Practice-Based Research of the Solomon Islands TRC

The turn towards empirical research in transitional justice and peace studies is pertinent to research practice in the Solomon Islands, where despite the ‘rhetorical recognition’ of the unique challenges in the region, responses to development, peace, and conflict challenges remain largely informed by globalised and placeless theories of ‘best practice’ (Corbett 2013: 497; Larmour 2005: 3). Outsiders (namely from Australia and New Zealand) have adopted doomsday language to refer to their Melanesian neighbours, and ‘discussions about the future of the Pacific Islands are subject to this negative labelling and stereotyping’ (Wallace 2009: 526). The prevalence of conflict in Melanesia has seen the region characterised as: ‘“an arc of instability”; a zone of economic “basket cases” and “failing states” populated by “tribal and warlike” people and open to penetration by terrorism and organized crime’ (Brown 2008: 184; see also May 2003; Wallace 2009: 527). While a narrow focus on ‘failing’ states has seen a corresponding emphasis on building liberal peace and strengthening state institutions, Solomon Islander and regional scholars point to non-state institutions such as churches, customary authorities, and other community networks as existing strengths in localised mechanisms for community governance, conflict management, and peacebuilding (see Brown 2008; Dinnen et al. 2003; Maebuta et al. 2009; McDougall and Kere 2011; Sanga 2005). Research highlights reliance on kastom5 in local level disputes (Allen et al. 2013: 34), noting that:

The state system is regarded as “introduced” or foreign (often referred to as “white man’s law”), whereas kastom and the church, despite also incorporating many introduced features, are seen as representing a more indigenous approach to dispute management. (Allen et al. 2013: 66)

Solomon Islander scholar Kabini Sanga also emphasises the importance of local leadership in conflict management, extending this to scholarship and research on the topic:

Non-Solomon Islanders can write about it, undertake research and offer advice on conflict resolution in the country, but they are unlikely to be able to play pivotal roles in longer-term resolutions. The focus should be on Solomon Islanders, rather than on external people and their advice, input and assistance, however well-intentioned. (2005: 447-8)

Research practices in the Pacific have been coloured by the experiences of colonisation, and such a call for more localised research reflects recent trends in postcolonial societies which show an emergence of indigenous approaches to research. Nabobo-Baba explains that:

Similar trends are being observed in the [P]acific, with a number of people working to define research approaches that are applicable to the region. Such indigenous approaches are based on the assumption that knowing and knowledge are not accultural, but are products of, and thus influenced by, particular culture, and can best be understood by way of research techniques that reflect that culture. (2006: 24)

Pacific Islanders have increasingly focused on Pacific research methodologies and indigenous epistemologies, either as the substantive focus of research or as a complement to their own studies (see, e.g., Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 2002; Nabobo-Baba 2006; Maebuta 2010; and Tuhiwai Smith 1999). Similarly, ‘outsiders’ have written about their experiences of seeking to conduct culturally sensitive research in the Pacific (see, e.g., Monson 2009; Vallance 2007, 2008; Vella 2011; Waldrip and Taylor 1999). Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo (2002: 381) suggest that ‘what has been missing from the development literature is systematic, careful examination of how differing indigenous peoples construct knowledge—that is, indigenous epistemology’, explaining indigenous epistemology to mean ‘a cultural group’s ways of thinking and of creating, (re)formulating, and theorising about knowledge via traditional discourses and media of communication, anchoring the truth of the discourse in culture’. Maebuta warns that peace research that ignores indigenous knowledge and practices in the Pacific is likely to be resisted (2010: 1).

While an interpretive approach to research provides insight into understanding an indigenous epistemology, Wood (2006) argues research in the Pacific should not conclude with generalised theory or analysis. Rather, Wood (2006: 33) advocates for practice-based research, an approach that ‘generally de-emphasizes not only disciplinary concerns but also efforts to compose interpretations’, explaining that in a practice-based research approach:

Practices are researched not to help answer academic questions, as they are in discipline-based research. Nor are practices used as the basis for formulating abstract descriptions or analyses, as they are in interpretation-based approaches. Researchers who emphasize practices consider the activities of everyday life important enough by themselves to justify lifetimes of study. (Wood 2006: 42)

Practice-based research approaches appreciate that knowledge can be learned through creating interpretations, but such knowledge is meaningless unless it is practised (Ayau and Tengan 2002 cited in Wood 2006: 44). Solomon Islander educator Jack Maebuta strongly supports the call for practice-based approaches in post-conflict Solomon Islands, highlighting the need for ‘understanding the framework for indigenous knowledge and skills which are of crucial importance to peace research in the Pacific’ (2010: 6). Indeed, practice-based research is essential to both Pacific and peace research. A crucial value test of peace research is its pragmatic pay-off in terms of better insights into practical problems and improved policies and responses: ‘When all goes well, practice informs theory and theory is properly questioned as to its practical implications’ (Rogers and Ramsbotham 1999: 753; see also Schnabel 2001: 194).

Being committed to peace research principles, including the close relationship between theory and practice, the research questions for this study centred on eliciting stories and listening to those who were directly involved with the Solomon Islands TRC, exploring their perceptions of the Commission’s successes and challenges, and deepening an understanding of how the TRC operated in practice. The research was also designed to address the demand for empirical transitional justice and peacebuilding research, and to take advantage of my position as a staff member of the TRC and ability to reflect on the practical application and implementation of a truth commission in the Solomon Islands.

Key lessons learned during my time working at the TRC were identified and implemented into the methodology for this study. Of note, throughout the work of the TRC there was an overwhelming sense of research fatigue among villagers when approached by staff to discuss the period of conflict, as will be discussed below. Many were reluctant to talk of the past, and participation was often encouraged by TRC staff, who drew attention to the potential benefits and changes the TRC could make through its final report and recommendations. With the sensitive nature of post-conflict research and the general research fatigue encountered in mind, the methods were adjusted as follows.

First, trust and rapport with interview participants were considered not just valuable but in most cases necessary. Waldrip and Taylor highlight this for researching in Melanesia, emphasising:

It is of utmost importance that [...] sufficient trust be established between the researcher and the local people, otherwise the researcher is quite likely to be given an answer that is incongruent with local peoples’ actual perceptions or beliefs. (1999: 255)

Such answers are not intentionally misleading, but may result from an attempt to save face, avoid conflict, preserve the relationship, or to tell you what you want to hear (Waldrip and Taylor 1999: 256). Thus, interviews for this study were primarily conducted with colleagues and trusted acquaintances, with whom trust and rapport were already established.

Second, familiarity with Solomon Islands culture, kastoms, and Pijin was recognised as necessary to allow participants to speak freely in their lingua franca. While eliminating the need for interpreters and subsequent risks to the integrity of the data, the ability to conduct interviews in Pijin noticeably contributed to a relaxed and informal setting in which interlocutors appeared engaged and open. It was noticed that even when interviewing Solomon Islanders who were formally educated, literate, and fluent English speakers, Pijin was still the preferred means of communication.

Finally, the potential for the research to have applicable and ongoing benefits for the Solomon Islands and the broader region was observed as a significant factor for the research participants, and the topic of research was therefore focussed explicitly on practice-based research of the TRC. In contrast to the sense of research fatigue that was noted during the TRC’s work, participants to this study—those already involved with the TRC process—mostly contributed with enthusiasm and insightful reflection. Many appeared to value the opportunity to reflect on peacebuilding and reconciliation in the Solomon Islands generally, and to discuss the TRC for the benefit of future Pacific nations that may undertake a similar transitional justice process.

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