Private Column by Frank Short, CBE
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This post is part of a series. Previous post: Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 31: Rapid Response Unit (RRU)
Friday, 22 March 2013 12:00 AM

Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 32 : When the Solomon's Pot Boiled Over - The Internal Conflict of 1998-99

Extract from my memoirs.

In the intervening years since resigning and leaving the Solomons in July 1999 after having completed my two-year contract, many notable academics and writers have contributed scholarly articles on the most likely root causes of the conflict which first occurred towards the end of September 1998.

Some have said the ‘conflict’ was long waiting to happen, citing that successive governments' since independence had ignored the many issues raised by the Guadalcanal people.

Others have opined that ‘ethnicity’ alone was not the cause; that there was never a truly national identity or consciousness, as had been described by Solomon Mamaloni, when he was reported to have said, “The Solomons was a nation conceived but never born.”

Some writers have even referred to the manipulation of customary practices and the payment of compensation leading to the undermining of the state and the principle of adherence to the rule of law.

An example of the abuse of power and a disregard for the law occurred in 1998 when two Malaitan girl students at Ruavatu High School claimed to have been raped.

The police investigated the case but there was no evidence to substantiate the girl’s claims; which did include medical evidence from their physical examination by a senior qualified doctor at the National Referral Hospital.

In the absence of proof to charge anyone, the government decided to use revenue sharing grants due to the Guadalcanal Province to settle the compensation demands of the girl’s disgruntled parents.

As a crime had not been established, or a civil suit lodged, the compensation payment was, perhaps, viewed as an alternative dispute resolution in line with customary compensation practice.

The payments went unchallenged, but were wrong.


Here are one or two of my thoughts on the subject.

• There was no crime established, no crime proven, so why was such a large financial payment made?

• Who got the payment?

• How much was paid?

• Was the customary compensation system used as justification for the payment being made?

• Did any media really try to follow up this payment, because I consider it still an unfinished story or perhaps it was considered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but we’ll need to await the long delayed release by the present government of the TRC’s final report for an answer.

Some would say that this incident alone intensified the Guadalcanal Province demands then lodged with the government, as referred to earlier.

It was true, there had been historical enmity between the Guadalcanal and Malaitan peoples concerning land issues and development disparities on Guadalcanal, but at the start of the crisis, one could not see how violent conflict arose so suddenly between a group of island people who had, for many years, interacted, inter-married and lived together without any significant ethnic conflict.

Who was actually ‘conflicting?’ Here one hears rumours, stories, some well publicized lawbreaking. Those small shadows passing in the night that became larger with each passing day.

Personally, I never ascribed to the notion that ‘ethnicity’ and hatred between the groups was the only cause of the conflict.

There had to have been a trigger and it was not too difficult to understand how the political moves that had reportedly been engineered by the Opposition had been designed to topple the SIAC government, when constitutional means, by way of a series of motions of no confidence, had failed.

It has to be remembered that when SIAC assumed office in September 1997 it was faced with a major financial crisis in the public sector. The domestic financial system was simply overburdened with public debt, to the tune of S$1.2 billion or more than the nation’s recurrent and development budgets combined.

Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the government introduced a three part approach to policy and structural reform. The overall objectives were to bring about financial and economic stability, establish a more efficient and effective public service sector and create a more enabling environment for the private sector to generate sustainable economic growth and human development.

Some of our Special Branch assessments repeatedly took the view that the Opposition intended to pressure the government by pushing the demands of the Guadalcanal Province as a means of destabilization.

Whatever, the real truth as to whether the ensuing conflict was orchestrated by vested interests that stood to lose from the SIAC’s reforms, or whether the already well documented “Bona Fide” demands, which identified decades of inter-island migration, alleged illegal settlement, and grossly uneven development, were genuinely felt grievances or -- maybe not.

We were faced with the fact that Premier Alebua, in particular, with his inflammatory speeches, along with other opportunist politicians, played a significant role in igniting the so-called ‘ethnic tension’ but then quickly lost control of the ensuing situation. This impacted seriously on my mind and prompted this report to the Prime Minister as early as November 1998.

“There is a political dimension to the whole situation and this must be addressed in the shortest possible time frame if we are not to see growing militancy that could cause untold damage to national unity and inter-island relations, let alone serious infringements of the criminal law.

There is a need for an effective and reliable, trustworthy police service capable of providing accurate and informed intelligence on which to base advice and action.

The situation cannot be allowed to continue and the police service is coming under increased pressure to deal with crime trends, let alone having to deal with politically motivated activities that seem to develop from misinformation and a lack of national unity and provincial loyalties.

Despite the often lack of in-depth intelligence, this report must be taken with seriousness and looked at in the political context to avoid an escalation of the situation.”

This report to the Prime Minister was prompted by what one could see as an unfolding and potentially serious security concern. A key factor here was also because of the uncertain mind state of the police service, the nature and composition of the armed NRSF elements within the force’s ranks and the overt political dimensions featuring significantly.

It was clear from the onset that a protracted ethnic conflict could lead to a civil war which would be disastrous for the country and one which the police service, as then constituted, under-strength, ill-equipped and still recovering from years of neglect, would be unable to contain.

Time proved that I was right, but our regional partners ignored my warnings with the consequences that are still evident to this day.

Even at that early stage, I was concerned, equally, about the arsenal of high powered weapons in the Rove armoury as well as the adequacy and security of their storage.


To be continued ……

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Frank Short, CBE and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.