Melanesia a Huge Disaster ---The article was condemned by scholars
By: Greg Sheridan (The Australian, 20 April 2006)
Canberra was right to pursue a Pacific activism in the post-9/11 era, but there is no real solution for the region.
The riots and violence in Solomon Islands are incredibly depressing. They confirm three damning, central dynamics. One, Melanesia is in a profound, civilisation-wide crisis that shows no serious sign of improvement. Two, nation-building or introducing democracy in cultures that aren't accustomed to it is gruesomely difficult, even in the most benign circumstances. And three, we are substantially alone in dealing with the Melanesian crisis.
Each of these dynamics spells real trouble. That we should reach the stage of uncontrolled looting and ethnic targeting of Chinese businesses in Honiara makes it almost impossible to see any progress there in the past three years. The Melanesian-wide crisis is far more serious for Australia than we normally credit. There are more than five million people in Papua New Guinea, nearly 600,000 in the Solomons, 200,000 in Vanuatu, nearly one million in Fiji.
Altogether the Melanesian universe contains more than seven million people and has some of the highest population growth rates in the world. The crisis throughout Melanesia is getting steadily worse. Australia has not been able to fully implement its police-centred civic rescue package in PNG. The AIDS rate in PNG is epidemic. Sexually transmitted disease and poor health are rampant throughout Melanesia.
There is a breakdown of law and order, and almost no serious economic development.
The independent Melanesian governments are creaky and crisis-prone at best, on the point of collapse at worst. In the end, Canberra will pay for and cope with their problems: disease; crime; eventual immigration, legal or illegal, to Australia; aid bills; penetration of organised crime; gun, drug and people smuggling and much else.
Before 9/11, Canberra treated these dynamics as worrying but not essentially our business. Now we understand that many of the most deadly threats come from failing states, from weak states as much as strong states.
So Canberra, admirably, has pursued a new Pacific activism, of which the Solomons is the most prominent example. But look at this result. After three years of the operation, with billions of dollars pumped into the country by the Australian taxpayer, with law and order guaranteed by Australian police and military, with the cleanest national election in many years, what are we left with? A city in flames, a Chinese business district burned to the ground, riots outside parliament, ethnic looting targeted at the most productive ethnic minority, the capital in chaos, the Prime Minister in flight.
Melanesian culture is warlike and tribal, which is why so much of it is devoted to rituals and courtesies designed to avoid conflict. But here, after a democratic election, a mob doesn't like the choice of prime minister so it tries to storm the parliament. And this is after three years of effective rule from Australia and coaching in democratic practice by our officials.
The history of independent Melanesia has been comprehensively corrupt. No one is a good loser because everyone knows that you don't get anything from the government in the normal course of things. Corrupt forces with access to government or an ability to blackmail government will leech the system of its wealth. So the only way you can get resources from the government, if your tribe loses the election, is through force. You demand payment from the government or you'll beat up or even kill its members. This primitive dynamic still governs the Solomons.
Some argue that it is much less important to introduce respectable democracy in Melanesian societies than to get the economy going first. I have a lot of sympathy for that view, but economic development of any kind cannot take place in the absence of law and order.
The Melanesian economies have limited opportunities. PNG has mineral resources. The Solomons have forests that are rapidly being logged out. Most have some fishery and agricultural resources. Fiji, because of its Indian minority, has had a modest industrial base. The most obvious potential income earner is tourism. But none of this can happen without a minimum of law and order. Fiji has consciously contrived the departure of a portion of its productive Indian minority. Chinese traders will have to rebuild their shops and businesses in the Solomons. How many will leave? The light manufacturing factories won't be built because no foreigner will want to invest. The Solomons once made good money from tourism. Who will go there now?
The truth is Melanesian independence has been a disaster. That is not a recommendation for re-colonisation, although it is clearly true that Australia decolonised PNG far too quickly and left it unprepared for the modern world. Melanesian culture is very poorly adapted for dealing with the modern world. Communal ideas of property ownership may appeal to Western romantics, but they make serious development almost impossible.
When Chinese or Indian minorities come along they are much better adapted to the modern economy. But their success, while potentially pulling the whole society forward, inevitably produces great resentment. Independence and a resentful nationalism are with us now, although Australia has adopted some of the burdens of colonialism and will inevitably have to deal with the most serious security problems in the Melanesian world.
Melanesia is often and tellingly compared with Africa. It may in a sense resemble the Middle East. There are no solutions. Nothing works. Yet ultimate failure is not an option.
What confidence do you have that a Solomons government, without Australian police and soldiers, could keep order and run affairs peacefully? We are likely to be in the Solomons for a long, long time to come.
RESPONSE TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE
School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
The University of Queensland
21 April 2006
Greg Sheridan’s scare mongering, in calling Melanesia “a huge disaster” (The Australian, 20 April) is insulting and unproductive. The riots that occurred in Honiara were the expression of deep-seated frustrations at flawed political processes and a lack of reconciliation needed after the earlier unrest. They were sparked when RAMSI mishandled the situation at Parliament. RAMSI ignored the plea by the Speaker, Sir Peter Kenilorea, not to use tear gas on his people.
The Melanesian way is to respect their elders and several of the ex-Prime Ministers (including Sir Peter) were willing to talk to the people who had gathered at Parliament. RAMSI did not give them a chance. The result was violence and destruction.
RAMSI has never been able to deal with a central conundrum: the conflict between strengthening the government apparatus, and having to also prop up a government that was flawed and of which the people remain suspicious. The new Prime Minister Snyder Rini is from the old government.
There is quite obviously a deep resentment against Asians, particularly but not only the Chinese. The democratic process is indigenously controlled but business is not. Perceived inordinate Asian influence on the political process frustrates the average Solomon Islander.
There is not a Solomon Islands-wide crisis, and certainly not a “Melanesian-wide crisis”. Mr Sheridan’s Melanesia is full of rampant sexual transmitted diseases and failing states. Has he ever noticed that eighty-five percent of the people of Melanesia are living happily in villages? This is a Honiara-centered crisis. Democracy and egalitarian behaviour is basic to Melanesian culture. Imposed government structures more suitable to First World nations are not. And neither is having forces outside Parliament buying votes in Parliament.
Though it is little acknowledged by those who think RAMSI was the beginning and end of progress in the Solomons, the 400 thousand-odd village majority of the country maintained its own law and order for five years without police presence or functioning courts. How long would Mr Sheridan give Cronulla if all police, firefighters and other public services evaporated? Weeks? Days? Hours? To label the people of the Solomons primitive on the back of two days of rioting is not only insulting but profoundly ignorant. Reducing complex historical problems to labels and scare mongering does disservice to Solomon Islands and undermines Australia's efforts to assist.
The Australian government and RAMSI needs to spend a little more time learning to understand Solomon Islanders and their cultural triggers.
Dr Clive Moore, CSI, History, University of Queensland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor Kevin Clements, Director, Australian Center for Peace and Conflict Studies University of Queensland (email@example.com)
Dr Anne Brown, Australian Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Queensland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Volker Boege, Visiting Fellow, Australian Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Queensland (email@example.com)
Dr John Roughan, Honiara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Paul Roughan, Islands Knowledge Institute (email@example.com)
Article emailed by: Alice Siuna (Fiji School of Medicine).