23 Aug 2013

Solomon Islands faces challenges as RAMSI winds down

5:21 pm on 23 August 2013

After a decade of international support in the form of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, there's still doubt as to whether the country will remain peaceful.

Australia and New Zealand have spent almost $3 billion on RAMSI - an operation that has involved thousands of soldiers, police and civilians from around the Pacific.

The country is considered stable now and so last month all troops were withdrawn and the mission downsized to policing only.

Annell Husband filed this report.

Cultural difference was a key factor in the five-year conflict known as the 'ethnic tensions' in which hundreds of people were killed, maimed and tortured and thousands of others forced to flee their homes.

REUBEN MOLI: According to historical books, the northern part of Malaita is very dangerous, meaning people eat people. In my forefathers' times, when they see a white person like you, you are just a meal for the evening. Here you can walk freely without being a meal for us this evening.

Reuben Moli is an elder of Fiu village in Malaita province and was the provincial premier when RAMSI arrived in 2003. With the co-operation of the solo people, RAMSI soldiers and police were swiftly successful in returning the country to the rule of law. In the decade since then, RAMSI's achievements in the areas of government reform and economic rehabilitation have been considerable. Still, the work will continue under bilateral agreements with New Zealand and Australia. But many Honiara locals are apprehensive about life without the soldiers. New Zealand's defence minister Jonathan Coleman who was there for celebrations marking RAMSI's 10th anniversary says the departure of troops always creates anxiety amongst a local population.

JONATHAN COLEMAN: Whether it's troops leaving Afghanistan or troops leaving here, the mission wouldn't be coming to an end unless there was a very high degree of confidence on the military and government and governance side that things are on the right track.

Another key factor in the tensions was the breakdown of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. And after 10 years of RAMSI support officials consider it far stronger. But public distrust of local officers is widespread. And Loise Loong, a youth leader in Malaita, is among many who are happy RAMSI police are staying on for four years.

LOISE LOONG: Once I had a family problem in the village. Then I called the police. No police came. So I called the RAMSI police, and then RAMSI came over to my home.

An accounting student from Isabel Province at the University of the South Pacific Ata Kodomo says ideally the RAMSI soldiers would stay on, too.

ATA KODOMO: Even though they have been left us, it depends on us, the Solomon Islands people, to control themselves, so that they should show that it is easier for our soldiers - our police - to control our country. It depends on the individual behaviours.

ANNELL HUSBAND: So people have to be good citizens?


But Clive Moore of the University of Queensland in Brisbane holds grave fears in relation to the growing underclass of unemployed young people in Honiara.

CLIVE MOORE: They can become quite explosive and they can be led very easily. And eventually all you can do, as a middle class, is fortify yourself and live behind barbed wire. Now, that's not what has happened so far in Honiara, but as people become more disenchanted, it has the potential to become another Port Moresby.