A legacy of bitterness still troubles the Weathercoast (south coast of Guadalcanal) and parts of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. It has been five years since the conflict and now hopes are pinned on a new commission to consolidate peace.
By Krista Ferguson: Pacific Media Centre
High hopes for a long lasting peace are resting on the South Pacific’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the Solomon Islands late last month.
The commission has been mandated to promote national unity and reconciliation by investigating human rights violations and abuses which occurred between 1998 and 2003.
General secretary of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, George Kiriau, is personally hopeful that the reconciliation process will be successful.
“There is a lot of expectation given the high note of the presence of the archbishop.
“With this launch we should see better understanding of how the conflict came about.
“I’m personally very hopeful and optimistic.”
However, Kiriau acknowledges that there are people who might not share this optimism.
“There are those who are hurt and traumatised, who had relatives who were killed. They may have different views of the process.”
But healing is important says Kiriau.
“We need to forgive.”
Dolores Devesi, Pacific programme manager for Oxfam, says her organisation supports the request by the national government for reconciliation.
But Devesi, who was born in the Solomon Islands and came to New Zealand in October last year, says her personal view is that this is the same as every other time.
The problem, according to Devesi, is that young people in the community are not consulted and engaged in the process.
“It’s usually the chiefs and elders, but it is actually the young people who need to be involved.
Devesi says there are some sceptics who say this is a high-level publicity exercise that will cost a lot of money.
There have been attempts to establish peace in the past, such as the Townsville Peace Agreement in 2000.
Devesi attended a reconciliation event last year and was not impressed.
“It was superficial. There was one woman and no young people. The elders attended and presented gifts to each other.”
Devesi says that there is always hope at the beginning of each process. But there is also a feeling of “here we go again”.
“We’ve had too many that haven’t worked. There’s always hope at first, but as the days and months drag on, hope disappears.
“It will take a long time to heal. There is a lot of hatred.”
For Kiriau, the people involved in the process are also the key.
“You can have the good reforms, but if the people inside are not sorted out then you can’t make much progress. People will find a way around the system.”
Kiriau says the commission has people of integrity and this will help people be more forthcoming.
The team includes three national commissioners: Rev Sam Ata, George Kejoa and Caroline Laore and two others - Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi from Fiji and Sofia Macher from Peru.
There is a lot of bad feeling still, says Kiriau.
“It is still a fragile law and order situation. The leaders will need to be careful.”
The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Island (RAMSI) will help to underpin law and order during this process, says Kiriau.
The conflict in the Solomon Islands is often labelled as ethnic-based, but Kiriau says this is too simple.
“It is to do with development and economic opportunities.”
The government is struggling to provide basic services. There is a high population growth and many people are dropping out or leaving education and not finding jobs, says Kiriau.
Devesi also says that the underlying issues need to be addressed.
The biggest problem is the land issue, she says.
“The government needs to be proactive to prevent another blowout especially in the temporary land settlements outside Honiara.”
Urban migration and economic pressures are also a problem, she says.
“How do we retain people in the villages?
“The cost of food is extremely high. You can’t save any money.”
Devesi says she monitored her budget in 2007 and 99 percent of it went on basic food items even though she was on an above average salary.
Dr Jon Fraenkel, a Melanesian programme senior research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU), says ethnicity is a very sweeping term, but at certain times in history, island-wide groups have emerged that were deeply antagonistic.
He named the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) formed by Guales and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), formed by Malaitans (two different provinces), as examples.
“The conflicts started in 1998 with a speech by Ezekiel Alebua in Western Guadalcanal. He demanded compensation for the killing of 25 Guales and for establishing the capital in Guadalcanal.
“The IFM chased Malaitan settlers out of rural parts of Guadalcanal. They pushed them back into the capital Honiara.”
The Malaitans didn’t think their rights to the land were secure, he says, so they moved without strong dissent at first.
However, there was increasing discontent until 1999 when Malaitans confronted the then Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu and demanded compensation for lost property.
Ulufa’alu said no and soon after the MEF was formed.
“It was steadily downhill after then,” says Dr Fraenkel.
Amnesty International has urged the Solomon Islands government to integrate the work of the truth commission with other justice work.
According to a statement on April 29, the Truth and Reconciliation Act may prevent information presented before the commission being used in court proceedings.
Kiriau says the government has been clear that the statements made before the commission cannot be used as court evidence.
However, he says that this is about sharing experiences and helping the government to prevent this unrest in future.
Dr Fraenkel says the community is still deeply divided by the conflict.
“There are terribly bitter wounds on the Weathercoast (south coast of Guadalcanal), but also parts of Malaita.”
Dr Fraenkel says that it has been five years since the conflict and most - but not all - of the militants have been arrested.
“The major issue is not finding more militants to prosecute. It’s allowing the country to move onwards.”
However, he does say there are some of the MEF leadership with questions to answer.
“It’s important to get the politics right to enable the emergence of a domestic leadership to deal with issues and get some economic development going.”
Devesi says nobody should be above the laws.
“Everyone would like to see prosecutions.”
Dr Fraenkel says that the conflicts were fuelled by the compensation culture through which rival militia groups bankrupted the state.
He describes this in his 2004 book The Manipulation of Custom; From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands.
Traditionally compensation payments were made with pigs, cans of tuna, rice or shell money, says Dr Fraenkel. However, during the 1998–2003 conflicts many aggrieved groups demanded compensation from the state.
Devesi agrees with Fraenkel that money has been part of the problem.
“In our tradition you give pigs or shell money," she says.
“Reconciliation in the past has been sponsored by donor agencies [involving
money]. Reconciliation will only happen if the community gives from their
Krista Ferguson is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism on the AUT Asia-Pacific Journalism course. Photo of Dolores Devesi: Oxfam.
Amnesty International statement