Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Something Missing from the Solomon Islands Story

Thanks to EastSouthWestNorth for the link


When the Chinatown in a South Pacific nation is burned to the ground, allegations fly that the Republic of China funneled money into the political process and corrupted the elections, the overseas Chinese flee the country and turn to the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China for protection and evacuation assistance, it attracts the China watcher’s attention.

There’s something else, something important missing from most of the news stories, however—a discussion of the role of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and its interactions with Solomon Islands political strongman and magnet for corruption charges Sir Allen Kemakeza and his protégé Snyder Rini.

Smoldering indigenous resentment of Chinese economic penetration, and reckless competition between Beijing and Taipei for influence in the South Pacific, both undoubtedly played significant roles in the incident.

The Solomon Islands is one of 25 countries that recognize Taipei, providing this impoverished nation with financial opportunities and dangers otherwise beyond its scope.

A major source of Sir Allen Kemakeza’s alleged graft during his term as Prime Minister was his use of a compensation fund for victims of previous ethnic conflicts as his personal piggy bank in 2001 and 2002.

The fund was underwritten by the Taiwan Ex-Im Bank, and Kemakeza was allowed to control it. That provenance, and the fact that Kemakeza and his secretary received the two largest payouts from the account, lead one to speculate it was set up by the Taiwanese government to serve as his private slush fund.

But that wasn’t all.

Earlier this year, the head of the Solomon Islands’ Labor Party detailed accusations that the Prime Minister’s office used covert “Special Project Funds” from the ROC to bribe politicians:

Tuhanuku said he had uncovered the details of the scheme from information gathered from outgoing members of parliament and intending candidates in this year’s general election.

"Most of them are happy to boast about how easy it is to get money from Taiwan through the prime minister," he said.

He said when put side-by-side the arrangements and circumstances surrounding the funding of these special projects were strikingly similar in detail.

"Together they reveal a pattern of events that establishes a clear connection between the payment of monies by Taiwan and various political maneuverings by the Prime Minister," Tuhanuku said. "What it amounts to is that Taiwan is running a shadow aid program that is being used to corrupt our political processes and the prime minister is fully colluding with them."

"The request is processed and bingo! Taiwan’s dirty money comes flooding forward for the politician or candidate of the prime minister’s choice," he said yesterday.

Amusingly, Kamekeza had shown himself perfectly willing to yank Taiwan’s chain, despite (or because) of Taiwan’s desperate, no-holds-barred attempt to retain diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands.

In a documentary that described non-swimmer Chen Shuibian’s taking his first ever ocean plunge ever during his state visit to the Solomons in order to demonstrate Taiwan’s interest in the archipelago as a surf-tourism destination, Kamekeza had this to say in 2005 about the People’s Republic of China’s courtship of his regime:

PRIME MINISTER KEMAKEZA: The approached me and my ministers, my officers at the international conferences for bilateral discussion.

CAMPBELL: But there could be a time when the Solomon’s could switch recognition?

PRIME MINISTER KEMAKEZA: Maybe. I cannot predict the future.

Ouch!

The People’s Republic of China escaped political damage in the Solomon Islands crisis, presumably not because of any greater probity—it recently engaged in a successful checkbook slugfest with Taiwan over Vanuatu—but because the Solomon Islands was still too busy nursing dry the Taipei teat to turn its attention to Beijing.

Kemakeza’s chosen successor, Snyder Rini, had the further China connection of belonging to the Association of Independent Members of Parliament (AIM), a political organization apparently under the thumb of its president, “local naturalised Chinese business tycoon” Sir Thomas Chan.

During the run-up to the vote for Prime Minister, Chan apparently grabbed two independent MPs arriving at the airport and attempted to detain them at his Honiara Hotel—which also served as Rini’s campaign headquarters-- for some impromptu coalition building before they were extracted with no little difficulty.

The result of all these alleged shenanigans was that, even though an apparent majority of reform MPs had been returned in this year’s elections, they somehow turned around and voted Rini into power as Prime Minister.

The catastrophic riots of April 16 and 17, 2006 were the result. Not unexpectedly, Chinese interests, regardless of their connection to Taiwan, were targeted and Chan’s Honiara Hotel was torched.

But one interesting element of the story is the setback Australia suffered executing its antipodean version of the global war on terror.

As a useful article in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian informs us, John Howard took seriously his appointment by George Bush as “sheriff” in Southeast Asia.

When the Solomon Islands sank into ethnic and factional strife in 2002 and Kamekeza called on Australia for help, Canberra abandoned its post-colonial aversion to intervention in the affairs of the neighboring states. There was talk of the dangerous vacuum a failed state in the region would create. What if the next domino to fall were…Papua New Guinea?

Thereupon, the Howard government dispatched RAMSI—the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands—force of about 2000 police and soldiers to restore order.

Though Australian personnel made up the bulk of the force, in the spirit of President Bush’s cry of “What about Poland? Don’t forget Poland”, let’s give a shout out to all the members of the mini-coalition: New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu and Nauru.

The term “shock and awe” was even employed, proudly and approvingly, as RAMSI forces swept the islands to disarm warlords and confiscate weapons.

For a while it looked like Australia had found the sweet spot in the post-9/11 world of military intervention.

The Solomon Islands is a rough, corrupt place and the appearance of a powerful, prosperous “honest broker” to take law and order in hand was apparently welcomed at first. Local troublemakers dispersed and the RAMSI forces could soon be drawn down to a few hundred people.

But according to a left-wing regional website—and apparently the Solomon Island’s own bishop--Australia might have avoided an Iraq quagmire but found itself in something like Haiti: an impoverished, factionalized nation cracking along class lines, where the temptation for the occupier to simplify matters by choosing sides may have proven too strong:

Writing in the January 18 Solomon Star newspaper, Solomons Anglican Bishop Terry Brown, who had initially supported the RAMSI intervention, observed that “there is a major disparity between RAMSI’s rhetoric of staying for ten to 15 years in the Solomons, bringing peace and prosperity, and the reality of re-emerging violence, increasing poverty and unemployment, high school fees, a downward-spiralling economy, higher inflation and lower incomes, declining medical services, ongoing corruption in government ministries, lack of planning and implementation of how Solomon Islanders will competently run all parts of their own government, crumbling infrastructure, millions and millions of RAMSI funds spent on Australians with the money going back to Australia with minimum cash benefit for Solomon Islanders, continued centralizing of everything in Honiara, etc.”

Doug Lorimer, Solomon Islands: Howard Props Up Corrupt Regime, Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2006

The Solomon Islands had been run by allegedly corrupt bastards, one of whom, Kemakeza, had invited the RAMSI forces in. Corruption had not been cleared up while the economy continued to limp along and government officials continued to enrich themselves and their friends. RAMSI ignored the issues of graft and entrenched power, and settled into the role of the bored and not particularly friendly cop on the block.

From David Stanley’s South Pacific Travel Blog:

RAMSI appeared to be propping up the Kemakeza government through military and economic aid. The Australian High Commission even pressured opposition politicians like Fred Fono to support Kemakeza, to give the appearance of stability so European Union aid money would be released.

The Australian RAMSI contingent was unpopular among Honiara residents. They appeared sullen and hostile, wouldn't say hello on the street, sped around in official vehicles without regard for other traffic, refused to allow their helicopters and planes to be used for humanitarian purposes, and hung out among themselves in expensive Chinese restaurants, most of which were burned down last week. The RAMSI presence led to a sharp jump in rental accommodation prices and an increase in prostitution.

Stanley also makes the very interesting allegation that the deciding factor in the RAMSI intervention was that Kemakeza had been shopping his country’s security needs to Indonesia as well as Australia. This consideration may have compelled Australia to be sensitive and flexible in response to Kemakeza’s priorities, in order to ensure that peace and progress in the Solomon Islands would remain part of the white man’s glorious burden and not get outsourced to Jakarta instead.

With such a background—and Kemakeza’s bargaining power--it would be understandable if the invitation to Australia to intervene would include the understanding that any aggressive law enforcement would be directed at Kemakeza’s enemies and not at his party.

This April the parliament elected the current allegedly corrupt bastard, Snyder Rini (Kemakeza’s anointed successor and ex-Finance Minister), as Prime Minister amid allegations that he had obtained money from the local Chinese businessmen (and they perhaps had received the money from the ROC) in order to buy the votes of opposition MPs—some of whom had been elected on a reformist ticket.

The capital city exploded and, as we all know, Chinatown got burned to the ground as punishment for colluding in Rini’s re-election.

But RAMSI was there taking the heat as well as it secured the parliament building and provided protection to Snyder Rini. Again, from David Stanley’s blog:

But the spark which actually ignited the rioting and led to the burning of numerous Chinese businesses scattered around the capital was tear gas fired by Australian members of RAMSI into a restive but still non-violent crowd waiting for answers outside the parliament building in Honiara. Later, RAMSI and local police they had trained stood by on the left bank of the Mataniko River and took no action as a mob of around 1,000 Solomon Islanders looted and burned Chinatown on the river's right bank. Honiara's Chinese community, a large majority of whom took no part in the corruption and exploitation practiced by a few of their fellows, was forced to flee.

RAMSI forces were treated roughly for their role in defending Rini and his discredited order, suffering injuries though thankfully no fatalities in the fracas, and having their vehicles burned.

What fueled the angry outburst in Honiara was something new and sad: the dangerous intersection of foreign money, muscle, and diplomacy.

Solomon Islanders felt they were losing control of their political as well as economic destiny.

From the Green Left Weekly:

“This is worse than the ethnic crisis last time”, Solomon Islands Labour Party leader and former MP Joses Tuhanuku told the Australian. He said that “people feel they have lost control of their country” and that “the Solomon Islands is no longer in the hands of Solomon Islanders, it is now in the hands of the Chinese”, who “control the economic life of the country, and now they are working on taking over the political life of the country”.

The crisis illustrates the perils of intervention, in their military and monetary forms.

On the Australian side, it shows how easy it is for foreign powers embedded in near-failed states to give up on the very difficult job of nation-building and backslide to the easier and lazier habits of occupation and factional politics.

It also shows how rapidly resentment of a foreign military presence, no matter how benign, can serve as a rallying point for a political movement…and inflict collateral damage on a largely innocent non-indigenous population.

On the Taiwan side, it also demonstrates how foreign money, disbursed carelessly, cynically, and with lax controls, can corrupt and perhaps even overwhelm the political system of a small country.

The Solomons experienced the worst of both worlds, afflicted by the recklessness of local political assets confident they had Chinese money (in this case from the ROC) and first-world muscle (RAMSI) backing them up.

Thanks to the one-night spasm of violence, the Solomon Islands’ commercial and investment base has been destroyed and it is now unfortunately another decade behind in its desperate struggle to regain the 1970s levels of personal income and services it enjoyed at independence.

That’s a disaster, and should stand as another object lesson of the dangers of applying the big money and the big guns to fragile nations and societies.

Of course, that’s not the takeaway for the Australian government and press, now happily reporting Rini’s resignation and the return of RAMSI-supervised democracy to the Solomon Islands

Let’s turn to The Australian for the conventional wisdom instead:

There are many lessons from this week's tragedy. One is that Australia desperately needs a larger army. As Neil James of the Australian Defence Association points out, the horror scenario is a crisis in PNG which the Australian army is not big enough to deal with. One way or another, the Australian military, police and broader institutional involvement in the South Pacific is bound to increase.

On to Papua New Guinea! That’s the spirit!

That’s what’s missing from the Solomon Islands story: common sense, that’s all.

31 comments:

ChinaLawBlog said...

Great post. Thanks for doing such a thorough job on this fascinating, but very difficult, subject.



china law

Ivan said...

"When the Solomon Islands sank into ethnic and factional strife in 2002 and Kamekeza called on Australia for help, Sidney abandoned its post-colonial aversion to intervention in the affairs of the neighboring states."

Who is "Sidney"? Or do you mean "Sydney"? Or do you mean the capital of Australia - Canberra?

Basic mistakes like this don't do much for your credibility, I'm afraid.

Sun Bin said...

Picking for typos? I have a lot more. :)

China Hand said...

Sidney, Sydney, Canberra. Very embarrassing. I made the change. Thanks for pointing out the error.

Solomon said...

Could you please amend part of your article. The statement
..Chan’s Honiara Hotel was torched. is 100% incorrect. Chan's Honiara hotel was protected by many SI police and RAMSI personnels therefore it did not get torched. RAMSI saw fit to just protect the interest of CHAN while did nothing to stop the looting and torching of nearby shops.

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