Unrest in the Solomons

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Last year violence erupted in the Solomon Islands, disrupting a history of relative peace in the Pacific archipelago. Since September of 1998 an armed militia group called the Guadalcanal Indigenous Revolutionary Army has terrorized mostly Malaitan inhabitants on Guadalcanal province. The militants have attacked villages and driven more than 40,000 Malaitans off the island. Following an attack by the insurgents on the Malaitan village of Binu, the governor-general declared a State of Emergency on June 15th, and martial law was instated.

At the height of the militant attacks, Guadalcanal settlers overcrowded dilapidated boats that ferried them from Port Honiara to Malaita, 30 kilometers away. Most were Malaitans, who made up half of the Guadalcanal population. Fleeing Malaitans feared for their lives; it was clear they were being targeted.

The Honiara Peace Accord brokered in late June called for a cessation of violence. Signed by the Malaitan Premier and the Guadalcanal Premier, it was, by August, "unraveling fast." (Wickham, 1999). In the following months the militants were still armed, and neither they nor the provincial government seemed to want the Malaitans to return.

The Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, also known as the Isiantabu (the Isatambu Freedom Movement/Fighters) or the Guadalcanal Liberation Army, has been estimated at 5,000 strong, though reports vary. The militants were armed with homemade rifles and antique rifles excavated from World War II caches. Despite international peacekeepers' efforts to disarm insurgents, occasional criminal outbreaks continue, though authorities are uncertain whether they are related to ethnic tensions. The most recent renewal of violence was on January 17th, 2000 when armed robbers seized a truckload of arms at the Auki Armory.

Analysts of last year's events have called the situation the result of decades of resentment felt by Guadalcanal locals for being second class and landless citizens in relation to the more prosperous Malaitan settlers. The current socioeconomic structure on Guadalcanal can be traced back to the famous World War II battle, when the United States captured a half-built airstrip from Japan in what is now Honiara. Laborers flooded in from the neighboring island of Malaita to work on the strip, and eventually it became the center of commercial activity and the capital of the Solomon Islands. Meanwhile, the new Malaitan inhabitants became the business and political elite on the island. The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, is also Malaitan, as are most of the members of the police and military forces -- facts which have polarized Malaitan and Guadalcanal identities. The grievances delineated in the Peace Accord constitute a narrative of the Guadalcanal people and their dispossession of land, power, and wealth.

Another reported cause of the eruption of last-year's hostilities was the politicization of the different islander-identities by political leaders. At a handing-over ceremony of land near Honiara in December of 1998, the Guadalcanal Premier Ezekiel Alebua made statements saying that other settlers in Honiara must respect Guadalcanal people and their cultures. He also demanded the national government pay compensation for the capital, Honiara, being in his province. Criminal violence erupted soon thereafter; bombs were planted on oil plantations, houses were burned, and Malaitan people were driven from their villages. The provincial government has been pressing for local rights ever since the Solomon Islands' independence from Britain in 1978. It seeks the halt of new migration and the return of lands inhabited by Malaitans to locals -- goals the militants are now pursuing with force.

Residual effects of the unrest include ruined tourist and export economies. Warning travel advisories issued by Australia and the U.S. (among others) have greatly diminished tourism. Solomon Islands Plantations Ltd., a palm-oil farm that accounts for a fifth of the country's $370 million GDP, has shut down; its Malaitan employees remain refugees in neighboring islands, with no sign of a welcomed return.

References

Field, M. (1999, August). Fragile Peace for Solomons. Pacific Islands Monthly. Pp. 38-39.

Field, M. (1999, July). Ethnic Tension Worsens in the Solomons. Pacific Islands Monthly. Pp. 24-27.

Field, M. (Dec. 6, 1999). Ethnic Tension Easing in the Solomon Islands: Commonwealth Peace Monitors To Remain. Agence France-Presse. http://www.afp.com/en

Wickham, D. (1999, Aug. 16). Solomon Islands: Rebels of the Pacific. Kabutaulaka, T. T. (1999, Fall) Political Reviews: Melanesia: Solomon Islands. The Contemporary Pacific. Pp. 443- 449

Radio Australia. (January 7, 2000) Shootout at Solomon Islands Gold Mine Could Mark Return of Rebels. Pacific Islands Report.

Radio Australia. (January 17, 2000) Armed Robbers Seize Truckload of Arms in Solomon Islands. Pacific Islands Report.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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