As the New Zealand ‘mission’ in the Solomons is ending, the NZ government is patting itself on the back for its achievements.  NZ, it suggests, is a benign force in the Pacific and the intervention is presented as essentially humanitarian – saving lives and helping the people of the Solomons nation-build.  The article below first appeared in the August-October 2003 of revolution magazine, one of the predecessors of this site; it explains the real reasons for NZ intervention.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff and NZ soldiers in Honiara July 31, 2003. Another NZ imperialist intervention courtesy of the Labour Party. Pic: REUTERS/Stringer DG/FA

by Will Shannon

As we go to press, a substantial Australian-New Zealand force is being prepared for intervention in the Solomon Islands.  The NZ government will contribute up to 40 police and 200 troops, while Canberra is mobilising 1200 troops and 300 police.

Both governments are presenting this as a humanitarian-style intervention.  Former Solomons prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, however, has described the planned intervention as a move to recolonise and control the nation (DominionPost, July 10).  There is also anger at Australia’s proposal to put expatriates into government management positions as part of the intervention.

What is behind the planned intervention?

Business interests threatened

Ongoing fighting between rival ethnically-based militias on the main island of Guadalcanal has threatened western business interests in the Solomons.  Companies like Australian-owned Gold Ridge goldmine, which opened in 1998 and generated more than half the Solomon Islands’ GDP, have been forced to shut down.

In the words of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report, Our Failing Neighbour, launched on June 10 by Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, “the collapse of the Solomon Islands is depriving Australia of business and investment opportunities that, though not huge, are potentially valuable.”

That New Zealand and Australia have the formal approval from the leaders of the 16 financially-dependent Pacific Island Forum countries does not legitimise military intervention.  Nor will the expected ‘invitation’ of the Solomon Islands government.

Solomon Islands foreign affairs minister Laurie Chan embraced the decision to send troops, saying “we finally have a chance to feel safe, to get back to normal”.  However, for those Solomon Islanders who make up the majority and do not belong to the wealthy elite that Mr Chan does, normal is not exactly enticing.

Currently, the Solomon Islands has a population of around 450,000 and a gross domestic product of about $NZ650 million.  Yet its per capita GDP, which was a still lowly $NZ1475 in 1997 is now around a mere $NZ975.  While a few local elites prosper at the hands of foreign business, most of the population is forced to struggle to live on subsistence farming.

If the governments in Wellington and Canberra had any genuine humanitarian concerns for the people of the Solomon Islands they could simply hand over to them the technological and infrastructural resources necessary to transform their lives.  Instead, the New Zealand and Australian ruling elites are moving decisively to maintain the existing socio-economic set-up and assert their strategic interests in the Islands.  This will only reinforce the very problems which brought about the armed conflict in the first place.

The simple fact is that even if the Australian-NZ force is able to bully into submission the “armed militants and criminals” that the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Allan Kemakeza, and his government are supposedly powerless to do anything about, the vast majority of the population will continue to live a life of extreme poverty.

Economic frustration

In 1998 it was heightened economic frustration that led militant youth from Guadalcanal, home of the capital city Honiara, to begin arming themselves with World War 2 vintage rifles and homemade guns.  In the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, under pressure from Western ‘donors’, the government cut public spending and reduced jobs, causing even greater economic hardship.

Unfortunately, though, these indigenous Guadalcanal people, calling themselves the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) directed their anger not at the tiny Honiara elite and Western business interests, but at all Solomon Islanders of Malaitan descent.  The IFM openly set about driving all Malaitans from Guadalcanal simply because a small layer of these settlers had come to dominate the professional and ruling class of the Islands that was largely concentrated in Honiara.  Violent clashes between the IFM and the equally impoverished and economically frustrated youth of Malaitan descent who in early 2000 formed the rival Malaita Eagle Force (MEF).

Scarcity of public resources

A ceasefire agreement was signed in Townsville in October 2000.  However, continued economic frustration means that the remnants of these militias continue to cause havoc on Guadalcanal, disrupting the economy and government services such as health care and education.

The scarcity of public resources, which is behind the ‘ethnic’ conflict, is a reflection of the under-development and impoverishment imposed on the Solomons by imperialist domination.  For instance, in June 2002 a meeting with representatives of the International Monetary Fund and major donor countries, including Australia and New Zealand, was held in Honiara, at which Solomons prime minister Kemakaza was forced to agree to further substantial cuts in government spending – retrenching about 30 percent of public sector employees.

The situation is dire for most Solomon Islanders.  This is why they take up arms and yet Wellington and Canberra then use this as the pretext for military-police intervention.  For the people of the Solomons it is a Catch-22 situation.

This is no humanitarian intervention.  The Australian government, like its equally enthusiastic New Zealand counterpart, wants to restore ‘law and order’ to the Solomon Islands so that the imperialist plunder of its people and resources can continue.

There is an urgent need to oppose this intervention,  More broadly, we need to expose the way ‘humanitarian’ facades are frequently used these days both to justify imperialist interventions and neutralise public opinion which might otherwise oppose what are really invasions of other people’s countries.

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