Solomon Islands

New Prime Minister Criticizes Australian Domination

Manasseh Sogavare speaks to the media in Honiara last month after the parliament adjourned for a week pending the election of a new prime minister next week. (Photo: William West / AFP-Getty Images)

The newly elected prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, hit out on May 7 at Australian leaders for interfering in the internal affairs of the nation after they publicly criticized his decision to include two imprisoned members of Parliament (M.P.'s) — Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne'e — in his new cabinet. Dausabea was appointed police minister, while Ne'e was appointed tourism minister.

Last month, both M.P.'s were charged by the islands' director of public prosecutions John Cauchi, an Australian, with inciting rioting in Honiara, the capital. The M.P.'s were refused bail in the Honiara Magistrates Court by Australian magistrate Keith Boothman on Cauchi's recommendation.

Since July 2003, the islands' legal system, its police force and key government departments, such as the finance ministry, have been run by officials from the Australian-dominated Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

The April 18 riots, which led to the looting and torching of businesses in Honiara's Chinatown district, were sparked by Australian Federal Police (A.F.P.) officers firing tear gas into a crowd of 200 opposition supporters outside the parliament. The crowd was protesting the election, by 27 of the country's 50 M.P.'s, of Snyder Rini as the country's new prime minister.

In the April 5 general election, the government coalition of Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza, with Rini as his deputy, had been reduced from 33 M.P.'s to 17. Opposition M.P.'s and their supporters accused Rini of having bought M.P.'s votes with money provided to him by wealthy Asian business owners headed by naturalized Chinese tycoon Sir Thomas Chan, the president of Rini's party, and his son Laurie, Kemakeza's foreign minister.

Within 48 hours of the riots, Australia dispatched several hundred heavily armed troops to Honiara to protect Rini and his big-business allies. The A.F.P. presence in Honiara was also boosted from 282 to 350 officers.

Rini was forced to resign on April 27 after Sogavare and five other M.P.'s from his Social Credit Party defected from the government coalition to the opposition. Sogavare, a former finance ministry secretary and P.M. from June 2000 to December 2001, was elected prime minister by 28 M.P.'s on May 4.

During the July 2003 parliamentary debate on the bill approving the Australian-led RAMSI intervention, Sogavare had warned that it would "be nothing short of decolonizing this country."

On May 4, Sogavare told reporters he was concerned about RAMSI officials controlling the prime minister's office, as well as the finance ministry and the Royal Solomon Islands Police.

Shortly after Sogavare announced on May 5 that Dausabea and Ne'e had been appointed to his 20-member cabinet, Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared that the appointments would have "serious consequences for the reputation and standing of the Solomon Islands both regionally and in the wider international community."

Speaking in Auckland the next day, where he was attending a meeting of the Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said the appointments were a matter of "deep concern" to Canberra. New Zealand P.M. Helen Clark declared that she was "absolutely aghast" at the appointments. New Zealand has 190 troops and police serving with RAMSI.

Responding to Downer's comments, Sogavare told the ABC's May 7 "Insiders" program that RAMSI operated under the islands' Facilitation of International Assistance Act 2003 and that nowhere in that act "is there a provision which allows Australia and members of the RAMSI to interfere in matters concerning appointment or removal of ministers within the government of the Solomon Islands."

Speaking on the islands' national radio the next day, Sogavare pointed out that there was nothing unconstitutional about the appointment of the two imprisoned M.P.'s as ministers since they were innocent until proven guilty. He also criticized the RAMSI-run prosecution case against them, saying, "We are aware of evidence taken in ways that are not acceptable in any court, and our lawyers are working on that."

"Australia seemed to have used the provisions of the current partnership as a license to infiltrate almost all sectors of the public sector," Sogavare said. "By their high level engagement in senior posts within the government we have a situation where foreign nationals have direct and unrestricted access to the nerve center of Solomon Islands public administration, security and leadership. This is an unhealthy situation."

On May 12, Sogavare told parliament he wanted a commission of inquiry to investigate whether Boothman had colluded with Cauchi to deny bail to Dausabea and Ne'e. Sogavare said his call for an inquiry was not about the two M.P.'s. "Rather, it is about the claim of the judiciary to be independent, which is now called into question."

He also called on Cauchi to step down while an investigation takes place "and suffer the same fate which his constitutional powers and office empower him to inflict on all of us."