The Case of the Solomon Islands

The period of violence that gripped the Solomon Islands between 1998 and 2003 has often been described as an ethnic conflict. While this characterization is true in part, it fails to capture the sheers complexity of the conflict and range of grievances that led to its outbreak. To understand those, we need to take a very brief journey through the history of the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago consisting of approximately 1000 islands located in the Pacific Ocean north-east of Australia. Its population, which numbers approximately 555,000 is ‘predominantly Melanesian (about 95 %) although there are also small Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese and European communities’ (DFAT, Solomon Islands Country Brief). The people of the Solomon Islands speak 63 distinct languages, while English serves as the official language and Solomons Pijin is the lingua franca.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Solomon Islands were first settled around 40,000 years ago, with a second wave of Austronesian colonizers arriving from Southeast Asia in about 3500 B.C.E. (Lilley 2006). First European contact with the Solomon Islands came in 1568 when a Spanish expedition departed Peru in search of the biblical King Solomon’s mines of Ophir and Terra Australis Incognita (the ‘Southern Continent’). Although they were unable to locate either place, the explorers discovered and named the islands of Santa Ysabel, San Cristobal, and Guadalcanal, which now form part of the Solomon Islands, and drew detailed maps of the islands they passed. It was only after the expedition returned to Peru, however, that the archipelago was given the name, the Solomon Islands (TRC Report 2012: 28).

For almost 200 years, the Solomon Islands ‘eluded foreign sailors,’ leading Lord Amherst and Basil Thomson to remark that ‘there is surely nothing in the history of maritime discovery so strange as the story of how the Isles of the Solomons were discovered, lost, and found again’ (1901: I; TRC Report 2012: 29). Their rediscovery came at the hands of the Englishman, Philip Carteret in 1767, who was followed by a slew of other European expeditions exploring the South Pacific. By 1831, the French explorer Jules Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville had divided the Pacific into three regions: Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Melanesia, a term meaning ‘black islands’ in Greek, included the Solomon Islands along with New Guinea, New Caledonia, parts of Fiji, and what is now known as Vanuatu. Though posed as a region, the term Melanesia ‘depended less on geographical than on cultural and racial factors,’ including the dark colored skin of its inhabitants (Lawson 2013: 2). Since then, ‘Melanesia’ has become for many Solomon Islanders and others in the region ‘a term of empowerment and a focus of identity’ (Lawson 2013: 3; Kabutaulaka in Crocombe 2001: 146).

Also helping to shape Solomon Islands identity is the relationship between kastom and Christianity, which was introduced in the 1840s. As Joanna Quinn details in Chapter 3, kastom ‘refers to “a whole way of life, a culture distinctive of a local group, or a generic indigenous culture”’ (Jolly 1992: 330, 341). It is, she writes, comprised of ‘shared traditions and social norms, as well as a variety of practices and rituals’ (Quinn, this volume), and plays a critical role in shaping and determining the bounds of legitimate behavior, personalities, and relationships (Rousseau 2008: 16). Kastom is not fixed, nor is it ‘static but can be remoulded, redefined, and manipulated to deal with “new and unfamiliar circumstances”’ (Jeffery 2014a: 212). With the arrival of Christianity in the nineteenth century, Christian doctrine was thus melded with customary beliefs to become what Geoffrey White calls an ‘indigenized form’ of Christianity (TRC Report 2012: 320). He writes that:

Rather than destroy or desecrate shrines, the indigenous specialists attempted to transform them ritually with Christian practice. Acts of “blessing,” “anointing” and “baptizing” were (and still are) the weapons in the spiritual arsenal of indigenous Christians. Local catechists and priests were sympathetic to the substantial continuities of the past in the present, of the old in the new. Their model of transformation was not one of rupture but of reformulation. (in TRC Report 2012: 32; White 1991: 108)

Since then, the relationship between Christianity and kastom has become so intertwined that they are largely inseparable. Just as kastom provides the fundamental foundation for social life in the Solomon Islands, so too Christianity and the Churches provide spiritual, social, and even political guidance for the vast majority (90 %) of Solomon Islanders. That is, in contrast to the Western separation of Church and State, the Churches play a key role in Solomon Islands politics and, as we will see shortly, were instrumental in the pursuit of formal state level transitional justice in the aftermath of the Tensions.

In many ways, the close relationship between kastom, religion, and politics in the Solomon Islands is symptomatic of general attitudes toward the state more broadly. In 1893 the Solomon Islands became a British protectorate and gained independence in 1978. However, the establishment of a Westphalian state, bringing together disparate ethnic and linguistic groups, tribes, and clans under the single umbrella of the nation-state has sat uncomfortably with the traditional social structures of the Solomon Islands (Bennett 2002: 7). For most Solomon Islanders, it is not the state but the wantok that is the most important social structure in their lives. Described by anthropologists as ‘a segmentary lineage or descent group’ (Fukuyama 2008: 18), the term wantok commonly refers to the language of a tribe or clan and the social system associated with it. As everyday life revolves around the wantok, the state remains a distant, irrelevant, and even dangerous structure for many Solomon Islanders (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 13). In particular, ‘the vast majority of Solomon Islanders see [the state]... as a threat to their resources, their cultural identity and culture, their environment and the basis of the sustained community living’ (Liloquila 2000: 3). This distrust of the state is especially marked where issues of resources, land rights, and development have been concerned.

Among the key precipitants of the Tensions, the issues of migration, the unequal distribution of resources, and land acquisitions have proven particularly vexed. During World War II, the Solomon Islands saw a wave of migration from the populous but relatively underdeveloped island of Malaita to Guadalcanal. Lured by the promise of gaining employment with the US military, which had established a base there after the defeat of the Japanese at the Battle of Guadalcanal, many Malaitans stayed on after the war. Rather than being welcome migrants, however, Malaitan settlers were widely viewed by the ‘people of disrespectful guests on their land’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 18-19). In particular, while the people of Guadalcanal predominantly followed matrilineal patterns of inheritance and land tenure, the Malaitan clans were ambilineal, meaning that although either men or women could inherit, land was more often passed down through male lines (Oliver 1989: 26-27). As a result, many Guales became concerned that the combination of intermarriage and land inheritance customs was resulting in the loss of lands customarily held by the people of Guadalcanal. Yet, the Malaitans who controlled land on Guadalcanal, either through marriage or through the land tenure system, maintained that they had every ‘right to receive a share of the wealth’ enjoyed by the people of Guadalcanal (TRC Report 2012: 47). After all, they reasoned, their labor had helped to generate the relative prosperity of Guadalcanal. As such, Malaitan migration to Guadalcanal continued through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. By the time the Tensions broke out in 1998, ‘more than half of Honiara’s population were Malaitans, many of whom were born on Guadalcanal and lacked strong roots to their home island’ (TRC Report 2012: 48).

As early as 1978, Guadalcanal leaders who had formed the ‘Guadalcanal Provincial Assembly’ had begun to raise their concerns about the ‘negative impact of mass migration into Guadalcanal’ and presented the government with a list of demands, including the ‘immediate removal of squatters from both all customary and alienated lands on Guadalcanal’ and the establishment of an independent state government for Guadalcanal (TRC Report 2012: 54). During the next 20 years, these and other demands were reiterated at various junctures to no avail. For the local Guale population, the government’s continual failure to accede to their demands was evidence that it favored Malaitan interests, a view exacerbated by the fact that the government had ‘given in to some quite large compensation demands from Malaitans who alleged insult and violence by non-Malaitans’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 24). In the end, the Guale population took matters into its own hands and began to forcefully evict Malaitans from Guadalcanal.

In large part, the characterization of the Tensions as a conflict between Guales and Malaitans has given rise to the claim that ethnic tensions were the root cause of the violence that followed. At best, however, this was only the case at the very beginning of the conflict and, even then, was not universally true. As Judith Bennett notes, ‘sometimes the “ethnicity” of those involved [in the Tensions] was so uncertain’ that language tests had to be employed to determine which particular ethnic group or clan combatants were actually from (2002: 11). According to her assessment (Bennett 2002), the more significant underlying causes of the conflict included migration to Guadalcanal, unequal distribution of wealth, mismanagement of resources, lack of education, rapid population growth, urbanization, land disputes, the marginalization of traditional leadership roles by those engaged in the global economy, corrupt politicians, and the routine pilfering of public money by public officials.

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