Supyire Proverb: ‘The stranger’s eyes are wide open, but he does not see anything’
On Tuesday, 18 April 2006, the democratically elected Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands was stoned by an angry mob on the steps of Parliament, tear gas was tossed around, a large chunk of the national capital, Honiara, was burnt to the ground, livelihoods were lost and lives seriously threatened.
How can such a thing happen on RAMSI’s watch with the region’s pocket superpower, Australia, in charge? Where’s the stench of burning reputations to match the stench of burning Chinese stores?
There was plenty of reporting by the media, some obfuscation by the usual suspects but no detailed commentary. Instead, there were claims by senior people that it was all a big ‘surprise’ (according to Mick Keelty) or an ‘intelligence failure’ (according to Greg Sheridan) or that the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) were ‘overwhelmed by the numbers that they faced’ (according to Keelty again, and to Phil Goff).
To apportion responsibility along these lines is to either dissemble or to fail to understand the way forward planning, readiness states, and operational responses are supposed to be approached by commanders on the ground.
Firstly, let’s get it clear that, in the Solomon Islands, there is no point asking the State for protection because the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) has been disarmed, neutered and rendered innocuous by RAMSI. As the Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Solomon Islands disciplinary forces pointed out to the local businessman Sir Henry Quan when the latter was frantically trying to warn the police (one and a half hours before they happened!) about impending attacks on Chinese businesses in Honiara: ‘…he was sorry to hear that Chinatown would be attacked but there was nothing he could do.’
No one disputes a nation’s duty to arm itself in order to protect its citizens from internal or external threats. And if those armed by the State abuse the privilege, then they have to be disarmed but one cannot just leave a vacuum.
It is no small thing for the disciplinary forces of any country to be disarmed, particularly by foreigners even if one’s own government requested it, even if you as an individual member of those forces agree wholeheartedly, and even if the majority of citizens absolutely insist. It is still an admission of failure.
So the disciplinary forces of the Solomon Islands are excused from responsibility for the debacle given that the structures, units and above all their corporate knowledge built up over more than 50 years would appear to have been tossed aside.
So who was on watch?
SBS’s Richard Davis said on Dateline on 6 April:
The Australian take over of the Solomons has been comprehensive. Like other arms of government, the Solomon Islands Police Force, don’t get much of a look in beyond the most basic of duties. RAMSI is a regional force but it has become overwhelmingly Australian. Nothing happens here in policing justice, finance or the public service that isn’t controlled by Australian officials. No one wants to mention the ‘colony’ word, but Australia has effectively adopted a country. And there’s little room in or out of parliament for anyone to challenge that arrangement.
If the ashes of Chinatown are any measure, then the police arm of RAMSI, the multinational Participating Police Force (PPF), has failed miserably in its first true operational test. The PPF, which is commanded by an Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer, is legally and morally responsible for the national security of Solomon Islands common sense and Article 2 of the Agreement between Solomon Islands and Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga dated 24 July 2003 tells us this.
Originally, RAMSI restored security with combat power, based on a composite infantry battalion. As the situation stabilised, this force was reduced. The country was assured by RAMSI that the reduced force was sufficient for all contingencies and it would be backed up from overseas, particularly Townsville.
The Solomon Islands people took this advice on trust.
The stay behind forces were supposedly configured so that they could hold ground for a minimum ‘hold out period.’ As it turned out, backup forces from Townsville were ‘boots on the ground’ within 24 hours of the political decision to launch. In other words, they fulfilled their part of the contract with their mates on the ground and the Solomon Islands people.
Normally, operational responses can be of two general types: ‘deliberate’ or ‘quick.’ Of course, we need to acknowledge that the situation in the Solomon Islands can’t be classed as ‘normal’ while there are armed, foreign intervention forces on the ground there may be periods of quiet but things are not ‘normal.’
A ‘deliberate response’ is pre-planned. For example, it is standard procedure for the disciplinary forces of Solomon Islands to be on alert during any national election, stepping up as Parliament is convened for the election of the PM. This may include pre-deployment of riot units before Parliament opens. No-confidence motions, contentious High Court cases, murders, rapes, swearing at another province, land disputes, football matches also go on the list of potentially volatile issues that can turn into a major threat.
And on such occasions, the Police Commissioner Fred Soaki or Moreton Seriheti his Deputy did not depend entirely on intelligence reports, they just deployed because that is what you do in Honiara it is the intelligent thing to do.
Forces are usually deployed at Parliament House, on the approaches to Chinatown and/or other key locations on a direct route from Parliament House. Such a strategy allows one to block or deflect riotous assembly as opposed to the riskier strategy of following it into Chinatown, as one Indigenous officer noted in despair. This latter strategy is better suited to the Fire Brigade.
If forces had been pre-deployed as per usual Solomon Islands procedures and operational experience then there would not have been any surprises on ‘RAMSI Tuesday.’ One does not need specific intelligence on the day of the national soccer championships, one just knows that if a certain province is in the finals, somebody had better stump up for some riot units beforehand. Specific intelligence is not needed at the beginning of the cyclone season.
It is unbelievable that after six years of tensions this kind of pre-deployment was not done. The looting and burning of shops in Chinatown after a demonstration of some kind, is a known scenario. It has been attempted on many occasions in the past and, each time, successfully blocked by Solomon Island disciplinary forces.
At the other extreme, a ‘quick response’ encompasses situations that genuinely do come out of nowhere. In such cases, one has no choice but to respond quickly units making snap deployments as required. But even these are pre-planned, to some degree. An event can be unexpected but should never be a surprise.
For example, in the old Guard Room at Honiara’s Rove Prison there’s a big red button that sets off a hooter. Everyone knows it means ‘a riot is on’ and every policeman within hearing sprints for the parade ground at HQ, or the nearest police station.
So, how long does one stay surprised before responses kick in? One and a half hours? Six Hours? All night, into the morning and the next afternoon?
As for the defence of being ‘overwhelmed by superior numbers,’ as claimed by the AFP’s Mick Keelty and New Zealand’s Defence Minister Phil Goff, all police forces in the end are always outnumbered by the people all of the time. That is why there are tactics, techniques, call-out procedures, training, structures like riot units, non-lethal ammunition and equipment to redress that imbalance. But you have to do what suits the local conditions, not what might work elsewhere.
Overwhelmed? After three or four hours? This smacks of being caught napping.
And where was the Infantry, the final arbiter when things get out of hand in the streets? Not seen or heard. A far cry from the glossy patter in the RAMSI section of the AusAid web site:
Following continued progress on law and order, RAMSI’s military presence has been further drawn down to around 100 soldiers. The remaining military presence will continue to play an active and visible part in the RAMSI operation, protecting and supporting the police and civilian components of RAMSI.
Perhaps the figure of 100 soldiers is wrong. Perhaps there was only a platoon of, say, 30 men. Whatever their real strength, why weren’t they immediately deployed to the meat grinder in Chinatown?
Solomon Islands policemen know how to protect the capital they’ve done it before and the knowledge did not fall out of their pockets because of a coup, some corrupt officers or the second coming of the White man.
So, lame-duck excuses such as ‘We were surprised!’ or ‘We were overwhelmed!’ or ‘There was no intelligence!’ don’t cut the mustard.
The PPF should have protected Honiara holding out for an absolute minimum of 24 hours, being the response time for back up from Townsville.
Their failure on ‘RAMSI Tuesday’ was not the result of a lack of intelligence. At a tactical level, the debacle was caused by a failure in leadership. At the strategic level, it was an awe-inspiring mission failure with implications for the much-vaunted regional intervention model called RAMSI.
Instead, we’ve been fed the line that all is well with RAMSI, what a marvellous success it is, what a great model for the region, so many firearms destroyed, so many criminals arrested, so many policemen arrested, so many advisers, so many dollars expended “ yadda, yadda, yadda “ a modern, outcomes-based version of the Vietnam era body count.
The best illustration of this line is The Australian’s triumphal editorial on 7 April at the start of the Solomon Islands elections: ‘At a time when the phrase œnation-building prompts eye-rolling among cynics, it’s nice to see such a success story so close to home.’
Clearly, the dreadful events in Honiara on 18-19 April put the lie to such premature triumphal outbursts. If there was any eye-rolling it wasn’t among the cynics, but rather the Chinese in Honiara or our diggers, who once again had to go in at great risk and impose their will upon a fractious people.
It is not as if there has been a dearth of advice to RAMSI. Solomon Islands civil society, researchers, eminent persons from across the Pacific, academics, students, ordinary Solomon Island police officers and the think tank industry all have produced reports. Collectively all these people must be entitled to wonder, just as George Orwell did:
What do you do against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?
The question therefore has to be asked: Is the AFP really up to the task? Are they the right folks to be at the forefront of these expeditionary sorties, or should they be the preserve of the military?
As former diplomat Bruce Haigh said on SBS TV’s Insight on 24 May 2005:
There’s nobody looks at the Australian Federal Police. There is no parliamentary body looking at the operations of the Australian Federal Police My concern is, and it should be the Attorney-General’s concern, that the Australian Federal Police are actually out of control, they’re being used as fixers and they’ve been used as paratroops, they’ve had them in the Solomons, we’ve got them in New Guinea, they’re extensions of our diplomacy, we are going down a path with the Australian Federal Police which is very, very dangerous for this democracy….
If the path we are taking is dangerous for our own vibrant and healthy democracy, just how dangerous might it be for ‘busted arse, fragile democracies’ such as the Solomon Islands?
And whoever else that might be next on the list.
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