It has been an interesting two weeks for Solomon Islands, with stories of police, weapons, replica weapons and a security deal with China dominating local and regional media.
Let’s start with the question of the arming of the police. After the tensions, for a long time the Solomon police did not carry arms, but this is an exception in our history. Indeed, the precursor to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) created in the early colonial era was known as the ‘BSIP Armed Constabulary’. As far back as I can remember, our police officers have had access to certain forms of weapons stored in the armory. Their use was traditionally ceremonial, mainly during parades. In fact, many of us who used to watch their parades liked to hear the sound made when police and marine units raised their arms as they responded to the orders of the parade commander.
The only time weapons were used in my lifetime was during the Bougainville crisis and during ethnic tensions.
The Bougainville crisis necessitated the Solomon Islands government importing high-powered weaponry due to incursions by armed Papua New Guinean soldiers across the border and their use against Solomon Islands citizens on the border between PNG and the Solomon Islands. I remember this import because at the time I was legal adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The weapons were purchased from the United States through a broker in Singapore. Some questions were asked but, given the circumstances, their importation was justifiable. A diplomatic request has been made for their temporary storage in Australia prior to shipment to Honiara. These were government-purchased weapons and the procurement procedures for their acquisition were duly in line with government procurement processes.
I have been advocating for the rearmament of the RSIPF for some time and I am also in favor of the RSIPF being trained by anyone who can provide it. Many police officers have been trained in the United States, Taiwan, Australia, United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand and Fiji. So I have no particular problem with them being trained by Chinese advisers, as was the case recently.
However, I have issues if the RSIPF is going to equip itself with high powered firearms, whether real (as supplied by Australia) or fake (as supplied by China ). These concerns are exacerbated by the current level of secrecy and confusion surrounding security devices. First, it is questionable whether it is necessary for the RSIPF to be armed with high-powered weapons. Perhaps there are still a number of weapons that were taken from the armory and are still in the hands of former MEF (Malaytan Eagle Force) militants. Moreover, this information could be known to a key member of the current political coalition who is a former commander of the MEF. Maybe the police just want to be prepared. However, we must also not forget what happened 22 years ago during the ethnic tensions, when the armory was compromised by the police giving weapons to militants and militants raiding the armory for weapons – weapons which were later used by the Solomon Islands to intimidate and kill their fellow citizens. citizens.
Members of the public are also genuinely concerned about how fake Chinese weapons were brought into the country – via a logging vessel which is, to say the least, an unusual means of transporting official government goods. The police commissioner’s changing accounts of this incident raised more questions than they answered.
There are also broader questions. Is security created by arming the police? Or should we instead focus on an approach to security in which the community is recognized as a partner in building and sustaining peace, and building on Solomon Islands’ long history of mediating conflict between them ? Although, as I said, there is nothing inherently wrong with arming the police, the focus must be on using community policing, chiefs and youth leaders to mediate conflict. . It is unfortunate that ordinary citizens of the country are not seen as partners in development, but as a threat to the hegemony and power of some people. Last year’s riots and COVID-19 exposed many underlying weaknesses in governance. As I explained earlier, they are symptomatic of a society that has become less and less pluralistic and of political and economic institutions that have become less inclusive.
Then there is the leak of the security agreement with China, which has exacerbated existing public unease about China. The growing engagement with China is explained by the prime minister as an attempt by the government to diversify its security engagement. It is unlikely that China will build a naval base in the Solomon Islands. The agreement does not specify that this will be the case and, although it could be interpreted that way, the reality is that it will not happen. Australia is already building a patrol base at Lofung in the Shortland Islands that border Papua New Guinea, and has announced it will build another in the eastern Solomon Islands. I would venture to suggest that the capability of these investments should cater for a naval base should the need arise in the future.
What is unprecedented about this security agreement is that it allows China, with the consent of the Solomon Islands government, to send armed personnel to protect its citizens and property. It also prohibits any publicity around these arrangements. It is ironic that a prime minister who invariably extols the virtues of national sovereignty would agree to cede a fundamental sovereign function – the protection of life and property – to a foreign force. It’s unclear if this was inadvertent, but it would appear its ramifications were left unconsidered.
The security arrangement has also raised concerns in the region. The President of the Federated States of Micronesia has written to Prime Minister Sogavare asking him to reconsider this decision. There may be nothing inherently wrong with the Solomon Islands signing a security deal with China. There should, however, be consistency with similar arrangements with other countries, which emphasize the ability of the Solomon Islands Police Force to deal with uprisings related to internal security, and preferably all Assistance should take place within a regional framework supported by the Pacific Islands Forum. If a country can choose its friends, it cannot choose its neighbours.
In the Solomon Islands today, there is no opportunity for political debate by the public except on Facebook. The public and voters do not have the same ease of access to our ministers and the prime minister as embassy officials and mining and logging CEOs. The current degree of polarization is such that any criticism or comment is considered by the current political coalition as “anti-government”. There doesn’t seem to be room for dissenting opinions, or even constructive ideas from outside the inner circle.
Unless a more pluralistic society is promoted where people’s views are welcomed and there are no more inclusive political and economic institutions, the government will be forced to depend on regional troops to sustain it. . At some point, regional partners must hold politicians in the Solomon Islands accountable for the economic and political situation they have created and the resulting violence, such as the riots last year. The current focus on weapons, without considering rights and responsibilities, cannot and must not be sustained.