the two groups have both descended to a level of violence, torture and abuse not seen in the Solomons since pre-Christian times.

“Unless matters are settled very quickly, ‘ethnic tension’ will become ‘ethnic war’ resulting in the collapse of the nation in all ways – politically, economically, culturally, educationally, medically, etc. It is strange that the two militant groups do not see this possible future and that they are not more moderate and more reasoned. There is a danger that a pattern is being set for the future.”

Given this week’s news, opportunities for moderation and reason may now have slipped by.

Vianney Carriere is General Synod’s Editor of Print Resources and editor of MinistryMatters. He recently completed a six-week visit with Bishop Terry Brown as part of a sabbatical.

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