Asia-Pacific, Headlines

SOLOMON ISLANDS: ‘Australian Peacekeeping Has an Agenda’

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Oct 4 2007 (IPS) - A survey of Solomon Islanders showing widespread support for the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) has been rejected by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who says that the timing of the survey highlights the ‘true agendas’ behind the deployment of RAMSI.

Released last week, the findings of the People’s Survey 2007 demonstrate overwhelming support for RAMSI. 90 percent of the 5,154 respondents said they support RAMSI’s presence in the former British colony. 53 percent said that violence would return to the Solomons if RAMSI were to leave soon, while a further 27 percent said violence would “maybe” return if this happened.

Tim George, RAMSI Special Coordinator, says these results provide encouragement for the assistance mission.

“It is good to have such strong feedback from the community saying, yes, please help us to rebuild Solomon Islands,” he says.

RAMSI was deployed to the Solomon Islands in 2003 – following five years of civil unrest – with the stated goal of working for “a peaceful, well-governed and prosperous Solomon Islands.”

Led by Australia and with the support of New Zealand and 13 other Pacific Island nations, RAMSI sees its mission, called Helpem Fren (Helping Friend) in Pidgin English, as a long-term partnership between itself and the people and government of the Solomon Islands.

But while RAMSI has welcomed the results of the survey – conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) with the assistance of the National Statistics Office – Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has rejected the validity of the poll.

According to Sogavare, the release of the findings “was yet another indication of the true agendas behind the deployment of RAMSI.”

In an emailed response to IPS, a Sogavare spokesman says that the “true agendas” behind the deployment of RAMSI refers to the deployment having “more to do with Australian interests in the region than that of Solomon Islands itself.”

Sogavare says that Australia’s involvement in the Pacific, especially in the Solomon Islands, is aimed at advancing Australia’s strategic and security interests both in the region and the world at large.

Australia is acting on fears that “terrorists” would pose a threat to Australia and the United States if they were to infiltrate small Pacific island states, says the Prime Minister.

That Australia is only involved in the Solomon Islands for its own interests was shown in 2000 when Australia refused a request by then-Prime Minister, Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, to intervene in the country, says Sogavare.

The Prime Minister argues that “the military approach endorsed by Canberra and advanced by RAMSI is one of the major agendas of Australia to pursue its strategic interests.”

Sogavare says that the release of the survey’s findings shortly before the Parliament plans to review the Facilitation of the International Assistance Act (FIAA) “was purely meant to disturb the government’s focus.”

The review is expected to be undertaken when parliament sits in November, according to a Sogavare spokesman.

While the review is not aimed at expelling RAMSI, “the current intention of the government is to revisit the FIAA and make adjustments to RAMSI to suit the present situation,” says Sogavare.

RAMSI’s Tim George is concerned at the proposed review of the FIAA. He says these concerns include “a serious lack of transparency” regarding the government’s intentions with the FIAA.

The proposed review, as outlined by the Solomon Islands attorney-general, “is a very flawed and muddled document,” says George.

But Sogavare, responding to questions from IPS, also criticised the military aspect of RAMSI.

“The Government wants to ensure that the partnership between RAMSI and the Solomon Islands Government take a more developmental approach rather than the current military approach engaged by RAMSI,” says Sogavare.

Approximately 140 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel – the mission is named Operation Anode – accompanied by troops from New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, support the Royal Solomon Islands Police and other participating police forces.

Tim George says that RAMSI is receiving “mixed messages” from the Government. While Sogavare and other ministers and members of parliament acknowledged RAMSI’s efforts during August’s parliamentary session, RAMSI has also been vilified, he says.

“At the same time the Prime Minister has accused RAMSI of being a ‘tool’ of Australian efforts to recolonise Solomon Islands,” says George.

This dispute is the latest in a series of clashes between the Solomon Islands government and Australia and its representatives. Relations have been strained over who was responsible for the April 2006 riots in the capital, Honiara, which occurred in the aftermath of last year’s elections.

Last year’s expulsion of the Australian ambassador to the Solomons, allegedly for meddling in local politics, also strained relations, as did Australian attempts – opposed by the Solomons – to extradite the Solomon Islands attorney-general, Julian Moti, on charges relating to child sex offences.

Prime Minister Sogavare is also critical of other aspects of the survey, such as the involvement of the Solomon Islands’ National Statistics Office (NSO) and the number of respondents.

“The claim that the survey was conducted with the assistance of the NSO was basically made to give some credibility to the survey itself and its findings,” he says.

Tim George rejects this allegation, saying that it is “an independently conducted annual survey of a representative sample of the population.”

In a letter to the editor of the Solomon Star newspaper, Simon Cann-Evans, the general manager of the projects division of ANU Enterprise, which conducted the People’s Survey, also rejects Sogavare’s assertions.

Apparently referring to RAMSI’s upcoming annual performance report, Cann-Evans says that “the release of the data at this time is essential as the data are to be used by RAMSI to improve assistance to the people of the Solomon Islands.”

“The survey is neither biased nor marginal and to say so is both untrue and demeaning to the many thousands of Solomon Islanders who gave their time and effort to participate in the survey – who wanted their voice heard,” writes Cann-Evans, who also describes the more than 5,000 interviewees as “representative.”

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