As Australian-led peacekeeping mission RAMSI readies to leave the Solomon Islands, the South Pacific country faces the possibility of internal tensions being reignited.
The Solomon Islands is preparing to rearm its police force for the first time in 13 years as the Australian-led peacekeeping mission in the South Pacific region prepares to leave.
Rumours of renewed trouble that have surfaced on social media, including posts in the name of one of the country’s most notorious militants, have been rejected by authorities as unfounded.
The Solomon Islands government is in talks with Australia over future security arrangements after more than $2.6 billion was spent on maintaining the peace and rebuilding the Pacific island nation since 2003.
Australia led the 15 Pacific nations who participated in the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) to end five years of ethnic tensions over land that claimed the lives of hundreds of people and pushed the so-called ‘Hapi Isles’ to the verge of being a failed state.
“We have mixed feelings on this (RAMSI leaving). Some of us think it is too early, for me it's okay. We have reconciled the difficult parts and the real threat is over,” said Father John Patteson Ngalihesi, chief advisor to the the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
“They have done great. The perspective ... is Australia is a saviour, they came in and saved this country, restored this country.
“Australia has done something, we need to pick up,” Father Ngalihesi said.
The mission is due to end in June next year and one of its last goals is to oversee the rearmament of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF).
From 2003, in RAMSI’s first year, the mission collected more that 4,000 guns from combatants, including about 1,000 weapons stolen from the police armouries, and disarmed the police after elements became partisan during the conflict.
The only armed force in the country, Australian-led RAMSI Participating Police Force (PPF), are less than 100-strong and local suspicions about the police linger.
“There are still concerns about the police force, and there are bound to be. We're are slowly regaining the trust of the community,” said RSIPF Commissioner Frank Prendergast, who will return to his post with the Australian Federal Police in Canberra later this year.
“The bulk of the Solomon Islands are supportive of rearmament in some form, because they recognise the need for an armed capacity.
“We’re involved in limited rearmament of the RSIPF and that really is the final piece in the puzzle for us to say, ‘We can police without assistance’,” Commissioner Prendergast said.
Solomon police received extensive training from the RAMSI and now perform operational policing in the country, three years after the military component of the peacekeeping mission withdrew.
It is planned that only the public order and VIP protection units will be rearmed.
“We’re talking pistols, shotguns and a very limited number of rifles, which are mainly for controlling crocodiles when they threaten communities,” Commissioner Prendergast said.
“The final decision for rearmament is for the government and the plan is that it will occur before RAMSI finishes.”
Australia has funded an armoury inside the Rove Police Headquarters in Honiara, where the weapons will eventually be kept.
Talks are also underway on how Australia will support the Solomons when RAMSI leaves.
In July, Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells flagged a “contingent of AFP based in Honiara” and for the Solomon to be able to access “emergency operational assistance”.
During her first visit to the Solomons this month, and her first visit to the Pacific as minister since being appointed in February, she played down expectations.
“We’re here to support in ways that Solomon Islands government needs us to support them,” said Senator Fierravanti-Wells.
“Can I say, at no stage were we going to put a police force in the Solomon Islands, I’d like to make that very clear. We will give post-RAMSI support, in terms of advisory capacity and a framework that is at the request and with the consent of the Solomon Islands government."
The RAMSI legacy
The Solomon Islands is now one of the most aid dependent countries in the world.
“We’re friends and neighbours and we’re here to assist them as best we can,” said Senator Fierravanti-Wells.
“In due course that framework of the post-RAMSI presence will be announced.”
But the Solomon Islands is still recovering from the tensions. Militants and impacted villages continue to perform customary reconciliation ceremonies.
The trouble over land can be traced back to WWII when the United States used labourers from Malaita island to build an airbase on nearby Guadalcanal, which then became the capital Honiara and home to many Malaitans.
“I think land is a big issue in the Solomon Islands, right through the country. The Solomon Islands government is working on long entrenched issues,” said Commissioner Pendergast.
“Are they going to cause us to go back? Not in my assessment.”
RAMSI has been criticised that it just kept a lid on the problems that caused the “tensions” and they have not been resolved.
“They are problems that will have to be resolved by the people themselves, they are not problems that can be solved by RAMSI,” said Father Ngalihesi.
Unfinished business remains over the use of an Australian-donated police patrol boat to strafe villages on Guadalcanal with its 50mm gun during the conflict.
“There are people who are still not reconciled, there are people who are still wounded, people who are traumatised. They speak out of no freedom, they speak out of fear, but when the trauma is healed, when they become peace builders, then there’ll be a national transformation, and people will speak about this country’s future with confidence,” said Father Ngalihesi.
“Our plan now in September is we’re going to make a big reconciliation on the Weather Coast (on Guadalcanal) for the patrol boat shooting.
“That is a hotspot. Once we do that, it’s over.”
Rumours resurface periodically about trouble returning when RAMSI leaves.
“When we hear rumours like that we take them very seriously, but we’re not finding anything to substantiate those rumours at the moment,” said commissioner Prendergast.
Countering the rumours
A Twitter account in the name of the conflict’s most notorious jailed militant, Harold Keke, has called for Guadalcanal people to rise up.
There is also talk that high-powered police weapons stolen during the tensions remain in the community.
“There’s a very low-level of gun crime in the Solomon,” said Commissioner Pendergast.
“There are less guns out there than people think, but there are more guns than I'm comfortable with. Intelligence says there are other firearms in the community that we’re not seeing.
“We’re very actively preparing to conduct another firearms amnesty and buy back to take more firearms out of the community, if they’re there.”