US behind Australian military expedition into Solomons
Written by: John G. on 30 November 2021
Instability in the Solomons arises from capitalism operating within the country. Problems arising from development conflict with traditional customary land ownership as more people are dragged into capitalist relations of production and exchange. There is a deep background to the current conflict in the Solomons and the Australian-led imposition of armed forces in the streets of the capital.
For starters the national government has been fraught with financial troubles. A goldmine operation, representing nearly a third of Solomons exports, closed in 2014. 75% of its main export, tuna, is processed overseas leaving local plants selling internally and to a handful of island nations. The price of canned tuna, the main product, has been in decline for decades. The problems in the export sector and high transport costs limit the imposts the government can place on exports, a key element of government finances. The nation faces big financial hurdles when considering development projects and providing basic services to people.
People face problems with jobs, housing in urban centres, prices of necessities, education, healthcare and basic services; power, water, sewage and waste.
They intensify divisions existing with multiple languages, clan loyalties and rivalries.
Development centred in Honiara
75% of the labour force is involved in subsistence agriculture and fishing at any one time. Virtually every family has members who engage permanently, occasionally or for a limited time in the cash economy (capitalist relations of production and exchange) to provide funds for purchases of trade goods, clothing, building products, homewares, etc. The portion engaged in the cash/capitalist economy is steadily growing.
Capitalist development in the Solomon Islands has centred on Guadacanal, traditional lands of what are locally called Guale people, since American forces focused their headquarters and extensive bases at Honiara in WW2. Government offices, international trade, international tourism, port and other transport development have centred on Guadacanal. The island now has one third of the nation’s population including large numbers of migrants from other islands and overseas, while development on other islands with two thirds of the population has languished. The most populated of the nation’s island, Malaita, remains relatively undeveloped.
At Independence in 1978, all alienated customary land was returned to its traditional communal custodianship and is legally absolutely inalienable.
85% of the Solomon Islands lands are managed under ‘customary’ tenure in which control lies with local clans and clan groups, in which the people belong to the land. In the capitalist economy, this provides for clans and clan groups to rent land. There is a tendency for Honiara’s customary landholders to become landlord capitalists renting out land to work-seekers from other islands and overseas, thereby exploiting a portion of migrant income.
Housing prices are off the charts in Honiara in the last few years. Prices for basic necessities in the Solomon Islands are generally very high relative to incomes.
International & Internal Migrants compete for Guadacanal homes
Foreign migrant communities largely of Australians, NZers and Chinese along with government workers and institutions as well as traditional customary owners have dominated land use in the centres of capitalist development, particularly around the capital Honiara on Guadacanal. The growth in overseas immigration since the Australian led intervention of 2003 to 2017 has intensified pressures on land use in and around Honiara.
Intra-Solomons migrants from less developed islands are drawn to Honiara for work, education, healthcare, and to engage in trade. They find themselves economically exploited with very high rents and house prices. The poorly-paid are forced out to unserviced informal shanty-town settlements on the outskirts of Honiara, with poor if any water, power, sewage or waste services, as well as workers forced into separation from their families due to poor conditions.
While customary tenure is the constitutional framework, under capitalist development that is being compromised as village norms are being swept aside as urban capitalist life overtakes the Pacific idyll. Urges towards commercial and other developments weigh heavily on Pacific governments and local communities.
The need for housing for inter-island and intra-island migrants moving in or around Honiara for work, education, marriage, health services etc. is growing. By 2017 NZ researchers estimated 40% of Honiara’s population was living in informal settlements with patchy jerry-rigged water and power supply, limited if any sanitation and toilet facilities. They reflect the squeeze on housing and the difficulties of the migrant population. Formal urban housing is beyond the reach of the Solomon Islands villager going urban seeking employment, education, healthcare, etc. These tendencies run counter to traditional authority, custom and culture.
Growing urbanism and integration into capitalist relations of production and exchange, confront the land impasse aligning traditional customary land control with landlord capitalist tendencies.
Urban land and landlord capitalism
The landlord-tenant relationship between Guadacanal customary land owners and Malaitans, involves landlords taking a significant portion of surplus values Malaitan production workers create, taking a slice of tenant traders’ profits, and part of wages other commercial, government and other non-production workers earn. It is an exploitative relationship involving accumulation of capital within the control of people of Guadacanal, their building developers and financiers. Add the monopoly element of rents in developed areas and it’s also quite oppressive. It is right to rebel against such exploitation and oppression.
This broke out into open rebellion in 1998 with riots followed by repression by government police and armed forces. Malaitan migrants on Guadacanal turned to armed insurrection led by the Malaitan Eagle Force.
Australian armed forces and police were sent in in 2003, and led forces from NZ, Fiji and PNG, which decisively turned events in defence of Guadacanal customary landowners suppressing Malaitan migrants on Guadacanal and the wider Malaitan rebellion. It took 14 years before conflict settled enough and Solomon Islands state forces were trusted to maintain order sufficiently for the RAMSI forces to be withdrawn. It has taken just 4 years for the internal contradictions to reassert themselves, in a pressure cooker of conflict heated by big power rivalry and meddling.
Big Power Meddling, US-China rivalry
The imposition of unsustainable outcomes on the Solomon Islands by suppression of working people in favour of landlord capital has broken down. Key to that breakdown has been meddling by superpower rivals.
The Sogovare government had been in negotiations for some time in 2020 over establishing diplomatic relations with China, and was committed to ending the Solomon Islands recognition of Taiwan.
Not long prior to the Sogovare government’s announcement of establishing diplomatic relations with China, the US government sent a high-powered delegation in August 2020 including members from the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Trade, as well as embassy and aid personnel to meet with Malaitan Premier Daniel Suidani. There was no press statement, photograph, or social media post issued about the meeting and no announcement of what had been on the agenda and nor of any agreement.
But Suidani began crowing about American support and his intention to invite the US and Australian governments to assist with “Malaitan security.” The hand of US imperialism was clearly at the back of the Maliatan Premier.
With some form of assurance of American support, Suidani set out on instigating a pogrom. In addition to denouncing Chinese aid projects he announced Chinese nationals would not be allowed to visit. A pro-independence outfit “Malaita 4 Democracy,” demanded all ethnic Chinese businesspeople leave Malaita within 24 hours on 1 September. Many shops in the Malaita provincial centre of Auki were boarded up on September 2, before police intervened to prevent attacks.
In mid-September, Malaitan Premier Suidani announced he was planning an Independence referendum, touting it could be held in a few weeks.
On 17th September Suidani sponsored pro-Taiwan demonstrations on the island, whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment through anti-communist and evangelical Christian, anti-atheist rhetoric. The Malaitan provincial administration has been coordinating aid and economic assistance from Taipei, in defiance of Solomons national sovereignty. Suidani announced no Chinese aid projects or economic investment would be permitted on Malaita, and no Chinese nationals would be allowed to visit.
On the 25th of September 2020 the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. The US was furious. Vice President Mike Pence cancelled a meeting with Sogovare at the UN. Republican Senators threatened sanctions and called for aid to be stopped.
On 30 October 2019, the National government entered into agreements with the Chinese government, just 35 days after diplomatic relations were switched from Taiwan to China, for an $825 million development of a port, railway and hydro power station at Honiara and to reopen a nearby goldmine.
On 21 November 2019, the Malaitan Provincial government announced an agreement with the US to build a new fisheries and tourist harbour project on Malaita, the Bina Harbour and cannery project. The project had been bubbling away for ages without any firm undertakings. Australia quickly announced grants to support the American move. That development has been added to a major road project for 230kms of main roads and a new hospital build on Malaita funded by the World Bank.
US and Australia skirting sovereign national government
The US and Australian governments have been negotiating with the Malaitan provincial government directly skirting the National government and diplomatic norms, and meddling in the internal affairs of the sovereign Solomon Islands nation.
Despite the meddling, the National government has supported the Bina Harbour project, but has been locked in a familiar national leaders/ provincial leaders brawl.
In October, figures in the PM’s party pushed for a no-confidence motion in Premier Suidani to be pushed through the Malaita provincial legislature. It was withdrawn when thousands protested in the Malaitan capital Auki and women occupied the steps in front of parliament. Tensions between Malaitans and the national government leaders were high and being intensified.
In mid November, Malaitans held a solemn traditional ceremony, attended by cultural, ethnic, religious, and political leaders, bringing Malaitan communities together in an act of reconciliation after generations of enmity between clans.
The enmity went back to a 1927 killing of a colonial district officer and Malaitan members of his protection force in resistance to imposition of a colonial head tax. An extensive reprisal massacre was carried out by colonial administrators and foreign plantation owners leading relatives of the Malaitan dead. The reconciliation buried the hatchet on more than 90 years of Malaitan trauma and division. They also unveiled a plaque in honour of the leaders of the Solomon Islands independence movement, an implied slight to PM Sogovare. Not one of the PM’s party MPs attended.
A week later the national parliament resumed with a very large protest against “corrupt foreign influence” in the streets of Honiara. Malaitans were in the lead but not the sole participants. Police tried to drive the protesters away using tear gas. Rioting followed with burning and looting targeting Chinese merchants and homes of Chinese migrants, but not excluding other premises. Damage ran into many millions. The pogrom element was certainly prominent.
Days of rioting saw the national government call for foreign forces to enter and decisively suppress unrest. It represented a victory for foreign interference by the US using its sycophants in the Australian and NZ Governments. The Sogovare government was reminded that its hold on office was dependent on the ‘grace and favour’ of the US and its local agents the Australian and NZ governments.
Internal contradictions magnified by big power meddling
The Malaitan Premier’s reactionary agitation is built on the back of provincial rivalries and capitalist oppression. It serves US interests.
The disputes, with their countervailing elements threaten to tie the Solomons in a number of long-term internal wrangles. Contradictions between traditional customary land title and exploited renters in developed areas exacerbate historic inter-island and inter-clan rivalries, underpinned by opportunist political rivals, all stoked by superpower rivalry, bullying and bribery. The financial troubles of the National government hamstring its capacity to ease the internal conflicts.
No good will come of US-instigated unrest and imposing decisive foreign forces on the people.
The Solomons need an end to US-China meddling. The people need assistance with basic urban living conditions, decentralised development and finances for compensating customary landholders but not at the expense of internal migrants. The country needs aid to facilitate that.
The sooner foreign forces are out the better.
It is for the people of the Solomons to resolve their problems with aid, but without the conditions superpower rivalry imposes.
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