Random Play by Graham Reid

The Solomon Islands: A Situation Report

At the tail end of 2002 I spent two weeks in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, on an assignment for the New Zealand Herald. Let me give you some background to the current problems, and also offer a picture of what Honiara is like.

The airport -- not unpleasant but rundown -- is to the east of Honiara. On the way into the capital along the coastal road you pass the Chinatown area (referred to frequently as “the heart of the business district” but it is little more than a few streets and looks like Deadwood or some other scrappy wild west town), and then further on you get to the centre of Honiara.

Central Honiara is smaller than Paeroa, in fact you can walk from one end to the other --- from the market to the Post Office -- in about 10 easy minutes. And there’s not much to see: stores, some government buildings, some office blocks no more than a few storeys high, open air “restaurants“, and people squatting everywhere because there is nothing to do other than chew beetle nut and spit the red juice onto the broken pavements.

Behind the main street are a couple of other roads but again, there ain’t that much to see or do.

The island of Guadalcanal itself is very beautiful in a typically tropical way, but Honiara is definitely Third World.

The tasteful parliament building is on a hill behind the town and the best place for a drink is the Point Cruz Yacht Club, a members-only place where you can sign in as a temporary member, sit around drinking SolBrew, and get the gossip. And there’s always plenty of that.

You can go beyond Honiara to the west but passable roads run out at White River. So from the airport to White River -- the safe zone as I was told on arrival -- takes about 20 minutes by car, and most of that time you are passing fields and a few houses. It ain’t a big place.

You can’t go further because the roads are so badly potholed and broken from flooding and slips that they are impassable. I stood in a pothole that came up to my waist.

Wealthy people -- and there are a few, more on them soon -- live in the hills behind Honiara. The police took me up there to show me where the then-prime minister’s special advisor had been shot at the day before I arrived. A guy had stepped out of the bushes as the car passed and fired a few shots through the boot and back window. It was a serious assassination attempt.

I stayed in a small motel on a hill above the market. Electricity was infrequent, phones unreliable (no one answered anyway) and because the politicians I was trying to find were elusive (“a moving target is harder to hit” as an Australian said) I spent a lot of time just wandering around talking to locals whom I found fierce looking (very black skinned, rebel t-shirts, permanent shades, expressionless faces in what looked like a scowl) but very good natured, quick witted and smart. They opened up easily and smiles were free.

So that’s what the place was like. I only once felt frightened -- there were gunshots in the night sometimes -- and that was when I went down to White River Village by myself, against the advice of locals I should say.

The village was a scrappy collection of huts and there was a menacing feel about the place. I was pinned in by two scowling young men with heavy sticks who took my cigarettes and said nothing, just circled me slowly. I left as soon as I could.

I had arrived in Honiara at the end of what was euphemistically called “the ethnic tensions” but which you and I might better refer to as massacres, beheadings, random shootings and other thuggery.

Here’s a brief overview of the complexity of the Solomons’ current situation.

Everyone agrees the country was not ready for independence in 1978, but it happened -- and, other than bad things, not much has happened since. The infrastructure broke down so roads and buildings started to fall apart (one guy said you could see rust growing on your computer if you turned it off, the air was that damp), and corruption became endemic.

It is a failed state in a region that is on a knife edge anyway, which is why it is important, especially to Australia.

Gun running through the porous borders of the Solomons is not uncommon, and there is a fear the place could be a haven for Islamists.

The Solomons’ culture has many layers: there is the wantok system (“one talk”) which loosely means you are connected to people who speak your language, or more correctly dialect. And there are about 100 different indigenous languages.

More specifically wantok means people from your village, and with these people you share. Wantok affects everything in the Solomons: if you have a shop and someone from your wantok comes in and takes something that’s okay. If your taxi driver is from your wantok you won’t have to pay.

All of which sounds charming, until you get to the police and judiciary. If a policemen is from your wantok he won’t arrest you, a judge from your wantok might just acquit you if you do come to court.

You can see where this leads: you naturally only give jobs to people in your wantok -- and that's nepotism by any other name.

Wantok paralyses the democratic process and means transparency in business is impossible.

Then there is another layer: the resentment between people on Guadalcanal (Gwales) and those from the nearby island of Malaita which lead to the “ethnic tensions”.

Malaitan people are generally recognised as more hard working and ambitious than the Gwales. Ever since the war, when Malaitans were brought over to help build the airport for the Americans, Malaitans have been working their way to the top in business and politics in Honiara. The Gwales resented this.

A further problem was that on Malaita the society is patrilineal, but on Guadalcanal it was matrilineal. So boys from Malaita -- and if you are 60 you are still a “boy” -- would come over and marry Gwale women and of course end up living on the best land.

In the late 90s some Gwales got utterly pissed off with this and formed the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army to serious kick some Malaitan arse. Many Malaitans fled back to their own island -- although a fair percentage had never lived there -- and the Malaitan Eagles formed.

On Malaita -- which is an astonishingly beautiful island and a terrifyingly slow 40 minute flight in a plane where you can see the rivets popping out -- I met a guy who explained their attitude: you hit me I hit you back twice.

The Malaitan Eagles went to Guadalcanal and beat the shit out of the GRA. There were random killings on both sides, people disappeared and the island of Guadalcanal must have been a nightmare. Add to that various tribal factions with machetes, the fact that the Eagles captured the armoury (such as it was), and a few mad bastards who just liked killing for its own sake and you had a terrifying situation.

A peace was brokered but it had a peculiar quirk in it: former rebels on both sides were made into “special policeman” who could now pick up a wage if they put down their weapons. Word was these guys just wrapped their guns in oilcloth, buried them in the garden and came to town and signed up for the money.

Of course there were an indeterminate number who simply didn’t exist but someone collected their wage for them. Or not.

The Solomons government didn’t have any money to pay these guys so basically you had some very pissed off people -- with access to guns -- who felt betrayed and were just itching to have a go. The day I left a couple of hundred “specials” came to town waving sticks, drinking SolBrew -- two and these boys are explosive -- and spoiling for a fight.

But wait, there’s more: corruption infects every aspect of Solomons government. Bribes and kickbacks (added to wantok protectionism) are the order of the day. Most of the previous government should be behind bars, they just took aid and development money and put it in their own pockets (to help out those in their wantok, of course).

Then you have The Big Unaddressed Issue: the influence of the Chinese and Taiwanese.

Businesses in Honiara are largely owned by local Chinese. You enter a shop and a Chinese owner is sitting by the till at the door. But you seldom see the Chinese anywhere else, they keep to themselves. They were the most invisible people I had ever not seen, until I found a small and very good Chinese restaurant behind the town. That was where they would meet and do business.

The overseas Chinese and Taiwanese are pumping money into the Solomons because they can see the mineral, fisheries and logging potential.

On paper the Solomons should be a wealthy place, but of course corrupt politicians have very deep pockets.

So there has long been a seething resentment amongst Solomon Island people -- whether they be Gwales, Malaitans or from whatever wantok -- against the Chinese who they see as taking their money, their land and buying their politicians. No surprises then that the Chinese-owned Pacific-Casino Hotel and shops in Chinatown -- where it struck me few Chinese lived actually, they are up in the cooler hills -- got hit hard in the riots.

Those who didn’t accept the appointment of Snyder Rini as the prime minister and went on a rampage have a point: he’s tarred with same brush as all the long-running politicians and it is widely accepted he’s a frontman for Chinese business interests.

So that’s the background, the Solomons is very broken and not easy to fix.

As recently as two years ago armed gangs were on the move outside Honiara.

Australasian military and police on the ground will be able to restore order, but cannot address the endemic problems the Solomons face which involve a cultural ethos which runs counter to the democratic process, deep seated resentment between Gwale and Malaitans which has not gone away, rage against overseas interests stripping the country of its natural assets (the Malaysians are in there boots and all too), and the usual mad bastards and wide boys who suddenly appear at times like these and are spoiling for a scrap. With anyone.

Let’s hope those specials don’t start digging up the guns.

PS: The two stories I wrote for the Herald about the situation in the Solomons -- more considered and poetic than this bare outline -- won me the Media Peace Award in 2003, judged by the very nice Jim Tully who took in good humour my previous posting here in which I deliberately misused his name. Cheers Jim.