Letter from Malaita, the Solomon Islands: A nation in crisis

The following is adapted from two letters by Bishop Terry Brown of Malaita, received last week by some of his Canadian friends. They are the first communications from Bishop Brown since the coup in the Solomon Islands which he describes.

Although I write this letter in Auki, if all works out, you will receive it from Vanuatu. I am planning to go to Vanuatu for two weeks tomorrow on the MV Southern Cross (2 ½ days at sea) for the ordination to the priesthood on North Pentecost of Deacon George Loli, who has been working in the Diocese of Malaita and living in the Bishop’s House, and the consecration of the new Bishop of Vanuatu, Canon Hugh Blessing Boe in Santo. We are still without international air and mail service and, in Auki, without telephone service. The last two weeks have been crisis-filled. I have listened to it all from a peaceful Auki and continued with diocesan programmes. I was supposed to fly to Honiara the morning of the coup but the plane did not show up. I have never listened to SIBC and the short wave radio so much.

It was clear in the last few weeks that something had to happen. The Isatabu Freedom Movement (defender of the land rights of some of the indigenous people of Guadalcanal, opposed to Malaita settlers and some other Guadalcanal indigenous groups) was again beginning to press on the borders of Honiara, moving in large numbers of young fighters. The Malaita Eagle Force established its camps in Honiara, recruiting from jobless Malaita youth in Honiara, and began intensive training with the support of some members of the paramilitary Police Field Force. The government and police as a whole were unwilling and/or unable to act, partly because of ethnic splits within themselves. As police checkpoints fled IFM raids, the MEF gradually took them over.

Finally, early morning of Monday, June 5th, the Malaita Eagle Force and elements of the Police Field Force (with the cooperation of sympathetic Malaita police) took over the Central armoury, all the Honiara police stations, the radio station (SIBC), Telekom (cutting all telephone lines to the outside world) and overwhelmed the Prime Minister’s security guards, putting the PM under house arrest and demanding his resignation. Honiara completely closed down for three days. Using its new weaponry, the MEF/PFF Joint Operation then launched an attack on the IFM at the front line at Alligator Creek, just east of the international airport. Fighting went on for two days and included the Joint Operation’s shelling of the Guadalcanal coast with the 50mm guns of one of the government’s patrol boats. The patrol boat, a gift of the Australian government, was meant for monitoring foreign fishing vessels and its military use particularly enraged the Australian government. At the same time, pressed by the MEF, the IFM began making raids on the vehicles and equipment of the Australian gold mine (Ross Mining) in the Guadalcanal interior. It staff had to be evacuated by helicopter.

Condemnation of the attempted (now successful) coup came from everywhere and the MEF backed off, releasing the Prime Minister from house arrest and vowing that the election of the new PM would be by constitutional means. But the damage was done. Foreign embassies and high commissions began advising their nationals to leave as soon as possible. However, because the fighting was so near to the airport, insurance companies refuse to insure any international carriers to land. (European Parliamentarians leaving on a chartered domestic flight three days after the coup attempt said their plane was fired upon as it waited at the end of the runway.) In the last few days, hundreds of expatriates have left by military ships and aircraft provided by Australia and New Zealand. Even expatriates working in very peaceful areas have been urged to leave. Volunteers (Peace Corps, VSO’s, European Union staff, etc.) have been ordered out against their will.

This is the first time I have seen the evacuation of expatriates, even where there was no real security threat, as a lever of political change. It may prove to be effective but with the destruction of the economy of the country as a side effect. (Despite strong talk Australia has handled Fiji rather gently because of its own economic interests there; with much less to lose in the Solomons, Australia has been very hard nose.) It is not clear that the Australian government distinguishes between actions that support its legitimate foreign policy goals (the return to constitutional government, the return of security to the police, a negotiated peace settlement) and those that are very destructive to the lives of ordinary Solomon Islanders (the collapse of the cash economy). Australia may succeed in the former but the latter may well be another result, probably preparing the way for Australia to enter with humanitarian aid, the new hero. (It should be noted that since Australia looks after Canada’s interests in the South Pacific, this is apparently also Canada’s policy. The Australian High Commission advised all Canadians, even those not in danger, to leave immediately.)

While both the IMF and the MEF have declared that their conflict is not with expatriates, both groups have occasionally harassed foreigners. In any case, most of the country’s expatriates have left. In the Diocese, we have lost our two Peace Corps staff at Airahu Training Centre and the VSO water supply engineer at RWSS, as well as Frank and Josephine Faulkner and family from Kokomu, Auki. We will miss them. Unfortunately, many visitors to Honiara left in fear and relief, vowing, I am sure, never to return. Auki has been quiet except for some MEF rowdiness. As your Bishop, I do not intend to leave, despite all the advisories for Canadian citizens to do so.

The escalation of militant activity and the rapid evacuation of all the country’s expatriates have probably destroyed the country’s cash economy. Virtually all the government’s sources of revenue have disappeared. Government employees, including teachers and health workers, may soon be laid off. (Most expatriate teachers and doctors have already left.) Honiara is emptying out as businesses close and everyone goes home to live off the land and sea. Because the land and sea are rich, though becoming short, people will not starve, but the quality of life will decline. In Auki already we have no telephone service, no incoming mail, no rice, limited banking service, limited water, breaks in electricity, no kerosene. Inflation is sure to come. Always people have the blessing of the subsistence economy to fall back on but even it is coming under the strain of overpopulation. On the bright side, we have lost all our Asian logging companies, which will be good for the long-term economic future of the country.

I am not very optimistic at this point that the militant groups will be easily satisfied. The Australian and New Zealand governments have promised to pay the Guadalcanal Malaitans’ compensation claims but only if they return their arms to the government and enter into the peace process. The MEF do not want to turn in their arms until the compensation is paid. The Isatabu Freedom Movement are a diverse lot with many agendas. It is not so clear they even want to be a part of the Solomon Islands.

At this point, the leadership of the Governor General, Sir Fr. John lni Lapli, is crucial. He has called together a 12-member multiparty peace committee which is trying to meet with the leaders of the two militant groups. While the former Prime Minister was pushed out in a wrong way, it was also very clear he had to go. Much depends on finding a new leader of integrity, intelligence and energy, trusted by all sides.

Auki has been quiet through all of the above, except for the biweekly arrival of the MV Ramos which often contains Malaita Eagles coming home for a break or to collect food. They are sometimes drunk. Last week they fired their rifles off into the air, frightening the market crowd.

The churches, including the Diocese of Malaita, continue to be deeply involved in peacemaking and reconciliation. The Melanesian Brothers continue with their mission to both militant groups and have frequently prevented violent conflicts. Church leaders, including Archbishop Ellison, have tried to meet with all parties to the conflict. The lsatabu Freedom Movement, as a neo-custom movement, is not very friendly to church influence. The Solomon Islands Christian Association has worked hard at facilitating peace talks. The Roman Catholic Bishops and South Seas Evangelical Church leaders have spoken and witnessed tirelessly. I think it would be fair to say that the leadership of both movements are not people with strong church commitments (with the exception of some of the police) but politicians, lawyers, ex-police and businessmen who are secular or neo-custom in their outlook. The fighters are also often lapsed members of the evangelical churches that have excommunicated them for smoking or chewing betel nut. Many cannot read or write. Many of the IFM members are nominal Roman Catholics or members of the neocustom Moro Movement. My impression is that there is not a large number of active Anglicans in either group, except some lawyers and police supporting either the MEF or IFM.

There is still hope, that with good leadership from the Governor General and the new Prime Minister, with the good will of the militant groups and with support from friendly governments, the crisis will eventually be reversed. Here, the leadership of the churches remains crucial.

I have gone on with the programme of the Diocese. Last weekend I went up to Ngongorefou in northeast Malaita for the Northern Region’s Centenary celebrations. A crowd of 3,000-4,000 came together peacefully for a week to celebrate the arrival of Fr. Arthur Hopkins and the martyrdom of Thomas Amasia and James Ivo almost 100 years ago. Fortunately my new four-wheel drive Hilux arrived the week before the coup. Parish visits and confirmations go ahead. It is a bit of a shock to realize I have done 4,500 confirmations in my first four years as a Bishop.

The Bishop’s House continues to be a pleasant place. We enjoyed the sabbatical visit of Sam Carriere of Anglican Church House Toronto in April-May. He bore well the mud of Malaita and managed to get away before all the troubles exploded. We also enjoyed the short visit of Michael, Paula, and Emma Letki from St. Anne’s, Toronto, and were sorry they could not stay on to teach at Airahu Training Centre because of some health problems.

Ironically, all the above political stress has decreased my daily workload – no telephone calls or faxes, no mail, few visitors, etc. I have been able to catch up on administrative work and do more reading.

Yet in the midst of all this crisis, the Love of God, revealed through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, remains steady and unchanged. As Christians, we are called to deeper faith, confidence and commitment and to more effective ministry. As we have said so many times, in the midst of violence and retaliation, we are called to be peacemakers and agents of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ in the world. Unfortunately, many Christians (including some members of the Diocese) have become participants in the conflict, supporting or joining one or other of the militant groups. Some have felt it was the only way they could obtain justice for loved ones tortured or killed by the other militant group or for land and property stolen or destroyed. We need to recognize the legitimate anger and cry for justice which is behind both the groups. However, in the end, as Christians, we are called to forgive, to work peacefully for justice, not to retaliate, and to work towards restored unity in the Body of Christ. This must be our message to both the groups.

House mates and visitors have been a great support. We continue to enjoy cooking with the abundance of the Auki market – fresh tuna fish several times a week and a great variety of fruits and vegetables. Both our traditional Melanesian outdoor kitchen and my almost worn-out gas stove work full time. We have also been doing much gardening, putting in many flowering trees, orchids and other flowers. We have now had two lots of honey from our hive. “Chief” (the pig) and offspring continue to prosper. Please keep the Solomon Islands and all of us in your prayers. With love,

+Terry

 


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