Solomon Islands: Australia attempts to suppress pro-democracy revolt

Published: 25/04/2007

Written by: Diane Fieldes
Originally listed under: Edition 103 - May 2006

In April a warning went out throughout the South Pacific - if you fight for your rights, you'll be suppressed by the Australian government. Fortunately, the government didn't get its way.

Troops from the imperialist intervention force euphemistically known as the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) were deployed against pro-democracy demonstrators, provoking the initial confrontation by firing on them with tear gas.

No wonder 13 Australian police vehicles were torched, and buildings associated with the occupying forces, such as the Pacific Casino Hotel, were targeted.

Howard sent extra troops to reinforce the crooked election outcome. The Australian government wanted to send a clear message that they run the Solomon Islands, and what they say goes.

Despite the efforts of RAMSI in imposing a curfew, prohibiting demonstrations and locking up two opposition MPs to try to rig the vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Snyder Rini, the degree of popular hostility to him saw other MPs change their votes and Rini was replaced.

What are the Australian military and police doing in the Solomon Islands in the first place?

RAMSI began in July 2003 with the arrival of 2500 police and troops, mostly from Australia. The RAMSI occupation has also taken over all the key posts in the prisons, courts, finance and other key government departments. At pay rates much higher than the locals, they are there to fix this "failed state" and bring "good governance".

According to Solomon Islands Anglican bishop Terry Brown, the "fixing" has meant more violence, poverty, unemployment and corruption, with millions spent on the Australians who lord it over the country. He described RAMSI as "more and more like an occupying army".

Australia's presence in the Solomons has nothing to do with supporting democracy. Quite the opposite.

The consensus in the Australian ruling class is that their military must be able to put down revolts and to threaten independent governments that dare to challenge Australian imperialism's dominance of its "backyard". They need to destroy all resistance not only to their military domination but also to the neoliberal policies that have undermined jobs, health and other social services.

Of course, they don't try to justify their domination in these terms. In language reminiscent of the "white man's burden", Howard proclaimed Australia's "humanitarian" mission in the South Pacific: "Australia is far and away the biggest, the wealthiest and the strongest country in the region and we have to be prepared to shoulder the major part of the burden" in what he calls "our own part of the world".

Both the ALP and the Greens have applauded Howard; their only criticisms have been from the right. In April Kim Beazley proclaimed: "We started too late... But ... this area is where we ought to be. This is our backyard."

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle had already distinguished herself on 26 November 2003: "The Australian Defence Force should be congratulated for ... bringing new peace to the Solomon Islands. ... [T]his disastrous situation and the hundreds of millions of dollars it is due to cost Australian taxpayers could have been averted if the current government had come to the assistance of the Solomon Islanders when requested in 2000."

Why can opponents of the war in Iraq also be warmongers? The problem is that neither the Greens nor Labor oppose Australian imperialism. This is no surprise in the case of the ALP. After all, they have at times been the government that sent troops to war, as the Hawke government did in the 1991Gulf War.

The Greens have the same nationalist approach as Labor - that the war in Iraq is not in the "national interest". They don't oppose the occupation of Iraq on principle, but on the basis that "our" troops should be fighting terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region instead. "We've got a lot to do in our own region," said Bob Brown, "we shouldn't go ... sending Australians to Baghdad".

Similarly, left-wing support for "humanitarian" intervention in East Timor made it easier for the Australian government to launch further attacks on neighbouring states. What's happened in the Solomons is the outcome of this position.

Australian imperialism is the problem, so it can never be the solution for the mass of the region's population. It causes the problems that its military interventions pretend they want to solve.

In the 1990s, imperialism began to impose neoliberal policies throughout the Pacific: massive public sector job cuts, free trade and regressive value-added taxes. In June 2002, the Solomons asked the IMF, the World Bank and "donor" countries for a substantial injection of funds.

Canberra demanded in return further slashing of jobs and government spending. Imperialist-imposed austerity programs have intensified social tensions, often triggering destructive communal and ethnic conflicts, as well as class antagonisms. The crisis arising from neoliberal economic policy provided the pretext for direct military and political intervention a few years later.

Nationalist illusions in the benign possibilities of Australian intervention just make you part of the cheer squad for Australian militarism and racism.