The history of the Solomon Islands is, like so many of our Pacific neighbours, little understood and largely ignored in our school history curriculums. Also, without needing to look too closely we find that there is a palpable colonial attitude within Australia that implies that if an island is smaller than our mainland, and if somewhere in its past it was grouped together with others and called “a nation”, then that grouping of people must have been transformed into an homogenous, culturally similar and unified state. Moreover, if there is violent conflict between the different groups within that “nation” then it is due to “separatists” or “militants” which is ruling class code for ‘savages’.
Of course what this attitude covers up it also reveals. That is, that these island communities are not homogenous, culturally unified populations, but are, in fact, ethnically diverse (the Solomon Islands are home to about 60 different cultural groups) and see each of their individual home islands as sacred, national entities.
Beginning in 1568 when the Spanish first occupied what they named 'Guadalcanal' there were sown the seeds of ongoing division and conflict. It was not always this way as the Malaitian population traded with the Isatabu (as Guadalcanal residents were known) and there were also intermarriages between the various island tribes. This is not to say there was not conflict, but it does indicate that peace was the norm, not the exception. In 1569 the King of Spain received a letter that said that one of most profitable benefits from exploring the islands would be the slave trade that could be established from there.
Over the next two hundred years the Solomons endured Spanish and then British reign and the export of slaves to, eventually, such places as Pauline Hanson's home state of Queensland. About 9,000 Malatians were press ganged into the Queensland sugar slave trade.
By the end of the 1800s the Spanish had retreated from most parts of the Pacific and the British took over the Solomons in 1896. Their first act was to declare all land “terra nullius” and they began to divide it up among the capitalist exploiters, settlers, the Crown and favoured chiefs. The Levers Soap Company was the first major concession holder and was granted access to about 200,000 acres of the most fertile land and the coconut plantations thereon.
By the end of World War II the indigenous population realised they had been not only dudded by their colonial masters, but that their land, fisheries and cultures were being pillaged and changed forever. Unless! Unless they fought back.
The Maasina Ruru movement formed the basis of the first land reclamation movements and in the 1950s the Moro movement became the most vociferous advocates of a return to self rule and independence following a 1957 near death vision by its founder, Chief Moro.
In 1978 the British formally pulled out and left behind them inadequate support for the emerging nation they abandoned and the Island's leaders attempted reintegrate traditional and customary practices into the helpful aspects of ‘modern’ governmental and social structures. However, having endured generations of forced migration and integration programs under their colonial rulers, the underlying cultural tensions erupted. In short, the conflict in the Solomon Islands, the latest version of which began in 1998, can be traced back to the colonial destruction of customary practices and the failure of imperial powers to adequately support the fledgling nations they abandoned.
The current conflict is also related to the way the latest neo-colonial exploiters, the huge Malaysian timber and agricultural businesses, run the Island's economies. After the hurricanes of 1998 the focus of the multinationals was to get their export businesses back up and running. This left few resources from the aid that flowed in available for the restoration of civil and social infrastructures. Our army was involved in the reconstruction but that role has now changed to active policing for political purposes.
With a history of displacement and, to put not a too fine an edge on it, terrorism by firstly the imperial colonialists and then the pillaging of their lands by Malaysian multinationals, the conflict in the Solomons and, more interestingly, our Government’s decision to intervene, raises the question of why now? Here are my thoughts on that.
Firstly, the vast wealth to be exploited from palm oil. The oil drilling industry consumes tonnes of the stuff in the “drilling mud” it uses to lubricate, cool and assist in the drilling process. Refined palm oil is also an effective diesel fuel replacement, not to mention its nutritional characteristics. Malaysia is the world's largest producer of palm oil closely followed by Indonesia. A Malaysian company has the rights to supply the world’s largest distributor of palm oil used in oil drilling wells. However, the best palm plantations are those that grow within forests using the large trees to shelter the growing palms. Given the Solomon’s regular devastation by hurricanes, one wonders if the palm oil proposals are a ploy to divert attention away from the main issue.
The main issue is that the logging concessions on the Solomons are very rapidly running out of the raw material - logs. With local labour paid less than a dollar an hour, the returns to the Malaysian logging companies is unparalleled. Add to that the tax and excise holidays they have bribed out of the Island's administrators (with Australian officials looking over their shoulders) and we begin to see why the Solomon Islands is one of the world's poorest nations and why our government is so ready to intervene.
Furthermore, the civil unrest has almost stopped the flow of export logs and for the last few years the companies have been losing money hand over fist as they attempt to bribe local chiefs into allowing them free reign. However, this practice has only increased tensions as the clans attempt to “stand over” each other in order to gain better handouts. In short, the break down in law in order is a direct result of the capitalist imperative.
Finally, I believe Howard's little neo-colonial adventure is his (or should I say our government’s) way of paying back the loyalty of the Malaysian government and their capitalist friends during our little sojourn in Iraq. With a large, potentially militant Islamic population, Malaysia could be seen as a “threat” to us. In cutting deals with Indonesia I would argue that in return for their passivity, Howard agreed to remain blind to the claims of our other neighbours in trouble in Ache, Ambon and West Papua. The most pressing reason to subdue those calling for sovereignty in the Solomons is that there is the potential for the populations of the other colonised territories to rebel leading to the end of access to the raw materials needed for capitalist enterprise.
In other words, in return for Australia doing the dirty work in the Solomons and ensuring the continued rape and pillage of that land and the continued use of its people as slave labour, Malaysia would not oppose our involvement in Iraq and, in return for us turning a blind eye to the continued Indonesian atrocities to our North, we also gained a wink and a nudge from them.
As has been said before, only fools disregard history and over the last few years our leaders have been allowed to make fools of all of us. If we don't act now, we will remain nothing more than mute pawns whose only use is to justify, at the polling booth, support for ruling class imperialist ambitions and their consequences.