Despite the many years of New Zealand participation in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), understanding of the politics of that country remains minimal. The recent disturbances in Honiara, culminating in the burning down of much of the city’s Chinatown district, brought the affairs of the Solomon Islands back into the New Zealand headlines. So too did the deployment of New Zealand police and troops. But listening to the TVNZ One News last night (Friday 10th December) sounded like a faint echo of the weak interpretations of the historic conflict in that country that were circulating two decades ago:
TVNZ Pacific Correspondent Barbara Dreaver: ‘Beneath the surface, the real issues that caused this unrest are still bubbling along. It’s the difference between Malaita and Guadalcanal. These two are at loggerheads and these issues are still there. So when New Zealand and the other international peacekeepers leave, it's a little bit like taking a plaster off. The wounds are still very much there. New Zealand was there for 14 years after a civil war as part of a peacekeeping force. I remember in 2017 Solomon Islanders said to me “we are so worried about the mission ending because we think that there will be more trouble” and they were right’.
Interviewer: ‘Where is this heading?’.
Dreaver: ‘I feel like many that the situation is deteriorating. And that’s because the deep divisions between Malaita and Guadalcanal are just so stark at the moment. There’s a real power tussle going on between the two’.
One can only just count the errors in that coverage on the fingers of one hand.
Second, the current 2021 conflict has been one between the Malaita Provincial government and the national government, not between ‘Malaita’ and ‘Guadalcanal’. Malaitan grievances against the national government and particularly against Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (who hails from Choiseul Island) are several, including an objection to a disputed 2019 switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Efforts by the national government to engineer a ‘no confidence’ vote against Malaita provincial premier Daniel Suidani encouraged many Malaitans in Auki (the provincial capital) to rally behind their embattled leader, and then to descend on Honiara demanding that the Prime Minister himself resign. That protest triggered broader unrest which rapidly descended into rampant urban looting.
Third, it is true that many Solomon islanders were apprehensive about RAMSI’s departure in 2017, but the mission had been reduced to a tiny fraction of its 2003 level even by 2013, and it diminished still further over the subsequent four years. During those years, as well as after RAMSI’s conclusion, periodic urban disturbances did occur, but were mostly effectively handled by the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF). In 2021, the RSIPF was eventually able to bring the rioting in central Honiara under control, but the local police force was clearly poorly prepared to handle the scale of disturbances encountered in the eastern part of the city.
Fourth, the presence of RAMSI did not stop major riots from taking place in Honiara in 2006. In the aftermath of a Prime Ministerial election in April of that year, the largely Australian ‘Participating Police Force’ – which was kept separate from the RSIPF – was unable to stop rioters from burning down numerous buildings in Chinatown. Situated towards the east of Honiara, close to large squatter settlements on the fringes of the city, the Chinatown district often bears the brunt of urban unrest. The large numbers who descended on Chinatown, both in 2006 and 2021, overwhelmed even a relatively well-trained police force.
Honiara does not need a sticky ‘plaster’ to temporarily cover up its ‘wounds’. The city has long been vulnerable to periodic outbursts of violence, often sparked by political controversies which then mushroom into broader disturbances that scapegoat Honiara’s Chinese businesses. The city swelled in size during the RAMSI years. Squatter settlements proliferated around the town’s fringes. Wealth differences grew more acute. Increasing numbers of expensive four-wheel drive vehicles with dark-tinted windscreens buzz up and down the Kukum Highway. Urban population planning remains negligible. Cheap deals to acquire land or property and business licenses are easy to obtain at the ministries, especially in weeks when civil servants do not receive their meagre pay. The sheer number of under-employed youths below 25 years of age hanging around in the city serves as a perpetual powder keg ever waiting to explode. None of those problems can be resolved overnight, but here in New Zealand we can at least make some greater effort to properly understand what is going on in that country.
Jon Fraenkel is Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington.