The Solomon Islands is our neighbour. We have a common sea border, and shared membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, The Pacific Islands Forum, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. We enjoy excellent relations, and we have a strong interest in the stability, democracy and economic growth of our neighbour - an interest a good neighbour always should hold.
The genesis of the current position is to be found in the formation of a group calling itself the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army (GRA) in 1998. The group began challenging the authority of the Solomon Islands government.
At the same time the Guadalcanal Provincial government made demands on the national government relating to the sale of customary land, stopping the migration of people from other Islands to Guadalcanal, and, moving the capital, Honiara, away from the province.
The group acquired from sources that have not been fully identified a large quantity of weapons, and raided police posts seizing guns and ammunition.
It caused disturbances, and targeted people from the Malaita Province, resulting in some 20,000 Malaitas being displaced from their homes and jobs, and forced to move back to their home province. A group of displaced Malaitas, who lost their property as a result of the ethnic tensions formed another militant group, the Malaita Eagle Force. The group also acquired weapons and began attacking the Guadalcanal Group in early 2000.
The law and order and security position, and the Solomons' economy rapidly deteriorated as a result of these ethnic tensions, violence and organised criminal activity.
In June 2000, the democratically elected government, led by the then Prime Minister, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, was overthrown, and an undemocratic situation continued until national elections in December 2001. These elections were monitored by a Forum Observer Group, including Justice Catherine Davani of the National Court of Papua New Guinea.
Since 2000, there have been a number of attempts to address the problems, including the following specific initiatives:
- There was an unsuccessful mediation attempt in early 2000 including the involvement of a special envoy of the Commonwealth.
- A visit by an International Peace Monitoring Team to oversee weapons disposal in June 2000.
- In October 2000, the Townsville Peace Agreement between the government, and the groups from Guadalcanal and Malaita was signed.
- At the initiative of the Pacific Islands Forum, three eminent persons from Forum countries visited the Solomons last year to assess the position and reported back to the 2002 Pacific Islands Forum Meeting.
Despite these initiatives, the law and order position continued to deteriorate, including the killing of innocent people by rebel elements; major foreign owned enterprises closing down; the economy effectively collapsing; and the government reaching a desperate fiscal position.
In April this year the elected Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Sir Allan Kemakeza, wrote to the Australian Prime Minister seeking assistance to address the critical, deteriorating position.
The two Prime Ministers met in Canberra in May, resulting in the Australian government changing its long-standing policy not to intervene in the internal affairs of regional nations.
This article is an extract of an address to the Papua New Guinea National Parliament.
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