Monday, April 24, 2006

Editorial: Treading Solomons tightrope

Restoring order to a failing state is one thing, defending its Government is quite another. New Zealand and other contributors to the regional peace-keeping force in the Solomon Islands need to be alert to the difference.

Our military and police contingents were sent to the Solomons three years ago to deal with a breakdown of law and order against a background of ethnic unrest. The mission was successful, up to the point that the country held its first peaceful election this month under international observation. The riots that erupted after the election, causing additional forces to be sent from this country and others, have a different cause.

The main issue in the election campaign was the suspected corruption of the previous Government, said to have received kickbacks from Taiwan for being one of the few governments in the world to give official recognition to that country. At the election, the Prime Minister's party lost more than half its seats but no other party gained an overall majority. When the 50-member new Parliament met last week to select a Prime Minister by secret ballot, they chose Snyder Rini, who had been Deputy Prime Minister in the previous Government.

The next day crowds in Honiara converged on Parliament. Driven back by Australian federal police using tear-gas, the mob pelted police with stones, injuring several and setting fire to police cars. Then it turned its attention on the Chinese area of the city, looting and torching shops, watched by Solomon Islands police, who reportedly did not intervene to protect the property of long-established Chinese families.

The protests were led by supporters of a rival candidate for Prime Minister, Job Dudley Tausinger. They accused Chinese businesses of bribing members of the Government and backing the selection of Snyder Rini.

In response to the violence, Australia has sent an additional 110 soldiers and 70 police. New Zealand rushed 25 more Army personnel and 30 police last week to add to its standing force of 82 in the Solomons. A further 53 soldiers left for Honiara yesterday. The reinforcements have restored order using street patrols and a dawn-to-dusk curfew imposed on the capital.

Now comes the hard part. The peace-keeping forces must tread carefully to avoid being tarred with sympathy for either side in the political contest. Already damaged buildings have been daubed with graffiti attacking the intervention forces as well as Mr Rini. It is impossible from this distance to make any judgments of the political protagonists. Mr Rini rejects corruption allegations and denies that his bid for power is backed by Taiwan interests.

It could equally be that his opposition is backed by Beijing. Both Taiwan and the People's Republic accuse each other of spending lavishly for recognition from states such as the Solomons. Both deny they had any influence on the Parliament's choice of Prime Minister. Mr Rini is confident he will survive a vote of no-confidence to be moved against him in Parliament which resumes today. His opponents are equally confident they will gather the numbers to defeat him.

Whatever happens, nothing will be resolved unless the losing side is prepared to accept the result. That is the essence of democracy and it cannot be defended indefinitely by external forces. The most that peacekeepers can do is protect people such as the Chinese shopkeepers who become scapegoats for political frustration. Outsiders have to be extremely careful when they stand between an angry people and their Parliament. The Solomons plainly have issues only the citizens can resolve.

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