Sunday, May 07, 2006

Political Crisis in the Solomons

Hello, friends, at the 8-month mark.  It has been a month of excitement � nothing like a political crisis and some loot-and-torch rioting to break up monotony!

It started off fine � with a few days at Tulagi, a small island an hour�s boat-ride from Honiara.  We were there for an annual meeting of our small group of CUSO co-operants and representatives of the local organizations who have, or might like to have, a CUSO co-operant.  The meetings were hardly a thrill, and the small town (well, sort-of town) was a bit of a dump, despite this being the pre-WW II capital of the British protectorate.  But it was interesting to see a different place, and we had some good socializing and a day of snorkelling (in which Mar unfortunately lost her glasses).
Easter (Apr 16) was a bit of a disappointment.  We expected big doings at church � traditional dancing and such ... but it appears the more impressive service had been the night before, and for Easter morning, all the flowers in the church had wilted, and we had a dull-as-dishwater sermon and no festive atmosphere.  Pity.  But we had some friends with two boys over for dinner, and that was good.

The excitement � the rioting � hit two days after Easter.  It�s going to take a few minutes to explain what happened, and you�ll find it sounds a bit like a soap opera.  It was caused by a combination of simmering anti-Asian feeling (because of the virtual monopoly on commerce and perhaps the reputation of Taiwan money influencing SI politics) ... together with popular resentment of old-style corrupt politicians ... and the trigger was the choosing of the new Prime Minister by Members of Parliament after the April 5th national election.

Because party allegiances don�t count for much (indeed more than half the election candidates were independents), this choice of PM boils down to wheeling and dealing for cabinet posts and such.  There were two blocks � let�s just call them Camp A and B.  One of the Camp A group � remember this name: Sogavare � decided he wanted to be PM instead of the nominee Camp A chose; so he took some MPs with him and formed Camp C.  It is generally believed that he and his gang sold themselves for cash (supplied by a few Chinese big-businessmen) to Camp B � the group supporting the man (Snyder Rini) who had been Deputy PM in the previous government, which was tainted with corruption.  The vote for PM was held on Tuesday morning, April 18th.  Rini (Camp B) was chosen because after a token first round of secret balloting, Sogavare and his boys openly joined Rini.  The 300 or 400 people waiting outside Parliament � some people think this was orchestrated � got vocal, demanding that the MPs make a different choice.  Police started getting pushy, and then things turned nasty, with an anti-Chinese theme.  People stormed down the hill into downtown and started to ransack stores and burn a few police cars.  Later in the afternoon the mob migrated from downtown to Chinatown (where our office is).  Break-ins and looting took off, and then the fires.

Mar was downtown, but as the tension made itself evident, she went home by bus.  I was at the office, and got trapped with some others as the mob came into Chinatown; it meant an hour�s wait, but then I was able to get out and walk home.  Our neighbourhood was in no danger � or so we thought.

We thought the police (local SI + Australian, NZ etc.) would gain control.  They didn’t.  The rioters burned 80 % of Chinatown to the ground.  During Tuesday night there was an attack on the big hotel/casino/nightclub complex which is at the foot of our hill; it’s owned by a Chinese businessman.  That was repelled ... but a huge mob came back on Wednesday afternoon and burned it, making off with all the beer and liquor.  From our house we could see the flames, and we even got a whiff of the police tear gas.  They evacuated the trapped guests by boat.  Alcohol streamed up our hill in many hands, and Wednesday night was pretty scary because of the drunkenness and because a mob burned the collection of small shops at the foot of our hill.  We got little or no sleep, as a helicopter flew round and round our house for hours.  About 3:00 am we actually packed a bag.

By Thursday afternoon, though, Australian army reinforcements had been flown in and deployed, and that calmed things down � although schools, offices and shops stayed closed.  The drama wasn�t over.

The new PM (Rini) refused to resign, and Camp A vowed a non-confidence vote for the middle of the next week.  Camp A and B appeared to be tied at 25 MPs each, but then the police arrested two Camp A MPs for intimidation and inciting the riot.  So it looked like the new PM would win, which would probably spark more violence.  Surprise!  When Parliament gathered, a half-dozen MPs crossed the floor to join the Opposition (Camp A).  Guess who ... the gang of Sogavare � because Camp A had now promised him he could be its PM nominee. Whew ... are you getting all this?!  See what I mean about the soap opera?

Everyone heaved a big sigh of relief because Rini was forced to resign.  But then everyone remembered the problem of again choosing a PM � and that this would be complicated by the fact that two MPs were in jail (both Camp A and Camp B claimed those two were now on their side).  So again the tension built up to last Thursday�s (14 May) vote.  Again many stayed home; troops were everywhere; Parliament was closed off to the public and the media.  The Governor-General made the decision to allow the two prisoners to take part, and so everyone listened to the radio description of the ballot box being escorted to the prison and back to Parliament.  Sure enough, Sogavare, the guy who switched back-and-forth like a windshield wiper, is PM.  Fortunately, the final count was more clear than expected—28 to 22 � and people are content.  But we won’t count on political stability: MPs are sure to switch sides on subsequent votes for other issues.

The foreign troops have started to go home.  Many shops came back into operation last week, and despite the gutting of the wholesale system when Chinatown burned, it looks like food distribution is working.  Of course there are going to be some very serious long-term implications.  The rioting and political crisis did terrible damage to the city’s physical facilities, to the economy and the prospects for investment, to race relations, to people’s confidence.

Flash: just heard on the news about the new PM�s cabinet.  He has named one of the two MPs who are in jail on charges of intimidation and inciting the riot as Minister of Police and National Security!!  He�s also the man who is known to have been the major gun-runner during the civil war years.  Oh my, sometimes we do despair.

On a lighter note, a new ice-cream bar, the “Frangi-pani Ice”, opened two days ago ... and yesterday afternoon—is this a surprise?— Mar battled her way through the crowds to the counter to get a soft vanilla cone!  Yes, we’re in a very different culture ... but some things don’t change.

By now you�ve realized that we�re not always �roughing it� here in the Solomons.  We do have friends come for supper or coffee and chit-chat; we do go out to the fancy restaurant about once a month (had duck in flaky pastry this time); we occasionally swim at an out-of-town beach or the Honiara Hotel pool; we get �CARE� parcels with magazines and puzzles and snacks; we watch TV episodes on the computer.  And we were able to talk to our grandson by computer-telephone on his second birthday.

Observations:

- The rainy season (Jan, Feb, Mar, some of April) has ended.  We notice it getting dark earlier (a bit after 6 pm) and light earlier ( a bit before 6 am)

- A grubby black coating on the blades of electric fans � reminding us what a dirty atmosphere Honiara has

- Our neighbour Agnes can �story� with us for hours � about gossippy things, but also about family dynamics and customs ... bride-price (in shell money, pigs and cash), giving-away of children, reconciliation of disputes, etc.

- �Service Announcements� on the radio station: in a land where most do not have access to phone or even the postal system, you can hear 15 minutes nightly of fascinating messages people send to one another on-air � inter-island ship departure times, telling the family about a death, directions to come to an employment interview, setting up a meeting.

- Geckos scampering across the ceiling, and their �cluck-cluck-cluck� chortling

- The (disgusting) sound of people clearing their throats and spitting

- The neighbours� pet cockatoo, whose foot is linked to a clothesline, swinging loop-the-loops round the line

- A strange �class� behaviour: showing you�re above someone by speaking brusquely, ordering him to wait, or even just looking down and pretending to work so as to visibly ignore the person

- A nice, friendly-feeling thing: just after dark, looking 50 metres down the valley to the warm orange glow of Janet�s sawdust-burning cooking fire, and hearing the rattle of supper dishes

Let�s leave it there, and wish you a friendly �So long for now.�

Rob & Mar

Posted by RobAdmin on 05/07 at 09:37 AM
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