Is peace in the Solomons Mission: Impossible?

By Ainsley Thomson

In the midst of the throng of ecstatic people celebrating Prime Minister Snyder Rini's resignation, Solomon Porau's jubilant mood suddenly disappears. Moments earlier the Honiara man had been grinning widely, exposing a mouth full of betel nut-stained teeth, and proudly declaring that the Solomon Islands would now move on and achieve peace.

But when the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands or Ramsi, as it is known, is mentioned, Porau's mood darkens.

"We want Ramsi to go home," the 31-year-old shouts.

His friends, crowded around him, nod in agreement. "Most people want Ramsi to go," he claims.

In Chinatown, the once-thriving shopping district almost totally destroyed in last week's riots, there is a stark message scrawled in green paint on a wall among the charred buildings, buckled corrugated iron, and debris: [Expletive] Ramsi.

The assistance programme - which has previously enjoyed near universal support among the Solomon Islands population - is now struggling with allegations that it failed to prevent last week's riots and that it protected the unpopular and allegedly corrupt Rini Government.

Surveys conducted by Dr John Roughan, who runs the Solomon Islands Development Trust, show the drop in Ramsi's popularity.

The first poll of 2500 people, taken in July 2003 just before Ramsi's mission began, recorded a 94 per cent approval rating for Ramsi. Six months later the same poll recorded 88 per cent approval. Roughan says it is now about 60 per cent.

Ramsi Deputy Special Co-ordinator Paul Ash said the organisation is keenly aware of public opinion.

The events of last week have the potential to overshadow some of the significant achievements Ramsi has made in the time it has been here.

"I think fundamentally the vast majority of Solomon Islanders want us here. You have to ask, what would have happened last week had Ramsi not been here?"

The riots sparked by Rini's appointment destroyed 60 businesses, with downstream effects for about a third of Honiara's population. The ramshackle Chinatown resembled a war zone this week, children and scrawny dogs picking through debris left behind by looters who took items such as televisions back to shanty towns without power. Smoke rose from burning rubbish piles.

Ramsi was specifically designed to return law and order to the troubled Pacific nation. After four years of violent social unrest, ethnic clashes between the people from Guadalcanal and the island of Malaita, and a 25 per cent drop in the GDP, the Solomon Islands Government requested help from its Pacific neighbours.

The result was an organisation which draws troops, police and civilian staff from New Zealand, Australia and a number of Pacific nations including Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, and has the support of the United Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth.

Paul Roughan, a fellow at the Solomon Islands Knowledge Institute and son of John Roughan, said adulation would be one way to describe attitude towards the Ramsi troops when they first arrived.

That sense of adulation was heightened when the mission enjoyed almost immediate success. A strong military presence, 1700 troops, was initially able to return order to the country. More than 3600 guns were seized or handed in, and 6300 people arrested. Among them were about 400 former officers from the troubled Solomon Islands police force, some of whom were charged with murder.

Ash said Ramsi has three key objectives; returning security and stability, rebuilding the machinery of government, and creating financial stability.

He said over the two years and nine months Ramsi has been in the Solomons it has enjoyed considerable successes.

The most visible was the return of law and order, but he said other improvements had also been made. Government departments are now functioning, new and untainted police officers have been recruited, there has been a dramatic improvement in technology, and for the last two years the economy has grown at between 5 and 6 per cent.

New Zealand's High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Brian Sanders, said the economic improvements were not just happening in Honiara, but also in outlying islands. He says Ramsi has given people confidence to be able to go about their daily business.

"Ramsi really has given Solomon Islanders another opportunity. But then, bingo, we had the events of last week."

Honiara businessman Patrick Leong, whose hotel, casino and restaurant were destroyed in the riots, echoes Sanders' words. He told Defence Minister Phil Goff, who made a 24-hour visit to Honiara on Thursday, that before the riots he had confidence in Ramsi's ability to control law and order, but now he did not think he would risk reinvesting.

John Roughan, originally from New York, has spent the last 48 years living in the Solomon Islands, studying their way of life and adjusting development methods to suit the country. He describes the Solomons as a series of villages, and believes many Westerners struggle to understand the culture.

Ramsi, he says, is particularly struggling, and is out of its depth trying to work in a country with over 60 languages and geographically spread over hundreds of rugged islands.

He believes Ramsi would benefit from spending more time in villages inducting staff into the culture, and says a Ramsi economy has been created in Honiara only which benefits just a few of the locals, causing resentment.

"The people have built up expectations around Ramsi. They expected their lives to become not just marginally better, but substantially better. But the poverty levels in the Solomons have not decreased, they have increased."

Paul Roughan says last week's riots were a blow to the credibility and success of Ramsi, but most Solomon Islanders still believe it is in their best interests that Ramsi remains.

"There will always be a small number of people who are willing to take violent action. I don't think that number has grown, but the number of people saying Ramsi should go home is definitely growing."

Paul Roughan says Ramsi agrees the troops need to develop a better understanding of the Melanesian culture and should spend more time with Solomon Islanders.

He believes it will be beneficial for more Pacific Islanders to gain top-level roles within Ramsi, because they have a greater understanding of the culture and what measures will work.

Paul Roughan, who lives in Honiara, has been working with Dr Bethan Greener-Barcham and Dr Manuhuia Barcham from Massey University's Centre for Indigenous Governance and Development to conduct research into whether Ramsi is delivering the best results it can. The trio say last week's riots reveal fundamental problems with Ramsi.

They believe there is uncertainty over Ramsi's commitment to the country, which feeds rumours and allows the public to be manipulated.

Paul Roughan says so many people in the Solomons have been involved in previous troubles or corruption that it is difficult to fill key police and government positions without such people being employed.

There is general agreement that the corruption amongst Solomon Islands' MPs is endemic, and affects both Rini's supporters and opposition MPs in equal numbers.

"The last Government was made up of people who were corrupt, and the next Government will be made up of people who are corrupt," Paul Roughan says.

Greener-Barcham says one of the key problems is that there is not enough involvement from Solomon Islanders in the rebuilding of the state.

Traditionally in the Solomon Islands the state has not played a big role in people's lives - that role has instead been filled by the church and community groups.

Greener-Barcham also believes people may be reluctant to become involved in the state that has previously been involved in corruption and violence.

"The placement of an Australian in the position of Accountant-General might not in itself be too overpowering. Yet combined with the fact that both the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Police are also still posts currently held by outsiders it is difficult to see where this process is heading in terms of the future of their own political destinies."

The trio say last week's riots provide Ramsi with an ideal opportunity to engage with Solomon Islanders and involve them in the processes.

Ash agrees that state building is a key function of Ramsi. "Ramsi's goal is a peaceful, well-governed and prosperous Solomon Islands."

He says the organisation is consulting with Islanders over the rebuilding.

"You will hear a different view coming out at the moment, because people are quite shocked at what has happened. Ramsi has a very active role of consultation. Obviously our role is a state building organisation."

Ash dismisses rumours Ramsi was protecting the Rini Government.

"We completely reject that. Ramsi operates completely neutrally in a political sense. Our role here is to uphold law and order and the constitutional processes of the Solomon Islands."

Sanders says New Zealand's commitment to the Solomons is partly due to the connections between the two countries and because New Zealand has a policy of looking after its Pacific neighbours.

"If you let one of your Pacific neighbours slow down, fall behind, then it is not good for our Pacific Community. We do have a responsibility to our Pacific neighbours and a healthy Pacific is something that is important for all New Zealanders."

Security was also a major motivation for the formation of Ramsi - the belief that lawlessness in the Solomons would make it a haven for criminals.

After last week's violence there is no end in sight for Ramsi's mission.

During his 24-hour visit to Honiara, Phil Goff said Ramsi would stay in Honiara for as long as the Solomon Islanders wanted it to.

Ash said that is the key message of the last two weeks - that the mission is a long-term project.

"The International Monetary Fund did a report last year that showed the Solomon Islands would need 20 years at 5 per cent growth before it is back to where it was in 1995. There is no magic solution that will prime that pump in a way that will get immediate benefit.

"We always knew this wasn't going to be easy and that there would be some bumps in the road."

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