We Love RAMSI, But

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Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, was still throwing punches at Australia late last week as he arrived home from the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Fiji.

"RAMSI is supposed to be a regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands, not an Australian assistance mission to the Solomon Islands." It’s "become more an AMSI," he said. "That’s the problem."

Don’t be fooled – most Solomon Islanders don’t agree with their Prime Minister’s assessment. Despite Sogavare’s distaste for the Australian-led mission, the fact is RAMSI is still overwhelmingly popular among Solomon Islanders.

But what is noticeable when you speak to people on the ground is that any declaration of support for RAMSI always comes with a qualification.

We love RAMSI, but Australian personnel have no respect for Solomon Islanders. We love RAMSI, but why haven’t the corrupt "big fish" been caught? We love RAMSI, but we want a seat at the table.

Recent police actions have further tested people’s allegiance to the mission.

The Solomon Islands is a complex political environment to say the least. If you’re looking to take sides here you’ll be hard pressed to find the consistently good guy. Shady dealings and dodgy practices plague government ministers both past and present.

When RAMSI entered the country on 24 July 2003, its first objective was to restore law and order which it managed to do remarkably quickly. The idea was to set the scene for an ambitious exercise in nation rebuilding, including tackling the central issue of corruption within the Solomon Islands Government.

On this count, RAMSI has not been so quick to make progress. It’s common for Solomon Islanders to talk in terms of big and small fish – a reference to the fact that many of the small players have been caught and charged while high profile criminals and politicians swim free.

Solomon Islanders are cynical, for instance, that it has taken so long for police to act on the many reputable allegations that have been made against former PM Sir Allan Kemakeza. Many also want to know why the 2000 coup – which saw then PM Bartholemew Ulafa’alu forced to resign and current PM Manasseh Sogavare rise to power for his first stint as leader – has never been properly investigated.

Sogavare’s second chance at the top job from April this year – after riots forced newly elected PM Snyder Rini to step down ahead of a no-confidence vote – was the result of political compromise. His support base is not strong and his recent spat with Australia and threats to kick Australian RAMSI personnel out of the country did nothing to endear him to his many critics.

But where Sogavare has failed, RAMSI’s Participating Police Force (PPF) may have inadvertently provided him with a cheer squad. The recent raid on the PM’s office involving Australian PPF officers appears to have increased support for him if only superficially.

Images of Australian police carrying the notorious fax machine out of the Prime Minister’s secretary’s office angered many Solomon Islanders who, while they appreciate the stability RAMSI has brought, are understandably sensitive about unnecessary intervention in government processes.

Dorothy Wickham, a journalist with the local TV news service, One News Ltd, arrived on the scene soon after the raid.

"When I heard about it, I knew straight away it wouldn’t be well received," she said. "And then when I looked back at the footage I thought, ‘Oh man, why did they use these White people?’ They should have known [better]."

Perceptions count for a lot, says Wickham, and a bunch of White guys using force to enter the PM’s office is not the message RAMSI wants to send to the people of the Solomon Islands.

"Okay, it’s a police search, it had a warrant, it was legal. But I think RAMSI needs to sometimes step back and look at the bigger picture. Were its relations with Solomon Islands put aside just for that one search? There are a lot more issues that they have to consider," she said.

Another long time observer of the mission and resident in Solomon Islands agrees that RAMSI lacks strategic oversight. "The policing component of RAMSI is letting the good intentions of the mission down, the mishandling of the Honiara riots of 18-19 April undermined people’s confidence in the PPF, and exposed a poor relationship between them and local police, this in turn has emboldened the criminal-political alliance which is currently running the country," the resident said.

Journalist and commentator, Mary-Louise O’Callaghan who has also been resident in Solomon Islands for almost two decades and is currently establishing a much needed Community Outreach program for RAMSI, believes this is partly due to the greater international role that has been thrust upon the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in the last decade.

Days after the April riots, she wrote in The Australian that: "Australia’s politicians have been demanding for purely foreign policy purposes that the Australian Federal Police take up at short notice roles in far flung fields that have been way beyond the natural capacity of the institution and its personnel. The role required of them in the big-picture of RAMSI is well beyond the crisis-management culture of the AFP."

"The result, after the first flush of success, has been some very poor leadership, high turnover of officers, inappropriate tasking, a lack of continuity in key investigations and many wasted opportunities."

"The thing that amazes me," says Wickham, "is that it took a few days to convince the commander of the PPF, Will Jamieson, that the raid had caused a big uproar – he didn’t believe that it had."

A spokesman for the PPF said its officers were only acting in an advisory role to the Solomon Islands Police during the raid, and that the door to the office was not kicked open, as reported, but pressed – albeit with a foot. "It wasn’t Hollywood-style," he wanted to clarify.

As rumours were circulating in Honiara last week that Sogavare would be arrested on his arrival from Fiji, the man who invited RAMSI in to the country, former PM Kemakeza was being quietly taken in for questioning by the PPF and local police. He was later formally charged with robbery, demanding money with menace, intimidation and larceny.

The charges relate to an incident that allegedly took place during his prime ministership in May 2002 involving the ransacking of the rooms of a local law practice and for which many Solomon Islanders felt he should have been charged long ago.

Kemakeza’s arrest was viewed by some as a show of even-handedness, after accusations that the arrest of Immigration Minister Peter Shanel for his role in the Moti affair was politically motivated.

The PPF spokesman said there would be no change in PPF procedure after the public outcry over the raid on the PM’s office.

But White officers of the PPF were notably absent as Kemakeza was escorted into court last Wednesday.

New Matilda

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