19, 2000 VOL. 158 NO. 24
An armed rebel from the Malaita Eagle Force stands guard outside the
house of the Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu who is inside under
the Solomon Islands, an intercultural conflict explodes as rebels place
the Prime Minister under house arrest
By PATTRICK SMELLIE
Coup leader Speight is running out of options
At either end of the bridge across Alligator Creek late last week, fighters
in the front line of the Solomon Islands' messy civil strife were dug
in. At the town end near Honiara airport was the Malaita Eagle Force (mef),
a police-dominated militia with heavy weapons stolen from the police armory.
They were facing members of the rag-tag Isatabu Freedom Movement (ifm),
many barely in their teens, who were carrying home-made pipe guns.
Just days after the mef had backed former Finance Minister Andrew Nori
in his June 5 coup against the government of reformist Prime Minister
Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, a stalemate of sorts appeared to have been reached.
In a nod to constitutional respectability, Nori has since allowed the
Prime Minister to continue working under mef guard and tied Ulufa'alu's
future to this Friday's no confidence vote in Parliament--the first allowed
against the Alliance for Change government since it survived three such
votes in quick succession in 1998.
ALSO IN TIME
and his backers hope to replace Ulufa'alu, who the mef believes has been
ineffective in stopping the ethnic cleansing of Malaita islanders from
Guadalcanal island over the past 18 months. The mef's attacks are also
revenge against the ifm forces, whose terror tactics of murder, torture,
rape and village burning have driven some 20,000 Malaitans back to Malaita
and into the capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal. Since the purge began in
October 1998, at least 60 people have been killed.
edition's table of contents
The future of this string of hundreds of islands between Papua New Guinea
and Fiji, independent since 1978 and still defining its nationhood, now
rests on how it deals with these ethnic tensions and its crippled economy.
As in Fiji and West Papua, which added to the sudden surge in Melanesian
instability by declaring independence from Indonesia last week, the issue
underpinning the Solomons conflict is migration. The influx to Guadalcanal
from all over the archipelago, but especially from neighboring Malaita,
has fueled land disputes and resentment at the comparative success of
In an effort to restore calm, Anglican Archbishop Ellison Pogo last week
ordered the men of the church's Melanesian Brotherhood to split into two
groups and meet with both rebel camps. A religious order whose high standing
makes them a pivotal force for peace on the island, especially in the
absence of an effective police force, the Brothers are based in ifm country.
They travel unmolested despite their heroic efforts to protect Malaitans
from ifm fighters during the terror campaigns.
"The two [Anglican and Roman Catholic] archbishops and the Solomon Islands
Christian Association have probably prevented civil war so far," says
Amnesty International's South Pacific research director, Heinz Schurmann-Zeggel.
But he adds that their success may also have lulled Australian and New
Zealand peace negotiators into believing the situation was less volatile
than the latest conflict shows. Now Archbishop Pogo wants limited foreign
help to guard Honiara's fragile infrastructure. "We have two petrol stations
right in the center of town," he says. "When they are blown up, that's
the end of Honiara. It would be an act of national suicide."
Honiara's future as the capital is not assured, anyway. Established after
World War II from the remains of an American air force base, the town
of 45,000 is the country's biggest source of jobs, but it is now also
effectively a Malaitan enclave. "Ninety-nine point eight per cent of Guadalcanal
is in the hands of Guadalcanal people--only Honiara is in the hands of
the others," said European Parliament member and would-be mediator John
Corrie after his plane was strafed as it prepared to leave the capital.
"I can't see that holding."
It was not clear whether last week's fighting would escalate as a Commonwealth
ministerial mission headed to Honiara on June 10. Indiscriminate shelling
of ifm areas by the mef from an Australian-supplied patrol boat seems
not to have killed the 50 to 100 claimed, but it still represented a serious
escalation of hostilities.
While the coup provoked comparisons with the recent one in Fiji, the greater
influence on the Guadalcanal uprising is the decade-long independence
struggle in Bougainville, says Pogo. Up to 9,000 Bougainvilleans fled
to the Solomons during that fighting. Most settled on Guadalcanal and
sympathized with the locals' resistance to migrants seeking work and land
on their island.
Yet while ethnic tensions are at the heart of the conflict, there are
other causes. Ulufa'alu was implementing an International Monetary Fund
economic reform program whose measures upset powerful politicians and
businessmen. Guadalcanalians were also angry that the government was selling
its stake in the country's largest palm oil plantation, a major employer.
Meanwhile, Malaitans were bearing the brunt of heavy cuts in the public
service, as well as suffering ethnic purges. But the Solomons have never
been a unified nation. The Western Province leans toward secession, and
there are calls for a federal system to reflect the diversity of a country
with 120 languages, where island of origin defines identity far more than
Amnesty's Schurmann-Zeggel warns the Solomons conflict is already more
deadly than the coup in Fiji. "The risk of people being killed in large
numbers is far greater," he says. "In Fiji, you have an army trying to
create order. In the Solomons [where there is no army], police officers
who have not joined the mef are reported to be staying at home or in hiding.
There is no one to create order."
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