Commentary: Seeking Answers in the Ashes of Honiara


Date: 04-20-2006

By Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka

HONOLULU (Apr. 20) — The Solomon Islands national capital, Honiara, woke up on Wednesday (April 19, 2006) to the smoldering remains of the previous day’s impromptu protest that left much of Chinatown burned to the ground, shops looted, vehicles torched, about 18 police officers wounded, and a newly elected Prime Minister in hiding.

That morning the sky opened its gut and sprinkled rain as though to cool the anger that led to the mayhem. In some places, however, the flames flared on in defiance, eating away the old wooden structures that were once part of a bustling shopping district. In other places, like Ranadi and the Kukum seafront, the looting and destruction continued.

Like the defiant flames at Chinatown, the memories of what happened on April 18, 2006 and the reasons behind this violent protest will not go away easily.

It was the first destruction of its kind ever seen in Honiara. Even during the social unrests in 1998—2003 the capital city was not destroyed in this manner. Even the riot of 1989 was nothing compared to what happened on Tuesday (April 18).

Why did this happen? What created so much anger? What should be done to cool people’s anger and prevent such things from happening again?

Even before the first fires were lit on the streets of Honiara, international commentators and spin doctors were quick to draw connections between this protest and rioting to the social unrest of 1998—2003 that led to the deployment of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

However, what happened in Honiara on Tuesday (April 18) cannot be explained in terms of the social unrest alone. In fact, it had little to do with the social unrest and more with what people perceived as the corruption of the democratic process.

In particular, the protest (that later led to rioting and looting) highlights concerns about the process of selecting a prime minister, how ‘business interests’ allegedly influence the formation of governments.

Further, it raises broader questions about the role of political parties in Solomon Islands politics, and questions assumptions about the Westminster parliamentary system and its ability to create a representative government.

As noted in previous media reports, Snyder Rini received a cold reception on Tuesday (April 18) when he was declared as Solomon Islands’ new Prime Minister.

For the hundreds of people who gathered outside the National Parliament Building at Vavaya Ridge, Rini represented the ’old guard’; the same group that Allan Kemakeza led in the previous parliament and who, in the eyes of many Solomon Islanders, failed miserably on the credibility scale. Rini was Kemakeza’s deputy in that government.

When Solomon Islanders turned up in large numbers to cast their votes in the April 5, 2006 general election, there was widespread hope that parliament would elect a new government that would steer the country away from the path it had followed in the last twenty-seven years of independence.

That hope slipped away through the cracks of the parliamentary process when it was announced on Tuesday (April 18) that the members of parliament had elected Rini as Prime Minister.

If the desire of many Solomon Islanders was for a new government, then how did Rini manage to win the contest for the Prime Minister position and bring back into power the ‘old guard’?

To answer this question one needs to understand the weakness of party systems, the fluidity of political alliances, and the process of selecting a Prime Minister in the Solomon Islands.

In the absence of a strong party system, voters tend to vote for individuals rather than political parties. These individuals, after being elected into parliament, form political alliances and then compete to capture the Prime Minister position and subsequently form government.

The country’s constitution provides a fourteen-day-period period between the date of the general election and the selection of the Prime Minister. During this period, aspiring candidates for Prime Minister lobby intensely to acquire the numbers needed to win the contest and form the government.

Most Solomon Islanders have no control over this process and become spectators in a process that assumes that their respective members of parliament have their interests at heart.

Past experiences have shown, however, that in many cases the constituents did not usually influence the choice of Prime Minister and the political alliances that were formed.

Rather, there have been allegations that powerful businessmen — mostly Chinese, or waku as they are known in the Solomon Islands — pay large sums of money to Members of Parliament in order to ensure that any government that was formed served their interests.

In the latest election for Prime Minister there were three candidates who tussled to win the allegiances of the fifty members of parliament. They were Job Dudley Tausinga who was nominated by the Grand Coalition, Snyder Rini nominated by the Association of Independent Members of Parliament (IMP) and Peoples Alliance Party (PAP) coalition, and Manasseh Sogavare who led the Social Credit Party.

Despite claims by the three groups that they had the numbers to form the government, no one could be certain until the voting took place.

But, it was Sogavare who tipped the number scales towards Snyder Rini’s camp. After losing the nomination for the Prime Minister candidacy to Tausinga, he deserted the Grand Coalition, pulled a couple of Members of Parliament with him and formed his own group.

The protest against Rini’s election as Prime Minister was a result of widespread public perceptions that Asian — especially Chinese — businessmen bribed Members of Parliament into supporting Rini and the ‘old guard’ who served their interests.

Rini’s history of close relationship with these businessmen did not help. When he was Minister for Finance, for example, he gave many of them tax exemptions that cost the Solomon Islands millions of dollars in potential revenue.

The media tends to refer to Asians and Chinese in a very general and inclusive manner that does not do justice to the fact that many Solomon Islander Chinese have little to do with politics. Unfortunately, they too suffered in the rioting and looting and have lost properties.

Many of the Chinese who owned shops in Chinatown are descendants of those who came to the Solomon Islands during the colonial days as laborers, cooks, laundry boys, etc., for the British administrators and plantation owners. Over the years they worked hard to build the retail stores and the other businesses they owned. It is sad and shameful to see all that go up in flame.

It must also be noted that while the protest was politically motivated, there was also a certain degree of opportunism in the rioting and looting that followed. Many people were there simply to loot and destroy and did not have any political agendas.

Given all that has happened the question then is: What should Solomon Islanders do to calm the anger and ensure that this does not happen again?

In reaction Australia has sent in 110 troops and 70 Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers to assist the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) and RAMSI personnel who are already on the ground in restoring law and order. It has been reported that they are already having an impact.

In the meantime there were calls for the Prime Minister-elect to resign. A group calling itself ‘Peoples Power’ delivered such a petition to the Governor General, Sir Nathaniel Waena. Rini has, however, refused to do so and was sworn in Wednesday (April 19).

While the Australian troops and police are welcomed and the call for Rini’s resignation is understandable, much more must be done to resolve — rather than suppress — the issues and problems that underlie the protest.

I have two suggestions: one short-term and the other longer-term. In the short term, I suggest that the Prime Minister-elect should not resign. Instead, he should be allowed to form a government, and then, if people want, they could use the constitutional processes to oust him from office.

Let a government be formed and then give members of parliament about two weeks in which to consult their respective constituents on the matter. People who do not want Rini to be Prime Minister should make their case with their respective Member of Parliament and demand that he vote for the candidate of their choice. After all it was the Members of Parliament who elected Rini — they should therefore be held accountable by their constituents.

After two weeks, an extra-ordinary meeting of Parliament should be called on which a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister could be moved. If it goes through then a new Prime Minister could be elected.

The reason why I am suggesting this is because of my concern that by forcing the Prime Minister-elect to resign, a dangerous precedent would be set. It means that in the future if people do not like the Prime Minister, they could force him (or her) to resign by protesting, rioting, looting and burning the city. However much one might not want Rini to be Prime Minister, forcing him to resign under duress would set a dangerous precedent. It was done in May 2000 when the MEF forced Bartholomew Ulufa’alu to resign. I do not think it is wise to continue down that path.

Some might argue that it is ‘people power’ that demands the Prime Minister-elect to resign. That, however, raises other questions: Which people? Do Honiara residents, who make up for less than 80% of the country’s population have the right to claim that they represent the entire country? Does a petition signed by a few hundred people represent the Solomon Islands?

In the longer-term there is a need to establish statutory regulations that would facilitate the development of political parties, regulate the conduct of politicians, and ensure that the process of selecting the Prime Minister is transparent.

On the issue of party developments and their participation in the political process, perhaps the Solomon Islands could learn from neighboring countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

In Fiji, attempts to stop ‘party hopping’ has led to regulations (in the 1997 Constitution) that punish those who switch parties after being elected — they lose their seat in parliament. In PNG a more elaborate set of rules is contained in the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates. There, the attempt is to, not only facilitate the development of political parties, but also regulate how they participate in the political process and the conduct of their members.

Similarly, in Thailand and Indonesia, in an attempt to ensure that parties are democratically organized and develop institutional structures, statutory regulations were introduced that require parties to demonstrate certain level of institutional development before they could participate in elections. This also helped reduce the number of parties.

I must note, however, that the development of political parties and their effective and efficient participation in the governance process cannot be addressed by statutory reforms alone.

Political parties are also influenced by the culture of the societies in which they operate. Voters’ perceptions of the role of parties and the nature of their relationship to members of parliament also influence how parties are organized and how politicians relate to them.

What is obvious in the case of the Solomon Islands is that there is a need for reforms that would ensure that the entire process of selecting people for parliament — from the general election to the selection of Prime Minister — is fair, free and transparent. The rules of engagement must also ensure that the process cannot easily be corrupted.

Unless these changes occur, getting into parliament, selecting a prime minister, forming governments, and doing good will continue to be a tricky business in the Solomon Islands.

In the next few weeks, as Honiara is cleaned up and the ashes are swept away, let us not forget the lessons that this event has offered us.

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Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka is a research fellow at the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program headquarter in Honolulu, Hawai’i. He is a Solomon Islands citizen. This commentary also appears in the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Report at http://pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/

The views expressed in this commentary/analysis are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the East-West Center.

For more information regarding this commentary or the Pacific Islands Report please contact Peter Wagner at (808) 944-7608 or via email at wagnerp@eastwestcenter.org

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