19 Nov 2023

2023 Pacific Games: Some say it's more like a 'war zone'

12:10 pm on 19 November 2023
(230711) -- BEIJING, July 11, 2023 (Xinhua) -- Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of Solomon Islands, addresses the inauguration ceremony of Solomon Islands embassy in Beijing, capital of China, July 11, 2023. Sogavare and Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, jointly unveiled the nameplate of the embassy. (Xinhua/Zhai Jianlan) (Photo by Zhai Jianlan / XINHUA / Xinhua via AFP)

Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of Solomon Islands, addresses the inauguration ceremony of Solomon Islands embassy in Beijing, on July 11, 2023. Photo: AFP / Xinhua

By the Pacific Local Journalism Network's Nick Sas, Solomon Islands reporter Chrisnrita Aumanu-Leong and Evan Wasuka

It is Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's pièce de résistance.

The biggest event in its history; the thing he pushed for - some say even switched the country's allegiances to China for.

Seven years in the making - and hundreds of millions of dollars later - this week his country officially plays host to the 2023 Pacific Games, the region's "mini Olympics".

And he couldn't be happier.

"Nation building is our individual and collective calling," he told an audience in the capital, Honiara, this week ahead of Sunday's opening ceremony.

"Together we can move mountains. We are one people, we are one nation, we are Solomon Islands, to God be the glory, great things he has done.

"Let's get it on."

While the mercurial Sogavare may attribute the "great things" happening in the country to God - others may suggest different powers are at play.

Thousands of athletes and spectators in the country will stream into the new $A70 million ($NZ75.9m)national stadium - a gift from China.

China, all up, has spent $120 million in new facilities for the games. Not to be left out, Australia has thrown in $17 million.

There's also been funding from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Korea, India and Indonesia. Solomon Islands national broadcaster's new studio to broadcast the games came through a $5m gift from Saudi Arabia - a country ranked 170th in the world for press freedom.

All up, 80 percent of the games facilities are funded by other countries.

Some say it is all part of a brilliantly executed diplomatic juggle orchestrated by Sogavare; a wonderful example of how a small country can unite together, with a little help, to do big things.

Yet, for others, it is a sign of a country - and a prime minister - with its priorities way out of whack.

A photo taken on April 22, 2022 shows China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming (R), and Solomons Prime Pinister Manasseh Sogavare (L) cutting a ribbon during the opening ceremony of a China-funded national stadium complex in Honiara. The stadium complex, reportedly worth 53 million USD, will host the 2023 Pacific Games for the first time in the island state of 800,000 people. (Photo by Mavis PODOKOLO / AFP)

China's ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming, right, and Manasseh Sogavare cut a ribbon during the opening ceremony of a China-funded national stadium complex in Honiara on 22 April, 2022. Photo: AFP

'An historical moment'

In many ways, the Lepping sisters sum up the contradictions of the games.

Georgianna is competing in archery, following in the footsteps of her late father George Lepping, or "leaping George", who won the country's first long jump medal and later became governor-general.

"It means so much to me to compete and to have the games here in our home country," Georgianna Lepping said.

Her twin Regina Lepping, a filmmaker and well-known youth leader, will be there in support. She said the games have helped unite the country - and the excitement around town is palpable.

"It comes at a time in Solomon Islands when we have a lot of individual crisis in the country, and with ourselves," she said.

"Having the games here will inspire a lot of people. Sport brings people together.

"This event will change perspectives about the way we see ourselves as Solomon Islanders and within the Pacific family."

Yet their own experiences symbolise some of the issues surrounding the games.

Despite competing in archery, Lepping only received her bow last week.

In the lead-up to this week's event she was forced to share one, meaning during some training she would only shoot "six times in four hours of training".

"I'm still trying to get the hang of [the new bow]," she said. "If it didn't come over the weekend I would have had to withdraw. But miracles can happen and I'm just staying positive."

Athletes from around the region are starting to arrive in Honiara.

Members of the Fiji team arrive in Honiara for the Pacific Games. Photo: Supplied

Value for money?

The missing bow is just one of a number of controversies surrounding the games.

Last month the country was captivated by a multi-million-dollar contract for toilet paper supply for the games that was, somehow, awarded to a barber shop.

It raised questions of impropriety around the awarding of contracts for the Pacific Games.

And many Solomon Islanders question why the country is committing hundreds of millions to hosting a sports event, when hospitals are in a state of disrepair, often running out of basic drugs such as paracetamol.

Yet, Sunday night's opening ceremony will be more than the celebration of a sporting event; it will be the culmination of a geo-political battle for influence in the region.

The Chinese-built stadium is the showcase piece for Sogavare and was a key discussion point when Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China in 2019.

Then, in 2022, Sogavare faced public criticism for delaying the national elections, which clashed with Pacific Games dates.

The elections are now scheduled for April.

Dr Gordon Nanau, a Solomon Islander and an international politics lecturer at the University of South Pacific in Suva, said it's still not clear if it's been worth it.

"It's something for Solomon Islanders themselves to see whether that kind of over-emphasis on one particular event justifies the negligence in other areas," he said.

'As if it's a war zone'

Solomon Islands has a history of civil unrest, and the security element for the games is another piece in the puzzle.

A 2022 security treaty between Solomon Islands and China cast a cloud over the games, which has seen months of competition between Canberra and Beijing to provide equipment and resources to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

A Chinese force will be patrolling during the games, "from invitation" of the Solomon Islands government. They will help with security preparation, such as metal detectors and CCTV operation.

Australia has a massive force in town, with the deployment of 350 military personnel and 100 Australian Federal Police officers, taking its overall security presence at the games to well over 500.

The US is also getting involved, sending its hospital ship USNS Mercy.

SAN PEDRO, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, USA - MARCH 27: United States Navy Hospital Ship USNS Mercy arrives at the Port of Los Angeles to assist with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on March 27, 2020 in San Pedro, Los Angeles, California, United States. The ship holds 1,000 beds which will be used to treat non-coronavirus patients in an effort to free up hospital beds for those suffering from COVID-19. The ship's 800 medical personnel will help ease the burden on the region's hospitals as they grapple with the pandemic. (Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/NurPhoto) (Photo by Image Press Agency / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

The USNS Mercy will also be on hand. Photo: AFP / Image Press Agency

While the government has been happy about the support, others like Dr Nanau are questioning whether it is necessary for a "friendly event".

"The use of military personnel is a bit, you know, above and beyond what is expected ... military officers being sent in large numbers like that, as if it's a war zone," he said.

But Dr Jimmy Rodgers, the prime minister's secretary, believes the security resources are necessary for such a big event.

"We want to make sure the country is safe when we have 10,000 people from outside and maybe 30,000 from the provinces," he said.

"Are we expecting any unrest? No."

'It's going to be great'

Although it pales in comparison to the security force being sent to Honiara, Australia is sending more than 76 athletes to compete in sports from archery to weightlifting.

Some of the events, such as boxing, are Olympic qualifiers.

On the political side, the Governor-General David Hurley will be Australia's representative at the games, one of a multitude of special guests - including high-level Chinese officials - Sogavare will be eager to impress.

For former Solomon Islands high commissioner James Batley, the high-level guests are why the country is putting such a strong emphasis on security and making sure the event runs smoothly.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 was transported to Solomon Islands on a Royal Australian Air Force C-17.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 was transported to Solomon Islands on a Royal Australian Air Force C-17. Photo: NZDF

Batley, now a distinguished policy fellow at Australian National University's Department of Pacific Affairs, said there were also security forces from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand involved.

"This is a really big event for Solomon Islands," he says.

"And I guess the assessment [on the security side] is it pays to be prudent."

As the the competition kicks off, Regina Lepping said the atmosphere in town was electric.

And although she has reservations about the money spent - and what's next for the country - for the next two weeks, she's all in.

"I have a 'my twin sister's shooting' shirt ready to go. . . she's going to be embarrassed but it's going to he great," she said.

"But, you know, we still have a lot of governance and trust issues in Solomon Islands that need to be resolved.

"We have to celebrate this and go with the moment, but also need to think about what's next."

This story was first published by the ABC.

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