Why the Australian-New Zealand military adventure in the Solomon Islands is bound to fail

The New Zealand government announced 1 December that over the coming weeks it will be deploying a force of about 65 ‘peace-keeping’ troops and police to the Solomon Islands, at the request of the Solomons’ government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. The first troops have already arrived, joining a force of 120 already sent by Australia, along with others from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Australia has also dispatched a navy vessel.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, “Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands.” For her part, Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated “We’re going in to deescalate the situation, undertake peacekeeping activities, help with the cleanup and stabilise, and deescalate the tensions there at the moment… It’s not for New Zealand to get involved in the domestic politics of another country.”

New Zealand Defence Force troops just after their arrival in Honiara.
New Zealand troops arriving in Honiara December 2021. Photo: Elizabeth Osifelo RNZ Pacific

These soothing assurances are a deception. The Australian and New Zealand governments have openly interfered in the internal issues in the Solomon Islands for years. From 2003 to 2017 the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, known as RAMSI occupied the islands after the country was wracked by violence between militias from the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal, and this latest intervention is effectively an extension of the RAMSI occupation. In 2007 Sogavare himself criticized RAMSI for running a parallel administration and undermining Solomon Islands’ sovereignty. Today he describes Australia as the Solomons’ “best friend.”

The pretext for the intervention is the rioting which hit the Solomons capital of Honiara in November.

Demonstration outside parliament in Honiara 24 November, calling for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to resign.

On 24 November 2021 a peaceful protest of about 1000 people gathered outside the country’s Parliament, supporting a call by the parliamentary opposition for the resignation of the Sogavare government. Many of the protestors came from the island of Malaita. The protest was dispersed by police using teargas and rubber bullets, and a small building nearby was set on fire, apparently by a teargas cannister. The protest then degenerated into riots in which a police station was set on fire. The mixture of large but unorganized street protests and rioting continued over the next three days, drawing in other Honiara residents, during which time dozens of shops in Honiara’s Chinatown were torched, and protestors marched on the Chinese embassy. About 100 protestors confronted riot-clad police outside the Prime Minister’s residence, some throwing stones and attempting to burn it down. Three people were killed in the fires, and much of the eastern end of Honiara was destroyed. The government imposed a night-time curfew. As of 3 December, 217 people had been arrested.

Demonstrations and rioting in Honiara, November 2021. Photo: RNZ

Although the rioting has since subsided, the political issues which generated it are unresolved and the situation remains tense. Since the shops destroyed by the rioters held major food stocks, food shortages are likely. The Sogavare government survived a further motion of no confidence filed by the parliamentary opposition on Monday 6 December; further protests were prevented by tight security controls on Honiara by the Australian and New Zealand troops. The troops stopped ferries bringing people from other islands, and used shipping containers to block streets.

Protestors square off against riot cops, Honiara November 2021. Photo: Elizabeth Osifelo RNZ Pacific

Working people everywhere should unconditionally oppose this military adventure by the two local imperialist powers. Despite their pretence of standing aloof from the political crisis in the Solomons, their purpose is precisely to intervene in that situation and prop up the existing order in that country, that is, the very conditions which led to the recent protests and riots. Equally dangerous for working people is the fact that the intervention takes place amid rapidly escalating conflict between the United States and China in the region. The intervention is a big step towards aligning the minor powers of Australia and New Zealand with the United States in that conflict, and drawing the Solomons deeper into it.

One voice that has been raised against the intervention is that of Auckland historian and writer on Pacific affairs, Scott Hamilton. In a series of tweets, Hamilton compared the situation to when New Zealand troops were sent to Tonga in 2006. “In 2006 a pro-democracy march turned into a riot that wrecked downtown Nuku’alofa. Tonga’s repressive govt asked NZ for help. We sent troops & cops. A disturbing report suggests our cops were involved in a campaign of torture. Could the same thing happen in the Solomons?

“In the weeks after the riot Tonga’s notorious police force detained 700 people, most of them young men. Few were ever charged. In a report published in 2007, human rights activist Betty Blake & her paralegal team documented the abuse of the detainees. Blake’s team examined 70 recent detainees. 41% had facial injuries. They photographed bruises, broken teeth, broken bones, & eye injuries. The detainees reported days of beatings. In 2013 & ’16 I interviewed several detainees. They spoke about NZ as well as Tongan cops. The detainees were held at Nuku’alofa’s central police station, where NZ cops were helping their Tongan counterparts after the riot. They said NZ cops sat in on their interrogations, but left the room just before the beatings, returning later to hear more questioning.

“I asked the former detainees whether NZ cops would have known about the beatings they received. They had no doubt. When the NZ cops returned to continue interviews, the detainees they were talking to were covered in blood. As Malaita’s provincial government has noted, the Australasian troops & cops being sent to the Solomons will be propping up the Sogavare government, which has a reputation for corruption & for persecuting its Malaitan opponents. Sogavare’s recent statements are ominous. Sogavare has accused Malaita’s popular premier Daniel Suidani of being behind the recent riots in Honiara. He has warned that new riots are being planned. Strengthened by Australasian force, could Sogavare start a Tonga-style campaign of mass detentions & beatings?”

That is precisely the prospect posed by this so-called ‘peace-keeping mission.’ And possibly even the kinds of ‘counter-insurgency’ war crimes committed by Australian and New Zealand forces in Afghanistan.

There is a long history to the Solomons intervention.

At the heart of the conflict in the Solomons is the question of Malaita, the most populous island in the Solomons group, and its unequal relationship with the island of Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located. (Malaita has a population of 160,000 – just under one-quarter of the total Solomons population of 700,000).

The island of Malaita has long been a centre of anti-colonial movements. In the nineteenth century Malaita was the island most targeted by the so-called blackbirders – European slave-traders who kidnapped labourers, mainly to work on sugar plantations in Queensland, Australia. Most of these labourers, along with some who went voluntarily later as indentured labourers, were deported back to Malaita when the Australian Federation was established on a ‘White Australia’ basis in 1901. The Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 mandating the mass deportation was one of the first actions of the new Federal government. This was how Australia’s ‘friendship’ with the Solomon Islands began.

Labourers from Solomon Islands assemble at courthouse in Cairns, Queensland for deportation under the 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. Photo:  State Library of Queensland image number 23842 TLF resource R8010

As rivalry for domination of the Pacific mounted among the European powers, Britain declared the southern Solomon Islands a British protectorate in 1893, while Germany claimed some of the northern islands and north-eastern New Guinea. The British soap manufacturing monopoly Lever Brothers (later Unilever) quickly acquired rights to vast areas of unoccupied land, and by 1910 had 2,000 hectares in plantations, producing coconut oil to supply its soap factories in England and Sydney. As it did elsewhere, the British authorities imposed a head tax, whose primary aim was to force islanders out of the subsistence economy and into paid employment, such as on the Levers plantations. When a District Commissioner was killed while collecting the widely-resented head tax in 1927, the colonial authorities responded with a joint British-Australian punitive expedition that left 60 Malaitans dead and 200 in detention. This incident, called the Malaita massacre, was long remembered.

World War II turned the Solomons, and the island of Guadalcanal in particular, into a battleground between two expansionist imperialist powers competing to dominate the Asia-Pacific region – Japan and the United States. Sweeping down from the northwest, Japan occupied the island of Tulagi (headquarters of the British Protectorate on account of its large natural harbour) in May 1942, and the western islands soon after. Through a series of major battles on land and at sea from August 1942 to February 1943 involving up to 44,000 troops from the United States, supported by troops from Australia and New Zealand, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy were forced back onto the defensive. This prolonged and costly campaign turned the tide of the Pacific War. Some 31,000 Japanese troops were killed in the Solomons campaign, along with 7,100 allied troops. 67 warships from the combatant navies were sunk in the waters off Guadalcanal; each side lost 600-700 aircraft.

Battle of Guadalcanal
US Marines inspect the bodies of Japanese soldiers killed in Battle of Tenaru, Guadalcanal, August 1942. Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

The present capital, Honiara, was founded on the roads, bridges, airport and hospital built by the US construction brigades as its military base for this campaign – with no compensation to the Guadalcanal people whose land it had been. The capital was shifted there from Tulagi in 1952.

While Guadalcanal suffered immense destruction in the fighting, Malaita did not. However, about 10,000 Solomon Islanders participated in the military campaign, with 6,200 serving in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force, 3,200 in the Solomon Islands Labour Corps in the US bases, and others as Coast Watch intelligence-gatherers. Partly through contact with the American servicemen, including mostly Black construction brigades – who were themselves leading a fight against racial segregation in the US armed forces – ideas of self-determination took root, especially among the Solomon Islands Labour Corps. A movement against British colonialism sprang up, centred on Malaita, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

US Navy Seabees (CBs – construction brigades) trading with Malaitans. Black servicemen were themselves engaged in a struggle against racial segregation. Their influence helped to spark a movement for Malaitan self-determination.

The Maasina Ruru (which loosely translates as ‘brotherhood rule’) movement dominated the politics of Malaita for eight years from 1944 and spread to other islands. By 1945 it had become almost an independent government in Malaita, with its own separate court system. It briefly refused to allow Malaitans to leave and work on plantations on other islands. At that stage, Malaitans made up 60% of the plantation workforce throughout the Solomons. In 1947 the movement attempted to organise a strike in order to raise the minimum labourer’s wage from £1 to £12 per month.

Two unidentified Europeans hold up the flag of Maasina Rule movement. Photo: Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopaedia 1893-1978
http://www.solomonencyclopaedia.net/objects/D00000275.htm

The colonial authorities responded with a campaign of repression, which they named ‘Operation De-louse.’ In a series of developments that has many similarities to the New Zealand colonial governors’ attempts to suppress the Mau movement in Samoa twenty years earlier, the government ordered the arrests of the leaders of the movement. They were charged, under the British Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 and the Seditious Meetings Act of 1817, with conspiring to overthrow the government and holding illegal courts. When the main chiefs were sentenced to six years hard labour, Malaitans responded with mass civil disobedience, refusing to pay the Head Tax or participate in the census. Most villages erected fences delineating the limits of government jurisdiction, a few built fortifications to keep out the government officers and police altogether.

Over the next four years the government mobilised police recruited from the Western Solomon Islands to carry out thousands of arrests of supporters of Maasina Ruru.  Since the arrestees offered no resistance, the government was soon faced with overflowing prison camps – and increasing resentment. After winning some concessions, and under the pressure of continued arrests and repression, the movement eventually subsided.

The Solomons were granted independence in 1978 – but there had been very little capitalist development in the colonial period. Even today 75% of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture. The Solomons per capita GDP in 2020 was US$2,300 (World Bank estimate) compared to $52,000 for Australia and $64,000 for the US. The capitalist coconut and palm oil plantations such as the Lever Brothers operations, and later the exploitation of the Solomons’ tropical forests by Malaysian logging companies, brought a little export income into government coffers but did little to advance domestic trade and the development of a national market, around which a national consciousness could develop. Aside from the Maasina Rule movement – which did form a kind of nation out of distinct and sometimes hostile tribes and language groups, but was mainly confined to Malaita – there was no Solomons-wide national struggle which could forge a sense of national identity1.  

Politics in the Solomons since independence have consequently been marked by frictions and resentments between different ethnic groups, in particularly those involving the Malaitans, who continue to make up a large proportion of those living as wage-labourers throughout the islands, as well as the civil service and police. There are villages of Malaitans in many provinces, and Malaitans make up about 15% of the population of Honiara.

In the late 1990s, when the collapse of world prices for its timber exports brought about a steep decline in jobs, incomes, and government revenues, the crisis erupted into civil war between two militias based on ethnicity. In the name of defending the indigenous land rights of the Guadalcanal people, a militia called the Isatabu Freedom Movement began a campaign of intimidation and violence against Malaitan settlers in Guadalcanal.2 Thousands of Malaitans were forced to flee their homes in Guadalcanal.

Armed rebels from the Malaita Eagle Force in 2000.
Armed rebels from the Malaita Eagle Force in 2000. Photo: Koji Sasahara

The Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF), a Malaitan militia with ties to the police, was formed in response. The conflict escalated into civil war in which at least 200 people died, and a coup by the MEF which forced the Prime Minister to resign in 2000. After this, both militias increasingly took to looting, extortions and brutalisations of the civilians they claimed to be defending. Consequently, the RAMSI intervention from Australia and New Zealand in 2003 was widely welcomed throughout the islands.  The militias were quickly suppressed by RAMSI.

Australian RAMSI troops destroy weapons collected from the disbanded militias in an amnesty. Photo: Australian DFAT

Now the Solomon Islands and Malaita in particular are once again being drawn into the conflicts between rival imperialist powers over who is to rule the Asia-Pacific region – only today, it is the rivalry between the United States and its Australian ally on one hand, and China on the other.

In 2019, the Sogavare government ended a 36-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and established official relations with Beijing – in defiance of considerable pressure from the United States and Australia. Beijing was reported to have offered US$500 million in aid. Just days later, it was announced that an agreement had been signed for China to lease the entire island of Tulagi, with its large deep-water harbour. (The agreement was later ruled illegal by the Solomons attorney general.)  China agreed to pay for a 74-million dollar stadium in Honiara for the 2023 Pan-Pacific games, a project previously led by Taiwan.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare with Premier Li Keqiang of China at the Great Hall of the People, during a visit to Beijing in October 2019. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein, AP

Such projects are a continuation of years of jockeying for position between the competing imperialist powers. When the Chinese company Huawei announced in 2017 that it planned to lay a cable and provide the Solomon Islands with a high-speed internet connection, Australia threatened to withhold a connection license when the cable reached Sydney, citing security concerns. It countered by offering to pay for a cable itself. After Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands is the next-largest recipient of Australian aid, receiving $157 million in 2019-20.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Photo: Darren England, AAP

Alongside such huge state-funded projects, there is also increased private investment from China in recent years, as reflected in the high proportion of shops and businesses in Honiara that are owned by Chinese immigrants.

In the relatively underdeveloped Malaita province, where Taiwanese aid has been significant, opposition to the diplomatic switch to China runs deep. In defiance of the national decision, Malaita maintained its relationship with Taiwan, and continued to receive aid, including food aid and personal protective equipment during the Covid pandemic. Taiwan gives a large proportion of its aid in the form of ‘consituency development funds’ given to individual MPs to spend as they see fit – which anti-corruption groups have described as slush funds used to garner electoral support. The Malaitan provincial government banned investments in the province from the PRC. For its part, the US also pledged US$25 million to the Malaita province in 2020, a figure fifty times more than it received from all nations in 2018.  

The premier of Malaita province, Daniel Suidani, announced plans to hold a referendum on Malaitan independence in September 2020, citing opposition to the diplomatic ties with China as the chief reason why Malaitan independence was needed. The Solomons government quickly declared that such a referendum would be illegal and threatened court action if Suidani proceeded.  

Premier of Malaita province, Daniel Suidani

With this form of expression suppressed, the Malaitan discontent was channeled into demands for Sogavare’s resignation.  A statement from the Malaitan provincial government on the recent events deplores the rioting, but adds that “For too long our people have been treated as rubber stamps, lied to at election time and discarded like empty tins until the next election. People like Sogavare and his Cabinet take this as a mandate to ignore, demean and violate our people and their hopes and their resources for their own purposes. We are sad to see the looting that has happened this week; we are even more sad to see the looting of our national treasury, the rape of our children by loggers and miners, the pillaging of our lands, forests and seas by foreigners for the years past, aided and abetted by Sogavare.” The statement reiterates the call for Sogavare’s resignation.

So this is the status quo that Australian and New Zealand troops have been sent to contain and maintain in the Solomons: the poverty and underdevelopment, coupled with vulnerability to price fluctuations in a small number of raw materials, the over-exploitation of natural resources and the inequalities, a nation fractured by inter-ethnic tensions, and a government that resorts to repression and violence when faced with any serious opposition. Above all, the purpose of the intervention is to maintain the domination of Australian capital over the Solomon Islands and, in alliance with the United States, over the wider region.   

It is the logic of inter-imperialist rivalry which drives this intervention: if Australia had not been the ‘best friend’ and heeded the call for help from the Solomons government, Sogovare would naturally have turned to his ‘new friend,’ China. But in sending troops to the Solomons, Australia finds itself propping up a government which is gravitating towards China despite that support. Meanwhile its ally the United States is, for the narrowest of reasons, actively promoting Malaitan separatism and undermining the very political stability that Australia seeks. Such is the state of the world in the epoch of the decay of US imperialist power.

The long-term goal of Australia/New Zealand/US alliance, for a stable pro-US government in Honiara, seems to have about as much chance of success as the alliance’s war in Afghanistan.

Footnotes:
1. There was a hard-fought independence struggle in the island of Bougainville in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bougainville is geographically part of the Solomons, but was handed to the German empire by the British as part of a trade-off between the big imperialist powers in 1898, and became part of German New Guinea. The secessionist movement of the 1990s fought for independence from Papua New Guinea. Some of the weapons from that fight were used in the Solomon Islands civil war in 1999.

2. Isatabu is the indigenous name for the island; Guadalcanal was the name given by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña in 1568.

One response to “Why the Australian-New Zealand military adventure in the Solomon Islands is bound to fail

  1. Thank you very much for this incredibly in-depth and detailed article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! I have also recently posted an article on what’s happening in the Solomon Islands containing some ideas on solutions. If you have the chance, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my article! Wishing you all the best 🙂

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