The Guardian June 14, 2000


The Solomon Island conflict

The same problems of land ownership and forms of government underlie the 
conflict of the two opposing "freedom" fighter groups which has erupted 
into fighting in the Solomon Islands and led to the coup in Fiji.

Because the economic and political processes are similar in other Pacific 
Islands, including Papua New Guinea (PNG), similar conflicts can be 
expected in the future across the region which constitutes Australia's near 
north.

The Solomon Islands was formerly a British colonial possession. It won its 
political (but not its economic) independence in 1978.

The island of Bougainville, where a long struggle for independence is 
taking place, forms a natural part of the Solomon Islands group. But 
Bougainville was thrown in as part of Papua New Guinea by the imperialist 
powers as they withdrew from direct rule.

Colonialism disrupted the former patterns of land ownership and forms of 
government. Land ownership resided in tribal groups passed down from 
generation to generation through the matrilineal (or in some cases 
patrilineal) line. The land was effectively communally owned and 
cultivated.

The colonial powers introduced a cash economy and imposed a Westminister 
style of bourgeois democracy, thereby contesting with the former system of 
chiefs which had administered tribal matters.

Factors

Another factor in the Solomon Islands was the movement of people from the 
island of Malaita to the nearby island of Guadalcanal during WW2 when US 
armed forces occupied the Solomon Islands during the war against Japan. The 
Malaitans began to take up residence in Guadalcanal and gradually took up 
land there.

Towns sprang up, together with shops, the provision of goods for sale, etc. 
Some became workers in these shops and in the mines which were operated by 
big mining corporations.

Logging by foreign corporations in the Solomon Islands and in PNG also 
provided work but ripped out the natural wealth of the small and 
economically weak Island states.

The Solomon Islands has a gold mine which is now owned by Delta Gold. This 
mine could become a focal point of contest in the same manner that 
Bougainville Copper was closed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army but 
this does not yet appear to have become an issue in the Solomon Islands.

The population of the Solomon Islands has grown to the point where the 
existing economy no longer provides a livelihood and work for all.

Land ownership

This has led to further migration and the occupation of traditional lands 
belonging to others. This is the essence of the conflict in the Solomon 
Islands.

The Isatabu Freedom Movement from the island of Guadalcanal on which the 
capital city of Honiara is situated, and the Malaita Eagle Force from the 
adjoining island of Malaita represent the two contending groups.

The Malaita Eagle Force took control of the capital, Honiara, and deposed 
the elected Prime Minister.

At the very moment that there was talk of Australian "peacekeepers" being 
sent to the Solomon Islands a number of regional peace monitors made up of 
unarmed police from Fiji and Vanuatu pulled out last week following the 
take-over by the Malaita Eagle Force.

A mission from the Commonwealth ministerial action group made up of 
Australia's Foreign Minister and the Foreign Ministers of Botswana and 
Malaysia (Malaysia has extensive commercial logging interests in the 
Solomons) attempted to negotiate a settlement.

One suggestion was that the dispossessed landowners be provided with some 
monetary compensation presumably provided by Australia.

However, this seems to be no more than a short-term solution and will not 
meet the longer-term problems which have disrupted the traditional economic 
and political lives of the Solomon Islands people, whether they come from 
Malaita or Guadalcanal.

As far back as 1994 when Gordon Bilney was the Minister for Pacific Island 
Affairs in the then Labor Government, he said:

"The lack of economic development, when combined with high population 
growth rates, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and rapidly 
rising community expectations has led to a growing range of social and 
economic problems, including permanent environmental degradation."

Having correctly presented the problems his solution was "public sector 
reform and private sector development". He said: "We believe that a 
confident and growing private sector is one of the keys to the success of 
any trade and investment strategy."

Disastrous consequences

It is this approach that Australian Governments have been attempting to 
foist on all Pacific Island nations with disastrous consequences.

If Australian forces, in whatever guise, are sent to "keep the peace" in 
the Solomons or any other of the Pacific Islands, it is this policy that 
they would be charged with upholding.

The Pacific Islands are rich in natural resources of timber, fish, minerals 
and as tourist destinations. But the people of these islands cannot gain 
the benefits of these resources while they are ripped-off by Delta Gold, 
Bougainville Copper, BHP or other big corporations.

The same situation confronts Fiji, PNG, West Papua, East Timor and other 
small island states.

It is as well that the urgings of the gung-ho Labor leader, Kim Beazley, 
who wants to rush in Australian "peace-keepers" should not be acted on. 
They may achieve a short-term peace but will only exacerbate the problems 
in the long run.

While it is not possible to return to the conditions which existed before 
colonialism, the struggle by the indigenous people of these states is 
directed, at present, against the consequences of colonialism and the 
effects of private enterprise economic policies on their countries.

But within these struggles there are elements of a return to communal and 
collective ownership of land, grassroots democracy as against bourgeois 
democratic forms, and control over their natural resources.

The struggle to achieve real independence and the establishment of a social 
and economic system that will make them the owners of their land and its 
resources and in which all will be able to share collectively, rather than 
have the wealth of their states creamed off by largely foreign enterprises, 
will take many years.

However, all progressive organisations and individuals can help these 
former colonial people who continue to suffer the consequences of private 
enterprise exploitation and a type of neo-colonialism.

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