Don't Mention the Riots


After the extraordinary bungling of the Dr Mohammed Haneef case you’d think the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were having enough difficulty looking after their own backyard, let alone someone else’s. But by mid-next year our federal police force will be spending close to a third of its operating budget on policing other countries.

The AFP’s International Deployment Group is currently undergoing a rapid expansion into a 1200-strong paramilitary-style force that will cost $480 million over the next five years. The expanded IDG will be both a peacekeeping and capacity building team; a highly equipped rapid response force who will then be required to turn their hand to aid work.

The expansion is a major shift in the AFP’s mandate — and globally, an unprecedented use of police power in what are essentially foreign policy objectives. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either an exciting opportunity or a terrifying precedent.

"I know of no other police force in the world that has had to respond in such a way across areas which, if we are to be completely frank, are not just about policing," says Andrew Goldsmith, co-author of Policing the Neighbourhood, a three year study (jointly funded by the Australian Research Council and the AFP) into the AFP interventions in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. "These are big expectations, big shifts, that we are asking ordinary Australian police officers to undertake."

Peacekeeping ain’t what it used to be. What was once strictly United Nations ‘blue helmet’ business is increasingly being undertaken through bi- or multi-lateral agreements in what have become known as "peace and stability operations", and Australia is at the forefront of the trend. According to Goldsmith, our use of police offshore — placing large numbers of officers on the ground in so-called "nation building" roles — is virtually untried.

Rebuilding a nation is no small task. So is the AFP up to the job?

In August last year the Howard Government rubber-stamped the biggest single increase in staff since the AFP was established in 1979. By June next year the International Deployment Group will have a high capability, rapid response force of around 200 officers, a "missions component" of 750, and an Australian-based support staff of 250. The group will be equipped with the latest weaponry, armoured personnel carriers and the authority to dispense lethal force.

"It’s been a dynamic period for the AFP over the past few years," says Goldsmith. "There’s a prior history of involvement in international liaison on drug trafficking and other transnational crimes, but since 2003 with the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and more recently with forays into other parts of the Pacific [such as Nauru, Vanuatu and Tonga], it’s clearly a new, foreign policy focus for the AFP. [‘Policing the Neighbourhood’] comes out of the recognition that what Australia is doing is fairly unusual."

The IDG is, for the most part, a regional deployment force. It was created around the same time that John Howard was crowned regional sheriff by George W Bush, and was claiming Australia had a responsibility to take care of "our patch". But since it was formed in February 2004, it hasn’t made a great name for itself in the region — particularly in the Solomon Islands, where the majority of the current Group is now deployed as part of RAMSI’s Participating Police Force (PPF).

Solomon Islanders have accused the policing arm of RAMSI of being everything from culturally insensitive to racist and just plain incompetent. A raid on the Prime Minister’s office by four white PPF officers in October last year had locals up in arms and prompted insiders to admit that the force was becoming a liability to the rest of the RAMSI mission. Last month, a Solomon Islands Commission of Inquiry into the April 2006 Honiara riots found that AFP officers in command of the country’s police forces at the time were asleep at the wheel.

"Any kind of police reform strategy in any country is inevitably political in nature and will engender debate [and]controversy," says Goldsmith. "The transition from peacekeeping to capacity building [is]a shift from something which is relatively universally accepted locally to something which is more contestable at the local political level."

Luke Johnston, an Australian NGO worker, was at Parliament House in Honiara on April 18 last year — the first day of the two-day riots that saw much of Chinatown razed. When I met him last October, he was hesitant to talk on the record about what he had witnessed that day because of fear of retribution — not from those responsible for the riots, but from Australian officials.

"They don’t like anyone saying anything that goes against their version of events," Johnston told me. "I’m probably being a bit paranoid, but it’s the whole way that the regime in Australia has gone these days. They’re really targeting anyone who doesn’t fit their mould."

On ‘Black Tuesday’ as Solomon Islanders have dubbed it, Johnston watched what he says was a rowdy but co-operative crowd turn into a raging mob directly because of PPF mishandling.

"Of the AFP officers that were there, I reckon the average age was 21," says Johnston. "One young lady was literally on the verge of tears saying, ‘I’ve just arrived here, my mum’s gonna freak out when she sees the news’. They were kids, they really were."

Johnston says the crowd that had gathered at parliament that day to hear the announcement of the new prime minister was agitated but not violent — and was willing to negotiate — "until someone had the bright idea to bring the riot police in".

The dialogue broke down at that point, he says.

"These guys [the AFP’s Operational Response Group]came flying down the driveway at full speed, right towards the crowd. There were two or possibly three Land-cruisers’ full with all the kit: bullet proof vests, big shields, lots of weapons. The crowd just scattered. That was the first turning point. The second one was when they cleared the driveway, they started manhandling people. The first physical contact was made by the AFP officers. They weren’t brutal, but they were shoving and pushing, and that’s when people got cranky," says Johnston.

"The crowd were saying ‘what are you doing? Who do you think you are to come and push us around in our own country?’ Mainly in Pijin — and that’s another thing, so few of the Australian police here actually have an understanding of Pijin, they couldn’t understand what the crowd was saying."

"Then they tried to bust the PM out," says Johnston. "They rushed him out to the car under guard of riot squad, and that’s when the first stone came."

"The police began firing stuff, and that really set the crowd abuzz, because it sounds and looks like guns. They started freaking, shouting ‘you’re shooting us’. They went mad, just hysterical, and they trashed every vehicle, and they ran down the hill and started burning things down. That made it so much worse, because they dispersed everybody. I mean they had a little crowd that was peaceful and in the end they turned them into this raging mob. The place was littered with canisters, so they used a lot of things."

"But then, knowing that this situation had blown up, they didn’t take control of a single bridge, a single intersection or anything."

"So I had to stand on my verandah for two nights with a crowbar with the whole town abandoned to these mobs, which just grew and grew, and watch as [the police]dealt with the situation from the air. They put the helicopter over the house and they were firing tear gas out of the helicopter."

"It wasn’t until early Friday morning when the [Australian Defence Force] moved in that the situation finally calmed down," says Johnston. "The army is totally different — they’re cool-headed and professional, they don’t have these cowboy elements, and the people respect them."

"It looks to me like the police really stuffed up on this," says Johnston. "They gave control away — surely somebody should lose their job for that. But immediately [the PPF]spun it, saying: it was a conspiracy, it was much bigger then we ever realised’. It was a bunch of kids with rocks. I’m sorry, but there wasn’t a single weapon and they’ve got a multi-million dollar police force here. It doesn’t make sense to me. The minimum you would say is that it’s a bad example of incompetence. They really were negligent."

No one will admit it publicly but the Honiara riots severely embarrassed the AFP and the Howard Government — who like to hold RAMSI up as the poster boy of successful interventions. The official line is that there was an intelligence failure, that the PPF was caught by surprise, and anyway that they were only acting in an advisory role to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) at the time.

According to Mike Wheatley, who was Assistant Police Commissioner in command of the armed constabulary component of the RSIPF from 1995 until 2000, if forces had been pre-deployed as per usual Solomon Islands procedures then there wouldn’t have been a Black Tuesday — and certainly no Wednesday.

"Firstly, let’s get it clear that, in the Solomon Islands, there is no point asking the state for protection because the RSIP were disarmed, neutered and rendered innocuous by RAMSI," Wheatley wrote in New Matilda soon after the riots.

"Forces are usually deployed at Parliament House, on the approaches to Chinatown and 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."

"The implications of this stuff up are region-wide," says Wheatley. "Every pacific country that is participating in RAMSI or could be subject to a RAMSI style intervention then began to ask: what’s the point, if a whole suburb can be destroyed even while foreign troops are there? It’s a command control issue — how do the AFP work with the locals? It calls into question a whole methodology."

"Where’s the stench of burning reputations to match the stench of burning Chinese stores?"

Next week: Police or Paramilitary? "Let’s get down to the definition of what a police force is. The AFP are fully armed with rifles and other weapons they are operating overseas like a paramilitary force."

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