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The Pacific’s state of independence

February 1, 2016

20151001001183360576-original.jpg The Pacific’s state of independence – Policy Forum
Australian policymakers have to adapt to a new reality of national independence among key Pacific island nations, writes Stewart Firth.

The Pacific’s state of independence
Melanesia is becoming a region of many partners, expanding diplomatic options and a new sense of independence –
Stewart Firth 1 February 2016

Australian policymakers have to adapt to a new reality of national independence among key Pacific island nations, writes Stewart Firth.

The Papua New Guinea government recently removed fifteen Australian advisers from its public service, as promised in mid-2015. The Australians were working in the departments of finance, transport, treasury and justice, key parts of the country’s administrative structure. The PNG government left eighteen others where they were and the advisers’ departure is not likely to disturb good relations between PNG and Australia.
Yet the event symbolises a new sense of national independence in PNG, one shared with two of the other three independent Melanesian countries; Solomon Islands and Fiji. The three Melanesian states are expressing a new willingness to go their own way whatever Australia might think. Vanuatu, the fourth, has an independent foreign policy but is too small (population 258,000) to exercise much influence internationally.
PNG seeks regional leadership in the Pacific, and has become an aid donor to neighbouring Pacific Island countries, offering Solomon Islands almost AUD$40m for a five year development program and giving assistance to Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Palau. The PNG of 2016 is emboldened by its resources boom, which is experiencing a temporary dip but is likely to surge again by the early 2020s. In an unprecedented initiative for a Melanesian country, PNG will host the APEC leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby in 2018 (with a great deal of security assistance from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Israel).
Even Solomon Islands, the beneficiary of a decade’s presence of the Regional Assistance Mission led by Australia, is diversifying its international links, establishing new diplomatic missions in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Havana in 2013; and Wellington in 2014.
Nowhere is the new Melanesian independence clearer than in Fiji. The 2006 military coup delivered power into the hands of a military commander – Frank Bainimarama – who later abrogated the constitution and ruled for years by decree before finally bowing to international opinion and holding an election in 2014. Australia and New Zealand imposed extensive travel bans, ensured Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum (the key regional organisation) and isolated Fiji diplomatically.
Bainimarama mounted a counter-response, one that has become a permanent feature of Fiji’s international stance. Fiji joined the Non-Aligned Movement and extended its diplomatic reach, setting up new embassies in South Africa, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates. At the UN, Fiji made the Pacific Small Islands Developing States group (eleven Pacific countries) an effective grouping, and in 2013 was chair of the G77, the UN grouping of 134 developing countries. Fiji grew notably closer to China, sending military officers to Beijing for training, accepting a significant amount of Chinese aid and welcoming investment in Fiji mining by Chinese companies. Fiji rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping when he visited Fiji in 2014, and Fiji soldiers participated in China’s V-Day parade in 2015.
As elsewhere, China in the South Pacific is a strict observer of the sovereignty of independent countries and saw no problem in maintaining good relations with a military regime. Bainimarama regularly thanks the Chinese government for standing by his government during the post-coup years when it was being isolated by Australia and New Zealand.
Regionally, Bainimarama has competed with Australia and New Zealand. Suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum [PIF], he formed one of his own, and it excludes the Australians and New Zealanders. This is the Pacific Islands Development Forum [PIDF], whose annual meetings are timed to create maximum embarrassment by taking place a week before the Forum meeting itself, an approach that allows Fiji to pose as a regional leader of small island states with their interests at heart, in contrast (intentionally) to Australia and New Zealand. The PIDF produced a strong declaration on climate change last September, for example, a few days before Australian and New Zealand diplomats struggled to make the PIF’s own declaration sound stronger than it actually was.
Another regional organisation – one that has never enjoyed support from Australia – is also growing in influence. The Melanesian Spearhead Group [MSG] is the organisation of independent Melanesian countries (Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) plus one political party, the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) from the French territory of New Caledonia.
The MSG now includes Indonesia as an associate member, added in 2015 when Indonesia became aware that the Melanesian countries wanted to offer some kind of membership to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. On her visit to Melanesia in 2015, the Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi declared that “Indonesia is home to more than 11 million Melanesians. So Indonesia is Melanesia and Melanesia is Indonesia. We share a common land border and culture with our next biggest Melanesian country, PNG.” Jakarta was soon writing handsome cheques for Melanesian governments.
The Pacific Islands have been largely spared from the savage aid cuts made by Australia’s former Tony Abbott-led government, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been adept at diplomacy in the islands, but Australian foreign policy-makers need to adapt to the new reality of our nearest neighbours. Melanesia is becoming a region of many partners, expanding diplomatic options and a new sense of independence from Australia. The wider context of the new Melanesian assertiveness is one in which China is a rising power and Indonesia is forging closer links with the western Pacific.
This article is based on George Carer and the author’s paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, The mood in Melanesia after the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
This article is published in collaboration with the Devpolicy Blog, a platform for the best in aid and development analysis, research and policy comment, with a focus on Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.
2) A Peaceful Decade but Pacific Islanders Warn Against Complacency
By Catherine Wilson

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 29 2016 (IPS) – The Pacific Islands conjures pictures of swaying palm trees and unspoiled beaches. But, after civil wars and unrest since the 1980’s, experts in the region are clear that Pacific Islanders cannot afford to be complacent about the future, even after almost a decade of relative peace and stability. And preventing conflict goes beyond ensuring law and order.

“Future stability is far from assured in the Pacific, or indeed any region of the world,” Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary-General of the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), supported by conflict prevention adviser, Tim Bryar, told IPS.

“Research shows that the greatest predictor of future conflict is past conflict. Therefore, places such as Bougainville and New Caledonia which not only have a history of civil war, but also the presence of unaddressed potential root causes of conflict, such as extractive activities and inter-ethnic tensions…would suggest that we need to be vigilant,” she continued.

Frida Bani-Sam of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy in Vanuatu said that with rising socioeconomic inequalities being a major conflict risk, “the onus is on good leadership at the helm, leadership that can ensure economic and social stability, now and into the future.”

The most serious post-Second World War fray in the region was the decade long Bougainville civil war (1989-98) in Papua New Guinea, triggered by local grievances about inequitable benefit sharing from the foreign-owned Panguna copper mine and environmental devastation. An estimated 15,000-20,000 people or 10 per cent of the population lost their lives and infrastructure and the economy were decimated.

In the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, located southwest of Fiji, inequality and loss of land fuelled pro-independence resistance and unrest in the mid-1980s. Local expectations will intensify with referendums on independence due to be held in New Caledonia in 2018 and Bougainville by 2020.

The Solomon Islands, which neighbours Bougainville, also experienced a five-year conflict, known as the ‘Tensions’ (1998-2003), ending with a regional peacekeeping intervention. Hostilities escalated over land dispossession to internal migrants and foreign investors on Guadalcanal Island, exacerbated by lack of economic opportunities and failure of governance to address the rising violence. An estimated 50,000 people were displaced, thousands experienced human rights abuses and development plummeted.

Root causes, such as inequality, land disputes, fragile governance and youth unemployment, remain sources of tensions in the region today, according to the PIFS.

A broad section of the region’s population is affected by unemployment, but youth, who account for about 54 per cent, are particularly vulnerable. Population growth rates in small Pacific Island states far exceed their capacity to generate jobs, even for those with education, and youth unemployment ranges from 16 per cent in Samoa to 46 per cent in the Solomon Islands.

In north Bougainville, Dorcas Gano, President of the Hako Women’s Collective told IPS that “our small towns and struggling economy cannot cater to white collar employment for more than a very few.”

The collective is looking for ways to address “the need for rural employment skills or qualified training for the vast majority of youth who miss out on progressing past Grades 8 and 10. If these needs are not urgently addressed then ‘rascal-ism’ will rise and could lead to future unrest.”

Disenfranchised youth were drawn to the ‘Tensions,’ riots in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, in 2006 and civil unrest the same year in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, when hundreds expressed anger at stalled government progress toward democracy.

But Bani-Sam emphasised that young people must be part of the solution, declaring that “youth, being the next generation of leaders, need to be empowered so they can participate meaningfully in the development conversation.”

For the vast majority of Pacific Islanders without formal employment, access to customary land is crucial for shelter, social security and subsistence and market food production. But influences such as the global cash-based economy and corruption, particularly when access to natural resources is involved, have aggravated land disputes.

“If we accept the existing [development] model which supports private property ownership and strongly links economic development to commodity extraction, then I think corruption is, of course, a problem because the money made from economic activities on land tends to not reach the customary custodians of the land, let alone the general population,” Dame Meg Taylor remarked.

Preventative approaches must include full implementation of free, informed and prior consent by traditional landowners “and by ‘full implementation’, I mean that governments must be willing to accept that some landowners may not want to consent to handing over their land,” she added.

Tackling the causes of land-related violence is a priority. The approach of the PIFS is to bridge traditional and western land management practices by, for instance, clarifying customary landowner rights and responsibilities of both governments and landowners in land dealings.

But there is also wider corruption involving politicians, public officials and organised criminals, named as a threat to development and stability during a regional security meeting in 2013.

State capture is acknowledged to have contributed to the ‘Tensions.’ A background paper commissioned by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that “national politicians were noticeably in the pocket of various Asian logging companies seeking and gaining ready access to the Solomon Islands’ forests for logging rights in return for bribes and sweeteners” and “a range of actors, including ex-militants, politicians and businessmen, benefitted financially from the violence and disorder,” which ensued.

Bani-Sam points out that climate induced migration, together with rapid population growth, could also increase pressures on land and resources and “the risk of conflict cannot be ignored.” But the risk diminishes if the resettlement of communities and relationships with host landowners are well managed, experts say.

Preventing future conflict is a priority at the regional level. The PIFS aims to improve access to justice for marginalised groups, include women in peace and security decision-making and strengthen weapons control and traditional conflict resolution processes.

The Biketawa Declaration is a declaration agreed to by all the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum constituting a framework for coordinating response to regional crises. The declaration was agreed to at the 31st Summit of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders, held at Kiribati in October 2000 after the 2000 Fijian coup d’état and ethnic tensions in the Solomon Islands.

This declaration also provides for rapid regional responses to crises in island states. The Biketawa Declaration has led to military and police forces as well as civilian personnel of Forum states, chiefly Australia and New Zealand, participating in regional peacekeeping and stabilization operations in Solomon Islands (2003-), Nauru (2004-2009) and Tonga (2006.)

People are taking action at the local level, too. In Bougainville, the Hako Women’s Collective works on meaningful reconciliation which is vital to rebuilding trust and conflict resilience in communities.

“We live in a very tolerant and peaceful community where everyone has chosen to live above the situation, but underneath the surface there is frozen trauma….Relatives don’t mention the mass graves in town covered by new infrastructure or the beatings and near deaths during interrogations. We are working quietly alongside other leaders to negotiate reconciliation in these matters,” Gano explained.

But going to the heart of the problem, Dame Meg Taylor believes that ensuring sustainable peace and development also depends on “a structural shift in the development paradigm.” That is, rethinking the extractive economic focus, which has failed to alleviate hardship and inequality, and seeking one that will build fair and prosperous Pacific Island societies, the best insurance against future conflict.


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