Issue 3, 2006 | Debra McDougall

New Interventions, Old Asymmetries: Australia & the Solomon Islands

This essay was drafted in early September 2005 before the recent diplomatic standoff between Canberra and Honiara. A postscript has been added to comment on these developments.

The Solomon Star newspaper reported in July that the newly appointed Permanent Secretaries received a substantial raise. They were earning SI $60,000 (approximately AUD $11,500) and are now to be paid SI $91,000 (just over AUD $17,000); a salary thought high enough to attract better candidates and encourage higher quality work.1 This means that the highest ranking government administrators in the nation of Solomon Islands, after a 30% wage increase, still earn less than modestly-funded Australian postgraduate students.

This example signals a crucial but rarely acknowledged problem in any attempt by Australians or others from the well-paid first world to intervene in the affairs of the Solomons—enormous economic inequality. This banal fact of Solomon Islands life, rather than any grand ideology, poses the biggest challenge to the current Australian-led intervention mission.

In June 2003, the Australian government reversed a policy of non-intervention and answered Solomon Islands Prime Minister Allen Kemakeza’s call for help to maintain order in a situation that had gotten steadily worse over the prior four years. Within Australia and New Zealand, support for or critique of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was framed in terms of Australia’s role in a global “war on terror” that we are told requires violent engagement. Worries are also expressed about possible imperialist aspirations. But Solomon Islands is not Iraq. Regardless of the way John Howard presents it and despite the terror many islanders suffered in the years before Australia found the political will to “help its neighbour,” RAMSI has precious little to do with global terrorism.

By putting an end to the violence in and around Honiara (the capital of the Solomons on the island of Guadalcanal), RAMSI earned the real gratitude of the vast majority of Solomon Islanders. Yet, the incredible good will of Solomon Islands citizenry may be starting to wane. This change of mood is not prompted by patriotic anti-colonialist sentiments. It seems to have more to do with inequalities in wealth and power that become obvious in the minor flotsam and jetsam of local events, including news of pay hikes for Permanent Secretaries. The riots of this past April, which ended in property destruction on a scale that exceeded anything that occurred during the height of the crisis when Australian Federal Police were not there to help maintain order, should unsettle those who might be complacent or self-congratulatory about the successes of the intervention.

Thank you, Uncle Howard

The fact that RAMSI has little in common with the “coalition of the willing” rallied for the Iraq invasion was obvious in the arrival of RAMSI in Honiara in July 2003. The joy and relief with which islanders welcomed RAMSI was not a fantasy of a pro-war administration or a photo-opportunity staged by a complicit media.

RAMSI troops came ashore in a swashbuckling imitation of the landing of Allied troops on Guadalcanal in 1942 and with an impressive (if practically unnecessary) show of military force. They really were greeted by smiling, waving civilians holding placards and singing songs. When Prime Minister Howard visited in August (the first visit by a Prime Minister of Australia in a decade), he really was greeted with a sign saying “Thank you, Uncle Howard.”3 Without a shot fired and without a single casualty,4 the majority of weapons were surrendered and militants who had carried out a reign of terror against their own relatives for years turned themselves in.

The conflict in the Solomons began in late 1998, when Guadalcanal militants (known first as the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army and then as the Isatabu Freedom Movement) began attacking settlements of people from the island of Malaita who had migrated in large numbers to the capital city of Honiara in years since national independence in 1978. By late 1999, nearly half of the population of Honiara had fled home to villages throughout the Solomons. In  June 2000, Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu was taken hostage in a joint operation of the Royal Solomon Islands police and the Malaita Eagle Force a militia that had taken effective control of the capital. In the provincial town of Gizo, Bougainvillean militants had come from the north to offer “protection” to the Western Province against the feared Malaitan incursion.5

Life in this “failing state” continued without the incredible disruption that one might expect although strains on local life were noticeable. I spent most of the conflict years in Western Province, on the island of Ranongga, conducting anthropological research. We suffered from shortages of fuel and transportation became more difficult; teachers and nurses were often not paid; shortages of medicine became an increasing problem. Citizens living in Honiara, on the weather coast of Guadalcanal, and in parts of Malaita overcrowded by returnees really suffered. I returned to the Solomons in July 2005 and spent some time talking to people who had remained in and around Honiara during the crisis years. Many had watched their property and livelihoods destroyed; they had endured threats of torture and death in order to do such things as transport much needed medical supplies from the International Red Cross to villages in Guadalcanal beyond the Malaita Eagle Force blockade. The coming of RAMSI meant that they could live without constant fear.

Imperialist anxieties

Announcing the plan for intervention in June 2003, Prime Minister John Howard assured the media: 

This is not some kind of colonial hangover exercise by Australia, it is a response to the request of a friend and the operation itself will carry the name of Operation Helpem Fren, which depicts very much the motivation of Australia and the sense of comradeship that we are extending to the people of the Solomon Islands.6

Accusations of neocolonialism did not come from the Australian Opposition Labour Party, which supported the intervention and blamed the Howard government only for waiting so long to commit resources to the problems.7

Paradoxically, such anxieties about Australian imperialism are imperialistic in their conception insofar as they assume the absolute centrality of Australia (side by side with former European colonial powers and the US) in Solomon Islanders dealings with the outside world. The role of Asia in the Solomon Islands is almost entirely ignored, aside from vaguely articulated fears of radical Muslim incursions from Southeast Asia;  the Solomons’ diplomatic relationships with the two Chinas and Japan along with the role of multinational corporations based in east and southeast Asia rarely figure into anxieties about imperialism. The importance of Asia in Solomon Islanders’ ambivalent engagement with a global order was revealed in the riots of April 2006, during which most of Chinatown in Honiara was burned to the ground amid accusations that Asian funds were used to bribe Parliamentarians during the selection of the Prime Minister. Savvy islanders have long jockeyed between the apparently benevolent agendas of Australia, New Zealand, and first world non-governmental organizations and the more explicitly self-interested economic agendas of Asian capitalists.8

On the eve of RAMSI’s arrival, many Solomon Island leaders voiced concerns about the nature of the Australian intervention.9 Why had the appeal for help been made secretly, without the knowledge of Parliament? Would the intervention bolster the government of Prime Minister Kemakeza, then accused of serious corruption? Why had Australia, this good neighbour, failed to respond to appeals for help from Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu before he was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2000 and then later from Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare when he was trying to implement the Townsville Peace Agreement? What legal mandate would preserve the sovereignty of the Solomons during this new kind of foreign intervention?

Ordinary islanders had fewer reservations about the Australian-led intervention. Many were unabashedly enthusiastic about outsiders coming to straighten out the mess they blamed on politicians and militants. Back in 1999 and 2000, as news of increasing disorder in Guadalcanal reached us in Ranongga, many of my Ranonggan friends asked me, half-jokingly, whether I couldn’t call up my president back in the US and have him come “bomb” all of the militants, Guadalcanal and Malaitan alike, and restore order to the Solomons. Even when we weren’t talking about the conflict, many islanders waxed nostalgic about how good things were during the days of the British Protectorate.

Independence came to the Solomon Islands less because of widespread anti-colonial sentiment (though there was some of this, particularly on the island of Malaita) but because of a rush to decolonise in the years following the Second World War when the United Nations articulated a vision of self-determination and formally equal nation states. Political scientist Stewart Firth calls attention to an irony regarding the decolonisation of the Pacific Islands in the years following the Second World War10 -- the economic benefits of a privileged connection to world powers outweighs a desire for full sovereignty. Calls for decolonisation from traditional colonial powers are often most vehement in situations in which full political independence is least likely. Moreover, the most committed independence movements in the contemporary Pacific are not against the bad old colonial powers, but against the new nations that resulted from world decolonisation after World War II—nations like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands.

Friendship or fear? Helping dangerous neighbours

Political scientist Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka has linked the intervention in the Solomons to that in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggesting that “although the nature of these conflicts, the context in which they occurred, and the issues involved, differed, the objectives and rationale for intervention was the same.”11 The abrupt turnaround of mid-2003 (in January, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer claimed any intervention would be the “folly in the extreme” but less than six months later, it was accepted as most “rational” policy choice12) occurred in the context of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Despite the spirit of comradeship that Howard claimed was the motivation for the intervention, the intervention was marketed as part of a broader politics of fear.13 

The official rhetoric of the intervention portrays an egalitarian relationship between friendly neighbours. Prime Minister Howard described it as “a very important exercise in Australia being a good neighbour” and Labor Party leaders also invoked the trope of the neighbour, referring to the Solomons as Australia’s “backyard.” Yet, neighbourly friendship is strained when visible destitution and disorderly living on one property lower the values and prestige of the whole neighbourhood. In the same speech, Howard explained that “It is important to Australia that things in our part of the world on our patch aren't allowed to deteriorate.”14

It is hard to find real evidence of concrete ways in which the instability of the Solomons is a major threat to Australian security. It was called “a Petri dish for transnational threats,” including drug smuggling, gun running, fraud and “perhaps” terrorism, because “the weakness of security institutions means that Solomon Islands' capacity to monitor people movements is poor.”15 Such comments are out of touch with the ordinary realities of an overwhelmingly Christian nation with small scale communities where outsiders are immediately apparent and where the communication and transportation structures required by modern criminals and terrorists are lacking.

Chaos in the Solomon Islands posed grave danger to the citizens of the Solomons, not Australia. Would it be hopelessly idealistic to hope for a world where helping a less fortunate neighbour really was reason enough for action?

Pragmatic approaches to real inequalities

An Oxfam study published earlier this year shows that Solomon Islander attitudes toward RAMSI are more ambivalent than has been generally reported by the mission itself or the Australian and New Zealand media.16 Ordinary islanders do not feel that RAMSI is listening to what people outside of the government have to say. The report also criticizes the overrepresentation of Australians in this regional mission, particularly in administrative positions. This is not necessarily because there are few qualified Pacific Islanders to fill the positions. Indeed, although the initial phase of RAMSI which involved expatriates knowledgeable about the Pacific, a senior Solomon Island academic suggested that Honiara has become “the new post-graduate training classroom for Australia,” where junior bureaucrats can get experience.17

Few Australians working with Solomon Island bureaucrats would enter their posts with an understanding of the commitments and constraints that these low paid administrators have to deal with. Australians may have to pay fees for their own children’s education (though only for private schooling and only a fraction of the amount relative to means that Solomon Islanders must pay for poor-quality public schooling). Few have had to struggle with obligations to pay the fees of nieces, nephews, and any cash-strapped youth from their hometown, as any employed Solomon Islander must do. The Oxfam report and RAMSI’s own statements have noted that other Pacific Islanders understand the “Pacific way” and can relate to Solomon Islanders better than many Australians. This is not just on some abstract level of culture. Islanders also have a better grasp of the economic and social pressures inherent in Solomon Islands life.

There is some irony in the fact that the Australian Federal Police operation in the Solomons was given a neo-Melanesian pidgin title (“Helpem Fren”). Today, most RAMSI personnel are not even required to become familiar with the lingua franca spoken by the friends they have come to help.18 
In an ideal world, we would eliminate these asymmetries. Solomon Islanders should be paid as well as the Australian consultants who work by their sides. That might encourage a talented Solomon Islands academic diaspora to return to a home that they love without sacrificing the possibility of a decent income, earned without corruption. For every Australian helicopter pilot working on contract in the Solomons, a place in an Australian flight school should be reserved for a young Solomon Islander. Australia should pledge to balance a trade imbalance with Solomon Islanders, importing not only minerals, but also the agricultural products that the vast majority of Solomon islanders grow. This is all, of course, unlikely. But asking for more Pacific Islands representation in RAMSI and basic familiarity with Pijin as the lingua franca so that RAMSI personnel can talk to ordinary islanders does not seem completely beyond all possibilities.

It might be worth acknowledging that the equality implied in terms like “friend” or “neighbour” doesn’t always count for much in real relationships of power. Perhaps this is what school children and their teachers were doing when they cast Mr. Howard in the role of a benevolent uncle on the placards that welcomed him to the Solomons in 2003. An avuncular international relationship, in which hierarchy is cross-cut by obligation, makes a nice contrast to Australian politicians’ and policy makers’ rhetoric of neighbourliness, in which conviviality is cross-cut by condescension.


In the last two months, Prime Minister Sogavare has repeatedly antagonized Canberra. In September, he expelled High Commissioner Patrick Cole on grounds that Cole was interfering with a Commission of Inquiry into the April 2006 riots. Sogavare accused Australia of opposing the Inquiry because it could show negligence on the part of Australian police who are part of RAMSI; Alexander Downer accused Sogavare of attempting to shift blame away his two jailed Parliamentarians who are aligned with him. In October, Sogavare appointed Australian national Julian Moti as Attorney General and refused to cooperate with Australian attempts to extradite Moti for trial on child sex charges. Canberra’s reactions to these antagonisms have unfortunately served to bolster Sogavare’s increasingly shrill cries of Australian imperialism. The trope of neighbourliness has largely disappeared from commentary on Solomon. No longer a neighbour, Solomon Islands is now figured as an ungrateful and obstinate dependent.

  1. Ofani Eremae, "Salary Boost for New Permanent Secretaries," Solomon Star Newspaper 19 July 2006.
  2. See “Toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein,” Sourcewatch, a Project of the Center for Media and Democracy,, last modified 24 Nov 2004 [accessed 5 Sept 2006]. 
  3. "Island Children Greet 'Uncle Howard'," The Age 25 August 2003.
  4. Adam Dunning of the Australian Federal Police was killed on December 22, 2004; Jamie Clark died accidentally on March 10, 2005.  
  5. See Jonathan Fraenkel, The Manipulation of Custom : From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands (Wellington, N.Z.: Victoria University Press, 2004), Clive Moore, Happy Isles in Crisis : The Historical Causes for a Failing State in Solomon Islands, 1998-2004 (Canberra, A.C.T.: Asia Pacific Press, 2004). for detailed accounts of the crisis in Guadalcanal up to the RAMSI intervention. 
  6. John Howard, "Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP Press Conference,"  Canberra, 22 June 2003. [accessed 4 Sept 2006]
  7. Kim Beazely, "Doorstop Interview, Port Adelaide Training and Development Centre," Adelaide 19 April 2006. [accessed 4 Sept 2006]
  8. Edvard Hviding, "Contested Rainforests, NGOs, and Projects of Desire in Solomon Islands," International Social Science Journal 55.4 (2003).
  9. See, e.g., "Solomons: Opposition Want Dialogue on Peacekeepers," Pacific Beat Stories (ABC Radio Australia, 2003) and "Solomons: Former Pm Cautions against Peace Keeping Force " Pacific Beat Stories (ABC Radio Australia, 2003).
  10. Stewart Firth, "Decolonization," Remembrance of Pacific Pasts : An Invitation to Remake History, ed. Robert Borofsky (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000).
  11. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, "'Failed State' and the War on Terror: Intervention in Solomon Islands," Asia Pacific Issues (Honolulu, Hawai'i: The East-West Center, 2004). 
  12. This change is described in Ian Scales, "Seizing the Policy Initiatives for Governance in Solomon Islands," Solomon Islands Update: Crisis and Intervention (Canberra: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project, RSPAS, Pacific Policy Project, APSEG, 2003).
  13. See Carmen Lawrence’s Fear and Politics (Canberra: Scribe Short Books, 2006).  
  14. John Howard, "Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP Press Conference,"  Canberra, 22 June 2003, my emphasis.
  15. Elsina Wainright, Our Failing Neighbour: Australia and the Future of the Solomon Islands (ACT, Australia: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2003), p. 19.
  16. Nic MacIellan, Anna Powles, Anne Lockley, Nancy Kwalea, Paul Roughan and Forrest Metz, Bridging the Gap between State and Society: New Directions for the Solomon Islands (Oxfam International Australia and Oxfam International New Zealand, 2006).
  17. Gordon Nanau, quoted in MacIellan, et. al., Bridging the Gap between State and Society.
  18. John Roughan, "RAMSI Long on Muscle, Short on Respect in Solomons," Pacific Islands Report 19 January 2006.