IN LATE July, the Australian government launched the biggest armed intervention in the South Pacific since World War Two when more than 2,000 military personnel and police officers were sent to the crisis-torn Solomon Islands. Contrary to the claim of Australia’s main political parties and the media, this action has nothing to do with providing humanitarian aid or bringing peace and prosperity. Instead it signals a new colonial policy throughout the Pacific by the right-wing Liberal government of John Howard.
Once referred to as the ‘Happy Islands’, the Solomons have suffered ethnic fighting and economic collapse for several years. More than 90% of the population are ethnic Melanesians, although there are more than 120 tribal groups, many with their own distinctive culture and language. Since the late 1990s the main island, Guadalcanal, has seen intense conflict between the Istabus and migrant Malatians (from the neighbouring island of Malaita). The roots of this fighting are to be found in former colonial exploitation and the extreme weakness of post-independence capitalism.
The Solomons are made up of a collection of several hundred islands, with a population of just below half a million. Independence was won from Britain in 1978. But the legacy of colonial rule was to prove disastrous. Around a third of Guadalcanal’s population of 180,000 are descendants of migrants brought to the island from Malaita by the British. They dominated small businesses, the public sector and the police; they were most of the political elite. This bred resentment that was to explode once the country’s fragile economy was hit by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. Timber exports, which brought in 60% of government revenues, fell steeply. This had a devastating effect on people’s living standards, the majority of whom live from subsistence farming and fishing. According to the World Bank, average annual income was US $590 in 2001.
The economic situation was made much worse by an IMF-imposed ‘structural adjustment programme’. Jobs were cut in the public sector, and privatisations were carried out. Fees were introduced for higher education and health care. As well as this, the stricken logging industry fired many workers. These measures greatly heightened ethnic tensions on Guadalcanal. A struggle broke out over scarce resources and farming land.
Armed fighting started in 1998. The Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), led by Harold Keke, began to attack Malatians, accusing them of taking land and jobs. Around 2,000 people had to flee their homes. A rival militia, the Malatian Eagle Force (MEF), was formed. In 2000, prime minister Bartholomew Ulufu’alu, an ethnic Malatian, was forced to resign by the MEF, which accused him of not doing enough to help Malatians.
Fearful of the regional consequences of the conflict, the Australian government forced negotiations between the militias. The Maru peace agreement was signed in 2001. The Australian-brokered deal called for disarmament, repatriations and an investigation into land ownership. But it proved to be a false peace. Economic and social problems worsened. The new government of Sir Allan Kemakeza was unable to pay wages or fund services. As ethnic divisions deepened, the police force fell apart, its members joining rival ethnic forces. The government and mainly Malatian police remained in control of the capital Honiara, while opposing militias were in charge of the other parts of Guadalcanal.
The Australian government claimed it was invited to intervene militarily by Kemakeza and by worried Pacific island states. A so-called, ‘co-operative intervention force’ was created, to try to give legitimacy to Howard’s neo-colonial action. ‘Operation Helpem Fren’ (Help a Friend), was made up of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
But the small nations had little choice in the matter. Facing their own economic, social and political problems, they feared the wrath of Australia if they did not join the operation. The unanimous vote by the Solomon Islands parliament in favour of the intervention force was also hardly surprising, given that Australia provides most of the funding for the Solomons’ government. While raising doubts about some aspects of the intervention, Helen Clark’s Labour government in New Zealand decided it was in their best interests to also join up.
Howard, however, rejected all speculation of taking joint action with France. For decades, Australian and French imperialism have been competing powers in the Pacific. (During July, the French President Chirac toured the region, building support for French imperialist interests). At the recent Pacific Islands Forum Howard continued with his bullying behaviour by insisting on his own candidate for secretary-general – against the wishes of the smaller island states – and talked big about cracking down on ‘corrupt governments’ and cutting off aid.
The Iraq war provided Howard with the justification for the Solomons operation. After the South Pacific nations gained independence, Australian governments were careful not to be seen as acting in a colonial manner in the region. But now Howard borrows language from the Bush administration for military intervention. He warns of ‘an arc of instability’ in the region and predicts the Pacific can become a hotbed of ‘terrorism’. Operation Helpem Fren is a ‘pre-emptive strike’. Like his US ally, the Australian government also decided to bypass the UN.
All the parliamentary opposition in Australia, including the Australian Labour Party (ALP), have supported the intervention. They only bicker over the best way to go about it. The Greens have said it would be better to proceed with UN support. But UN-backed intervention, led by Australian troops, would have had the same aim – making the Solomon Islands safe for Australian capitalism.
The majority of Australian working people also accepted the argument for the intervention. They saw it as the only way to end the ethnic fighting, crime and economic crisis – a view encouraged by the Australian media.
But the operation has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns or the alleged threat of terrorism. A government-funded report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), called, ‘Our Failing Neighbour’, makes clear the class interests motivating Howard. Published on 10 June, the paper comments on the significant Australian trade and investment in the Pacific Islands. Intervention would help ‘business and investment opportunities’. Australian capitalism also needs to keep both economic and military competitors out of the region, the report says. Along with its junior partner, New Zealand, Australian capitalism aims to increase exploitation of people and resources in the region. This can include direct colonial rule.
The Socialist Party in Australia, and Socialist Alternative in New Zealand, which are both affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), opposes the Australian-led intervention. They reject the lie that these military actions can bring peace, democracy and a better life.
Australian government bureaucrats are taking over the functions of the Solomon Islands state, including the key positions in the legal system, the police force, the prison system, the central bank and the civil service. An Australian diplomat acts as ‘political advisor’ to prime minister Kemakeza. The new regime insists on ‘stimulating private enterprise’, meaning more attacks on the conditions and rights of working people.
The working class of Australia has nothing to gain from Howard’s military adventures. This can be seen from the experience of East Timor. Australian troops are still on the island, several years after ‘independence’ from Indonesia. Growing hostility to the presence of foreign troops from the impoverished Timorese have led to anti-UN riots.
While Australian capitalism has grabbed most of the oil and gas reserves off Timor’s shores, the Timorese people continue to live in abject poverty. At the same time, Australian workers face government cuts and attacks. Medicare is under assault and student fees are threatened with a big rise. Under the guise of fighting ‘international terrorism’, the federal parliament passed legislation in July that is a huge attack on basic civil and democratic rights.
The Solomon Islands faces a future of conflict and crisis. Of course the Australian government points to its successes; there are ongoing attempts to disarm the militias, and IFM leader, Harold Keke, has been arrested. But many former militia members and police personnel are turning to crime. If the World Bank’s demand for the privatisation of land is carried out ethnic tensions will only deepen.
Only the united action of the working class in the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Asia can win peace and a dramatic improvement in living standards. This means a struggle for the socialist transformation of society. Vital first steps along this road include developing workers’ solidarity across the region, and building class organisations with independent policies.
By Niall Mulholland