Australia's Pacific intervention hits snag

Protests after this month's vote in the Solomon Islands hamper Australian nation building.

The outbreak of violence following this month's general elections in the tiny South Pacific country of the Solomon Islands has dealt a setback to Australia's efforts to establish a viable democracy there.

In 2003, Australia announced that it would send an intervention force to take care of the widespread political corruption and violence that was threatening to turn the archipelago of more than 1,000 islands into a failed state.

The mission - widely seen as a reversal of a policy of noninterference with neighbors - was prompted by a plea for help from leaders in the Solomons, as well as concern in Canberra that the lawless islands could become a haven for global terrorist activity.

The expedition met quick success. Australian forces confiscated tons of illegal firearms, charged hundreds of people with murder, and persuaded Harold Keke, the most notorious warlord on the main island of Guadalcanal, to surrender. With peace largely restored, Australia had begun focusing on economic development and sent home many of the troops stationed there.

Last week, however, many of those troops were sent back to put down postelection riots, prompting analysts here to caution that sustaining peace on the Solomons will require a much longer, and more complicated, effort by Australia of developing durable political institutions.

"In 2003, we elected to take on this responsibility and we elected also not to take it to the security council at the UN, partly to avoid an added layer of bureaucracy, so it's our job now to see it through," says Michael Fullilove, a political analyst at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney.

Protesters loot and burn Chinatown

Surrounded by a ring of steel to prevent mobs from approaching, the newly elected prime minister for the Solomon Islands was sworn in Monday. Snyder Rini's election on April 5 sent protesters earlier this month on a rampage, looting and burning the local Chinatown in the capital city of Honiara. The demonstrators saw Mr. Rini as a continuation of the previous regime, which they viewed as corrupt.

The opposition said Rini, elected by 27 of 50 members of the new parliament, had won because money had been paid to members of parliament by Chinese businessmen. At the same time there were claims that the Taiwanese government had paid to get Rini elected.

The previous regime had also been tarnished by reports that the then prime minister had received large sums of money from Taiwanese soft loans designed to retain diplomatic status with the Solomon Islands in competition with China.

Both China and Taiwan provide investment in the islands as both vie for geopolitical advantage in the region.

"We, the Chinese people here, have become an easy target for the islanders as we made money," says the spokesman of the Chinese community in Honiara, Patrick Leong, who arrived from China 40 years ago.

Mr. Leong has lost a nightclub, an apartment, a casino, and a hotel in the riots.

However, he does not plan to return to China. "Oh no, this is my home and that's what I have told all those Chinese people who have left on charter flights in the last two days - don't go, things are going to improve now."

More than 600 Chinese people have been displaced by the violence, with about half of them returning to China.

Leong is a personal friend of Prime Minister Rini, and while the wealthier businessmen may exercise influence in politics there, the poorer ones are not so confident that the situation will improve for them. Some of these Chinese refugees are expected to apply for asylum in Australia.

'No one is above the law'

Despite the recent unrest, Monday's swearing-in of parliament went off peacefully. Rini said that law and order had been restored and those responsible for inciting the violence would be arrested. "No one is above the law in this country," he said.

While the ceremony gave the archipelago a chance to catch its breath, South Pacific watchers are concerned about Canberra's readiness to cope with the task ahead. The Solomon Islands was a British protectorate until 1978, and has 100 language groups and many ethnic rivalries.

"How do you create a nation out of a highly tribalized society where 80 percent of the people live in villages and where there is no highly developed sense of citizenship?" asks Sinclair Dinnen, an expert on the region at the Australian National University in Canberra. "Half the time people are elected there because of kinship or having some sort of status in the society which we are unaware of."

"We are treating nation building, like a super-aid project and we are over-simplifying the project to a DIY [do-it-yourself] manual, and unfortunately it's not that easy. Institutions understood in Canberra can't be just superimposed on to Honiara. It won't work," Mr. Dinnen adds.

The pressure to establish democratic norms may even alienate some of the locals.

"There have been huge levels of support for the Australian presence there, and there is a danger that that level of support will be lost, partly because of stressing that the results of a democratically held election should be respected. There is a danger that if the prime minister is seen as a criminal by the people, then the Aussie troops will be tarnished by association, as they are in the business of giving him protection," says Dinnen.

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