RAMSI Turns Four


The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is four years old this week. As the landmark was being celebrated by Honiara’s VIPs on Tuesday night it was rather noticeable from the body language on display that there is still tension between certain key players.

Far from being partners in the reconstruction and rebuilding of Solomon Islands, RAMSI and the Solomon Islands Government (SIG) appear to be contestants in a popularity contest. RAMSI needs to look good in Australia while the SIG is struggling under the weight of the controversial appointment of Julian Moti as Attorney General among other issues to look good in Solomon Islands.

Manasseh Sogavare
Image by Marni Cordell

The SIG is obviously reveling in last week’s Interim Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the riots in Honiara in April last year, which found that RAMSI’s Participating Police Force (PPF) failed to effectively control the violence. Commission Chair Brian Brunton, a retired judge from Papua New Guinea, has been in Melanesia long enough to understand the peculiar dynamics of ‘king making’ in this part of the world. It comes through strongly in the report.

New Zealand Defence Minister Phil Goff’s criticism that the report focused too much on RAMSI and his concern about the chagrin that RAMSI leaders of the time must feel on reading it is quite understandable. But some things have to be said. As pointed out in New Matilda by former Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) Assistant Commissioner of Police Michael Wheatley (an Australian of Solomon Islands origin), the police leadership at the time was caught napping! Large parts of Honiara’s Chinatown could have been saved if the police had been prepared. Why weren’t they?

The Commission noted that the RSIP was firmly under the control of the PPF, which is led by Australian Federal Police personnel.

The PPF severed many community networks maintained by local police when they took control of the RSIP in July 2003. They did this by ensuring a whole batch of senior police were displaced, and by demonstrating that they did not trust anyone. The upper echelons were purged of experienced officers, most of whom who had just been through some of the most traumatic times of their career Bougainville border duties and then the coup of June 2000. There are former RSIP officers who can attest to the fact that when they left there were Standard Operating Procedures to deal with such things as riots and the local officers should have been allowed to hit the riot button at police headquarters.

In 2005, Phil Goff, then acting as Foreign Minister of New Zealand, told the New Zealand Annual Police Association Conference in Wellington that the RSIP leaders were totally corrupt, its personnel ill-trained and ineffective and that the force was part of the problem not the solution. It’s true that several RSIP officers were corrupt or complicit in militant activities but the majority were not. One senior officer who tried hard to maintain standard operations between June 2000 and July 2003 went home virtually penniless after RAMSI took over. He was accused of corruption but after nearly three years was acquitted of charges. Retained as Deputy Commissioner, he would certainly have known what to do on the day of the riots.

Without specific evidence it will be difficult to find out who orchestrated the riots. There are people in town who can talk about campaign tactics used in Honiara a day or two before the elections that might have bearing on the issue. I arrived in Honiara by aircraft from Munda on April 18th just as it was announced that Snyder Rini was the new Prime Minister. People were surprised. One fellow passenger, who was from Rini’s constituency, seemed shocked. Many people saw in Rini the return of an Allan Kemakeza-style government.

Honiara, April 2006

Solomon Islanders wanted a break from the Kemakeza regime which was generally perceived to be a comprador group facilitating anything anyone from overseas wanted, including RAMSI, while enjoying the fruits of Taiwanese beneficence. Hopes had been raised that there would be a change of government, and many expected that Job Dudley Tausinga’s more rural-oriented group would take over in a new coalition involving many new MPs.

Most people awaiting the outcome of the vote in Parliament expected to hear that Tausinga was the new Prime Minister. The riot started after it was announced that Rini had been elected instead. I believe many people were shocked again when Sogavare did the goose-step and became Prime Minister after Rini stood down.

The Brunton Commission seems to be on the right track and when they have time for more discussions and issue their final report, I believe we will have a useful document that sets the record as straight as a political record can be.

RAMSI is vital to the social, political and economic life of Solomon Islands. Without the stabilising influence it provides, no one would be investing, not even local investors. The country would not become bankrupt as it would be propped up by Taiwan. But it would languish as an oddity among the island nations which can and do look after themselves.

The SIG would be very seriously amiss if it tried to curtail RAMSI prematurely. The Mission is needed, in my view, for at least another 15 to 20 years before we can become comfortable that the mindset that embraced corruption, coups and militancy is no more. The seeds are still there. People are still using threats of violence to put pressure on or to relieve pressure from the SIG and each other. This is why the RSIP has to be brought up to full operational standing as soon as possible. It needs to bring back a few of the senior officers who were shoved aside or disregarded, not necessarily in rank positions, but in advisory and training positions. Only then will RSIP pride begin to grow again.

Right now progress is proving difficult in Solomon Islands because there are too many unnecessary distractions such as the Julian Moti issue, firing of Government legal advisors, premature re-arming of police, non-procedural appointments and the Sogavare versus Downer running debate etc.

People’s trust and confidence in leadership are yet to be restored to pre-1990 levels. That is: before restrictions on logging exports were relaxed and millions of dollars came into the country and subverted community and national leadership; before corruption became rampant and the machinery of government broke down; before widespread violence on the two main islands broke out and before the plunder of the treasury by militants, politicians and their cronies between June 2000 and July 2003.

As for lessons that can be extrapolated from the Commission’s Interim Report, one thing is certain: just like ‘de-Baathification’ did not work in Iraq instead generating anti coalition sentiment and driving for
mer soldiers to become militants so too it hasn’t worked here.

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