No calm on these Pacific isles

Solomon Islands coup yesterday mirrors continuing hostage crisis in Fiji.

Forget the idyllic images of coconut palms and spinnaker-white beaches.

Angry indigenous islanders are forging a new image of the South Pacific - that of young men brandishing assault rifles.

Armed rebels in the Solomon Islands staged a coup yesterday, taking the prime minister hostage and seizing control of the capital, Honiara. It's a carbon copy of the tactics employed in nearby Fiji on May 19. There, a constitutional crisis continues as ethnic Fijians hold the country's elected prime minister and about 30 other officials hostage.

The region as a whole, says Clive Moore, a historian at the University of Queensland, Australia, is getting "increasingly unstable as time goes on."

In the Solomon Islands and Fiji, ethnic animosity fuels the unrest. In Papua New Guinea, a government pushing economic reforms is teetering politically while a secessionist movement threatens the copper-rich island of Bougainville. The neighboring Indonesian province of Irian Jaya is seeing a new push for independence. In New Caledonia there are ongoing demands for indigenous Kanak independence. Elsewhere, there are reports of Russian mobsters laundering billions through Samoa, Nauru, and Vanuatu.

One explanation for the surge in unrest lies in timing, Professor Moore says. Most of the island nations are a generation removed from independence. The tenuous political systems left by colonial rule - usually part copies of their colonial rulers and part traditional indigenous systems - are beginning to unravel.

In the Solomons, the archipelago's largest island, Guadalcanal, has been plagued by ethnic tension for more than 18 months. Only last month, peace talks were about to get under way. But yesterday's coup by one of two opposing militias - the Malaitan Eagle Force - is, at least, a setback for a peaceful settlement.

The crisis in Fiji is now worse than the two coups in 1987 that led to a decade of international condemnation, according to Brij Lal, head of Australian National University's Center for Contemporary Pacific Studies.

Unlike the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Fiji had emerged from previous coups as an example of how to restore ethnic harmony and begin building a strong island economy. After the 1987 coups, which took advantage of a prejudice within the indigenous Fijian community against Fijians of Indian descent (about 45 percent of the population), the country last year elected its first ethnic Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

But, Professor Lal says, "we're now seeing the dismantling of Fiji as we know it." In fact, he predicts, the country is now set to go back to the kind of armed conflicts between rival islands that predated the 1874 arrival of Europeans.

George Speight, the US-educated former insurance salesman who led the Fiji coup, is pressing to be the new prime minister.

Talks to free the hostages - between Fiji's military leaders and Mr. Speight - broke down yesterday. Fiji is now under martial law. The country's military rulers said they would grant amnesty for Speight and his core group but he would not be allowed to participate in an interim Fiji government. The military's position hardened after the European Union said it would not buy Fiji sugar if Speight has a role in the government.

Speight claims he is acting on behalf of ethnic Fijians. "I'm fiercely nationalistic and concerned with the plight of my people," he told Australian television. "The Aborigines understand what I'm doing for my people. The Maoris understand what I'm doing for my people."

But he is also clearly anti-Indian and has peppered his speeches with racist diatribes against ethnic Indians in Fiji.

Similar racist rhetoric is becoming common in the Solomon Islands too, where Guadalcanal islanders last year evicted people from the neighboring island of Malaita. One Guadalcanal rebel leader used derogatory language to refer to Malaitans at a previous peak in the crisis while Malaitans, who make up most of the workforce, have accused Guadalcanal islanders of laziness.

In both Fiji and the Solomons the situation is also complicated by the thorny issue of land ownership. On Guadalcanal, immigrant Malaitans have bought land from traditional owners since the end of World War II. But the question of succession eventually grew into an emotional issue and the fear of Guadalcanal islanders losing their land was one of the inspirations behind the creation of the Isatabu Freedom Movement in 1998.

In Fiji, the irritant has been a series of 30-year leases given to Indian sugar-cane farmers at independence in 1970 that are expiring this year, and traditional ties to the land that make politics complicated.

"In Melanesia people may sell you their land and still think they own it," says Moore. "Our ideas of freehold and title" aren't understood.

In both countries, the issue of land is partly driven by jealousy over the accomplishments of a migrant ethnic group, Moore says. For instance, the indigenous Fijians own most of the land and continue to control the island group's politics. But "the business side of the economy in Fiji is dominated by the Indians.... In a sense, they [ethnic Fijians] don't really hold their economy."

Just when and how the crises will end remains unclear.

A State Department spokesman last week said the US was now considering a range of steps that "could have serious impact on Fiji's international contacts and outside assistance." Both Australia and New Zealand have also pledged to impose sanctions on Fiji.

In the Solomons, the peace process nearly under way last month was being led by former Fijian strongman Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the 1987 coups, and was interrupted by the latest coup in Fiji.

Clearly frightened at the possibility of a move to overthrow it, the government of the Solomons had approached Cuba for military aid in a move some saw as an attempt to spark more interest for its plight in Canberra and Wellington. But now it appears the Malaitan Eagle Force, which led the coup, is likely to engage its rival, the Isatabu Freedom Movement, more directly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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