In shift, Australia offers helping hand to Solomons

Next week, the violence-wracked nation is expected to debate Australia's offer to send military and police aid.

The Solomon Islands is a nation coming undone. Parliament has not sat for more than five months because it can't pay its power bill. Armed militia control the police and intimidate government ministers at gunpoint.

Years of ethnic violence have emptied the archipelago's coffers to the point where some government officials have even suggested selling passports for extra cash. But that has raised the fear that terrorists could use the sandy haven as a place to get guns and change identities.

Until now, Australia has watched the turmoil from a distance, restricting its involvement to aid and monitoring activities.

"Australia has been very reluctant in the past to get involved in the internal affairs of the South Pacific countries. That would be seen to be a neocolonialist attitude," says Hugh White, head of Canberra's Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

But attitudes are changing here in the wake of terror attacks last October in Bali that killed 88 Australians. With a somber eye toward regional security, Australia is taking a newly muscular approach, offering to send in military and police forces to help restore order.

The islands' parliament is expected to debate the offer this month. Most observers believe it will be accepted.

Just three years ago, the Australian government refused a plea for intervention by former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu. Mr. Ulufa'alu was subsequently overthrown at gunpoint by police who were aligned with a militia group, and the situation worsened.

Describing it as "a petri dish for transnational crime," White says that "rather than the country reverting to a premodern Pacific paradise, it has become a postmodern badlands, a haven for drugs, people smuggling, and mercenaries - like some of the more tragic parts of West Africa."

The Bali attacks forced Australia to pay more attention to potential terrorist havens in its neighborhood. Mr. White sees the Solomons as just such a place.

But other experts think that's an exaggeration.

"It's well out of southeast Asia ... and where does the terrorist go ? He could go from Japan to New Zealand, but that's not very likely, is it?" says Clive Williams, the head of the department of strategic and defense studies at the Australian National University.

Suspicious groups have moved through the country before, however. Just after the Bali bombings, two groups of Pakistani nationals on unknown business were tracked as they passed through Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands.

A three-hour flight from Australia, the Solomons is a country of 1,000 islands that together are the size of Maryland.

It was colonized reluctantly by the British in the late 19th century at Australia's behest, to ensure that no other imperial power gained a foothold there.

The British spent no money on development right up to the time of independence in 1978.

Ethnic rivalry, killings, and displacement of one tribe from their land by another, led to the further unraveling of the state.

Realizing that something had to be done, a diplomatic flurry in Canberra followed the coup in 2000. But Australia agreed only to send in an internal peace monitoring team to impound weapons. Gang violence continued.

"After three years of ethnic tensions, the law and order issue has been put to the Australians and New Zealand and we have every hope that things will work out," the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Allan Kemakeza, told the Monitor from his home in Honiara.

"We are still looking at the offer," Mr. Kemakeza said.

Australia's preferred option is to send in a multilateral police force, which would include New Zealanders, Australians, and others from the South Pacific nations.

In a report on the options for Australia published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the governor general of the Solomon Islands, Sir John Ini Lapli, said the offer of military intervention by Australia was "a long overdue step."

According to White, Australia - as the heavyweight in the South Pacific - has not been behaving responsibly toward its own back yard.

"In a sense, our standing in the region has been affected negatively by this desire to remain uninvolved," says White. "But it does require high levels of engagement."

White says that as a small country in the South Pacific with big problems, the Solomons could be used as "a test case" to see what sort of a difference Australia can make in the region.

According to Marie Louise O'Callaghan, an Australian journalist who has lived in the Solomon Islands for 15 years, Australia's policing offer has the backing of most of the islanders, including that of the armed gangs.

"Some of the guys with guns are not talking, but many of them have expressed a desire for the Australians to come in and put things back in order," she said.

And fears of neocolonial intentions are far from the minds of the islanders at this time.

One Solomon Islander told Ms. O'Callaghan that they would not be giving up much by having the Australians in their midst, since they had lost everything anyway.

Laurie Chan, the Solomon Islands' foreign minister, said in a phone interview, "Of course, it's our country and we are responsible for its destiny, but Australia is our big brother, if they don't help us this time, then we just go back to the violence."

Although no one has asked the British for help, a policeman from Manchester with funding from the European Union has recently gone to the Solomon Islands as the new police commissioner.

He's skeptical of the Australian plan.

"I don't think there's a simple solution that you can just transfer 100 police across and dump them in the Solomon Islands and that's going to solve your problems. It's not," Police Commissioner William Morrell, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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