Underlying Factors

Three main factors underlie the conflict that took place in the Solomon Islands: first, the misfit between state and society that came with the establishment of the Solomon Islands as a state; second, economic mismanagement by the Solomon Islands Government leading to a loss of state natural resource revenues and resulting in uneven development, and; third, ‘ethnic’ tensions between Guales and Malaitans over land on the main islands of Guadalcanal.

The Solomon Islands was made a British protectorate in 1893, and, although it became an independent state in 1978, its constitution as a state sits uneasily with its traditional social structure.[1] As Braithwaite et al. note, ‘The state today is still not central to most of the day-to-day existence of the overwhelming majority of the population who live in villages distant from towns.’[2] Rather the wantok, ‘the local version of what anthropologists call a segmentary lineage or descent group’, remains the fundamental unit of association for most Solomon Islanders.[3] However, the state is not simply seen as a benign irrelevance. Although many ‘educated people may understand the benefits of being one nation, the vast majority of Solomon Islanders see it as a threat to their resources, their cultural identity and culture, their environment and the basis of their sustained community living.’[4] Thus, although the Solomon Islands formally follows the Westminster model of political representation, this structure exists in tension with ‘the patchwork of semi-autonomous micro-polities’ that comprise the state.[5]

This sense that the local community and not the state can be trusted to secure Solomon Islanders’ livelihoods has only been exacerbated by the ‘failure of successive governments to implement effective or just policies and strategies to develop the country’s human and natural resources.’[6] Disputes over natural resource revenues, particularly associated with the issuing of logging licences to Asian-based companies but also related to the mining industry, have only served to heighten the sense of many Solomon Islanders that they are not receiving a fair distribution of their nation’s resources. In addition, the government’s inability to adequately address disputes over conflicting land tenure systems gave rise to further tensions, particularly between Malaitan immigrants and the residents of Guadalcanal.

During World War II, large numbers of Malaitans moved to Guadalcanal to take up jobs with the U.S. military which had established a base there following its defeat of the Japanese in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Grievances between the Guales and the Malaitans who remained on Guadalcanal after the end of the war emerged over issues of uneven development, the inheritance of land, and respect. As Braithwaite et al. note, ‘The people of Guadalcanal came to view Malaitans as disrespectful guests on their land’ and became increasingly concerned that different land inheritance customs were resulting in the loss of lands customarily held by the people of Guadalcanal.19 In response, Guale militants began evicting Malaitans from Guadalcanal, causing resentment from the Malaitans who ‘viewed this as uncompensated eviction from lands they had paid to share.’20 With this, the underlying elements of what has often been called ‘ethnic tension’ in the Solomon Islands were exposed, although, as Judith Bennett cautions, this description is not always accurate for ‘sometimes the “ethnicity” of those involved [was] so uncertain’ that interrogators were forced to employ language tests to ascertain which particular group combatants were from.21 Further exacerbating the situation was a government that favoured Malaitan interests over those of the people of Guadalcanal and that ‘had given in to some quite large compensation demands from Malaitans who alleged insult and violence by non-Malaitans.’ For many Guales, this was simply unjust.

  • [1] Judith Bennett, ‘Roots of Conflict in Solomon Islands Though Much is Taken, MuchAbides: Legacies of Tradition and Colonialism’, State, Society and Governance inMelanesia Discussion Paper 2002/5, Australian National University, Research Schoolof Pacific and Asian Studies, pp. 2,7.
  • [2] Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 13.
  • [3] Francis Fukuyama, ‘State Building in Solomon Islands’, Pacific Economic Bulletin,Vol. 23, No. 3 (2008), p. 18.
  • [4] Ruth Liloqula, ‘Understanding Conflict in Solomon Islands: A Practical Meansto Peacemaking’, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper2000/7, Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,p. 3.
  • [5] Hegarty et al., ‘Rebuilding State and Nation in Solomon Islands’, p. 5;Jaap Timmer,‘Kastom and Theocracy: a Reflection on Governance from the Uttermost Past ofthe World’, in Sinclair Dinnen and Stewart Firth (eds.), Politics and Statebuilding inSolomon Islands (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2008), p. 195;J.C. Corrin Care, ‘The Searchfor a More Appropriate Form of Government in Solomon Islands’ in B.A. Hocking(ed.), Unfinished Constitutional Business? Rethinking Indigenous Self-determination(Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), pp. 159-169.
  • [6] Liloqula, ‘Understanding Conflict in Solomon Islands’, p. 5.
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