Friday, April 28, 2006

Peter Sheppard: Solomons need more time

I have just spent a month in the Solomon Islands and would like to provide some perspective on the situation in Honiara. Two of the most important issues in the election were the corruption of the previous government in its relations with Chinese businessmen and the Government of Taiwan, and the future of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi), to which New Zealand contributes resources.

Racist anti-Asian politics are not new to the region. For many years Chinese Solomon Islanders have formed a class of shopkeepers and many people resent their success and wealth and their apparent failure to integrate. As one person told me, "They have secret societies, you know".

In the past five years many Chinese have entered the country, many seemingly from the People's Republic of China. Many are wealthy businessmen who have financial ties to China. They have invested heavily in the Solomons, including in the Pacific Casino Hotel complex, destroyed in the rioting. These men are involved in national and local politics.

Taiwan and China have been playing cheque-book diplomacy as they fight for influence in the Solomons and in the greater Pacific region.

Rumours allege these governments pay politicians and the ruling party. These claims ring true for the people in the villages who have first-hand experience with Asian logging companies that routinely solve local problems by under-the-table deals.

As one Asian businessman told me, "We are closing down our logging business and leaving the country because too many people want money. We just pay off one guy and someone else appears."

The New Zealand Government must consider how it can provide aid and help eliminate corruption. Perhaps Taiwan and China need to be brought on board.

The future of the assistance mission was of concern to people in the Solomons. On the one hand they are afraid it might disappear, while on the other they resent the Australian dominance. Often the average person says Australians are racist but considers Kiwis to be "Island people, just like us, who understand us and our problems."

Ex-pat friends who have provided country orientation courses for the assistance mission say Australians consider them a joke. A common feeling in Honiara last weekend was that the assistance mission members was too heavy-handed in their use of teargas at Parliament and elsewhere, enraging what had been a peaceful protest and forcing people down the hill into the town.

Solomons police are described as badly equipped compared with the assistance mission members, who are fully armed.

It is to the assistance mission's credit that they did not fire on the crowd and we must remember that no one died and not one gun was fired. In this respect the troubles were much less frightening than when I was in the country in 2000 during the ethnic tensions when young men carried automatic weapons.

The success of the no-confidence motion will take some of the heat off the assistance mission, and our Government must try to give it more of a public face as a multi-country operation and try to moderate the hard edges of the Australians. If John Howard wants to carry a big stick as Bush's sheriff, he needs to walk softly or he will find himself frozen out of the region by the people he means to "protect".

We hear much about corruption in the Solomons and it is true that corruption, or what many Solomon Islanders would see as a familiar form of patronage, is common.

In a resthouse in a remote village four weeks ago, the cleaner approached me with a large wad of $5 bills she had found under the bed. I told her they weren't mine and she said they probably belonged to the last occupants, campaigning politicians.

Democracy is a cultural construct. It takes time to grow and can be destroyed overnight. Democracy in the Solomon Islands is barely 30 years old and I would wager it was not long ago that politicians in Auckland, Sydney or New York carried wads of $5 bills.

The Solomon Islands is a neighbour with ties to New Zealand that go back to the mission at Mission Bay. We should not fail to help a neighbour in need. The people of the Solomons are hard working. The country is beautiful, with world-class diving and fishing. Just ask the New Zealand assistance mission members, who like to extend their stays or go back for further tours of duty.

* Peter J. Sheppard is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland.

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