A New Use of Kastom

A number of arguments have been advanced that suggest that custom has been manipulated. At the forefront of these, and referenced by nearly everyone I spoke to in the Solomon Islands, is the argument made by Fraenkel (2004). Fraenkel refers to the historical process of providing compensation, generally in the forms laid out above: strings of shell money, bags of rice, pigs, bananas, and so on. Generously, he allows that, over time, ‘custom was inevitably re-moulded, redefined and selectively styled to meet these new and unfamiliar circumstances’ (Fraenkel 2004: 11), as is seen throughout the world as conditions change and societies grow and develop. But he contends that ‘compensation by demand displaced community negotiation or adjudication about appropriate levels of redress’ (Fraenkel 2004: 114). This, he argues, ‘gave the elite a mobilizing instrument and a means of extorting money from the state’ (Fraenkel 2004: 45). This is echoed by many others, including Braithwaite et al., who argue that the conflict was ‘captured by opportunistic leaders who saw opportunities for personal enrichment’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 45).

Many of the people to whom I spoke referenced the high levels of compensation that were guaranteed and paid by the SIG to people who were wronged during the Tensions, and particularly to the families of those who were killed. As the Solomon Islands politician, Matthew Cooper Wale explained when interviewed:

At that time, the government said $100,000 SBD per life was to be paid.

In some cases, the compensation was prepared in advance, and the militants killed at will and then gave compensation to the parents of the deceased, which they accepted, and then had no recourse (Interview 2014).

Braithwaite et al. also found that ‘[i]n many other cases, perpetrators demanded compensation from the very victims they attacked—attacked with the intention of eliciting offensive behaviour in response that could justify a demand for compensation’ (2010: 45; Droogen & Waldek 2015: 292). These demands were very different than the demands for compensation that are customarily made in the opening of reconciliation talks between parties to any incident. Nearly everyone I spoke to was incredulous at the idea that compensation practices had been exploited in this way.

As mentioned above, the SIG was holding solovisus throughout the Tensions period. This came as early as the talks held aboard the HMAS Tobruk, when then-Deputy Prime Minister Kemakeza ‘held a kastom ceremony on the warship, by putting money—a symbol of our kastom—to say okay, put our guns away and begin peace’ (Kemakeza interview 2014). Braithwaite et al. have called this a ‘purchased ceasefire’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 37). During the peace negotiations, as Fraenkel describes, ‘[a] total of SBD$10 million was handed over to the provincial representatives, including SBD$5 million for swearing and disrespect to Malaitan chiefs and SBD$1.8 million for missing Malaitans presumed dead... Pay-outs were financed by advances from the Central Bank. Guadalcanal’s leaders also warmed to the new government’s money-before-peace philosophy. [The] Acting Provincial Premier. boarded the HMAS Tobruk to receive SBD$3 million compensation on behalf of the province’ (Fraenkel 2004: 95).

Then, during the RAMSI period, compensation was further utilized by the Solomon Islands Government, which traded on the traditional idea of compensation as reconciliation, but effectively bought people’s complacence. Some thought that the government was carrying these kastom ceremonies out because they were unable to do anything to stop the militants, and felt that they had failed in their responsibility to the families of those who were killed (Pollard interview 2014).

Complicating the compensation process still further, the government quickly paid compensation to the first 25 claimants, at a rate of $100,000 each. The government managed to pay these first compensations, but fur?ther compensations were funded by the Government of Taiwan in the amount of US$25 million, in exchange for recognition and support in the face of opposition from People’s Republic of China.3 In so doing, the SIG crossed the line between formal and informal practice and attempted to legitimize the payouts as compensations are customarily understood, when, in fact, they had nothing to do with customary reconciliation. As such:

The involvement of the government skewed the process of relationship building! The government wasn’t a victim or a perpetrator, but it paid out money. They had to secure a loan from the Government of the Republic of China on Taiwan to pay it... When someone kills someone else, there is standard compensation. And therefore what is accepted in terms of compensation by the government is questionable. The government has gone beyond what is normal by paying $100,000 per head to people who were killed. How did they arrive at this sum instead of chupu? (Waena interview 2014)4

Sir Nathaniel Waena served as Minister of National Unity, Peace and Reconciliation during this period, and later as the Governor-General who signed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into law. In recalling his experiences during the time immediately following the Tensions, he expressed his discomfort with the process, in large part because the customary ritual had been expropriated and then turned into something that was virtually unrecognizable:

The provincial governments of Malaita and Guadalcanal began to talk of their own bona fide claims—not because their claims were legitimate, but because the provincial ministers wanted the money paid to them directly. That was new. They have taken out of proportion the appeasement part of the process. Rather sadly, the money went to the wrong hands. It went to the right hands in the form of the premiers, but they misappropriated the funds. Some of them even went to prison for it. It was my responsibility to facilitate the second tranche of compensation payments from the loan from Taiwan. I felt we were dishing away what ought to have been carefully planned out, and what should have been put into a scheme to help distribute the money more effectively. A lot of those claims, I felt, were overstretched or false. The government had to apportion compensation to deal with these claims—people claimed for their homes that had been destroyed and so on, although many were no doubt fraudulent. We produced a book of the total requirements of each province, which reflected the kinds of aspirations the people had. Those had not been implemented by government when I left for Government House. [Sir Nathaniel was subsequently appointed Governor-General] (Interview 2014).

Many people, including other officials in the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace, questioned the logic of paying such large sums of money. In total, 269 payments were made, to a total of $18.8 million SBD— at least half of which was later deemed to have been fraudulent, culpability for which was admitted by players as high up as the Prime Minister himself (Fraenkel 2004: 122). ‘You can’t build peace with compensation,’ said the former Permanent Secretary (PS) of the MNURP (Kere interview 2014).

The manipulation of custom is not, however, simply a practice engaged in by international and domestic elites. On the contrary, customary practices are also frequently manipulated by Solomon Islander traditional cultural leaders. For example, Assistant Special Co-ordinator of RAMSI, Mataiasi (Masi) Lomaloma noted that:

One of the challenges of reconciliation in Solomon Islands is brought about by the organisation of its communities where traditional leaders may feel able to speak and act on behalf of individuals. This has led to instances where forgiveness has been granted by community leaders with the consent of the actual victims. This challenge is equally applicable to perpetrators where “shadow” perpetrators come to seek forgiveness on behalf of the real offenders. Unsurprisingly, this rarely results in effective and lasting reconciliation between the actual parties involved. (2013: 63)

Edmund Sikua, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Police, National Security, and Correctional Services admitted that many people mistrust the intentions of chiefs and community leaders: ‘The legitimacy and integrity of people in chiefly positions has been questioned. They may themselves have been involved in the Tensions’ (Interview 2014).

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