Soloman Islands: Popular revolt forces PM to quit

"If there were any doubts about the odium in which Synder Rini was held by the people of Honiara they were quickly dispelled yesterday", the April 27 Sydney Morning Herald reported. "Within minutes of his reluctant resignation being broadcast on national radio, city streets were choked with cars, vans and trucks blasting their horns and mobs of young men dancing and waving tree branches in jubilation.

"In this tiny archipelago nation, the removal of the highly unpopular prime minister, a leader deeply tarnished by money politics and influence peddling, was celebrated with all the enthusiasm of a World Cup football march victory. They hailed his departure as a victory for democracy and popular revolt over corrupt politics."

The April 5 general election for the country’s 50-member parliament was the first held since the July 2003 colonial-style takeover of the country’s judicial system, the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) and key government departments such as the finance ministry, by the Australian-dominated Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

At the time of the election, there were 250 Australian Federal Police (AFP) deployed in the country, plus 80 foreign (mostly Australian) civilian "advisers" to the Solomons government, and 20 foreign (mostly Australian) law officers serving as judges and prosecutors.

In the election, the 340,000 voters ousted half of the incumbent MPs, including 11 ministers. The coalition of MPs that had supported the RAMSI-backed government of PM Sir Allan Kemakeza and deputy PM Synder Rini, was reduced from 33 to 17 MPs. Rini himself retained his seat with only 29% of the vote under the "first past the post" voting system.

However, when the new parliament convened on April 18, Rini was elected PM by a vote of 27 to 23. As news of Rini’s election reached a crowd of opposition supporters outside the parliament building, they immediately began demanding his resignation. AFP and RSIP officers dispersed the crowd with tear gas.

Widespread suspicion of vote-buying by Rini triggered riots that night that resulted in the looting and burning of businesses in Honiara’s Chinatown district.

Both Kemakeza and Rini have close ties to the small number of ethnic Chinese families that own the best land and the largest commercial businesses in Honiara. The president of Rini’s party, the Association of Independent Members of Parliament, is naturalised Chinese business tycoon Sir Thomas Chan, whose brother Laurie served as foreign minister under Kemakeza and was renamed to the post by Rini.

Within 48 hours of the April 18-19 riots, Australia dispatched 220 troops and 100 extra police to the Solomons. New Zealand dispatched 53 soldiers, bringing to 100 the number of its military and police personnel serving in RAMSI.

In stark contrast to its failure over the last three years to investigate opposition MPs’ allegations of corruption against Kemakeza and Rini, RAMSI moved quicky to attempt to shore up the numbers of MPs backing Rini’s government by arresting two opposition MPs – Nelson Ne’e and Charles Dausaben – who had criticised RAMSI in the lead-up to the April 5 election.

In the Honiari Magistrates Court on April 24, Australian magistrate Keith Boothman refused to grant bail to Ne’e after he was arrested by the RSIP on charges of inciting violence. Solomons director of public prosecutions John Cauchi, also an Australian, told the court that Ne’e had called on the crowd outside the parliament on April 18 to "dynamite parliament". Ne’e denied the charges and said his arrest was not criminal, but political.

The next day, Boothman refused bail to opposition MP Charles Dausaben, who had been charged with inciting violence for allegedly telling protesters outside the parliament on April 18 to do "what you like now". Dausaben denied the charges, pointing out that the clashes with the police began while he was still in the parliamentary sitting.

Opposition MP Bart Ulufa’alu told the media that the AFP was behind the prosecution’s demand that Ne’e and Dausaben be denied bail. Drawing a direct comparison with the suppression of political dissent under British colonial rule prior to the granting of independence in 1978, he said: "I come from a background when under colonial rule they used to arrest me for trade union activities. What foreign forces can do is suppress the rights of the people."

RAMSI’s provision of heavily-armed troops to protect Rini and its jailing of Ne’e and Dausaben confirmed the growing belief among many of Honiara’s 50,000 residents, particularly the tens of thousands of unemployed youth who inhabit the city’s squatter camps, that RAMSI’s "law and order" mission is really aimed at protecting the country’s corrupt politicians and their naturalised Chinese business allies.

The April 26 Australian reported that "young islanders openly sneer at the heavily armed Australian troops making their rounds of Honiara’s market", adding that "when you have a prime minister such as Snyder Rini – who many in the country believe should be behind bars, his own protestations of being corruption-free notwithstanding – openly predicting further arrests of opposition members at his press conferences, it is impossible for RAMSI’s neutrality not to be brought into question …

"Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Solomons’ political machinations, there is little doubt that the legitimacy that RAMSI and thus Australia’s presence in the nation has enjoyed is now seriously under threat."

This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly and is reprinted here with permission from the editor.