Australian Prime Minister John Howard should get a hostile reception at the Pacific Islands Forum this week. His in-your-face imperialism has provoked conflicts in three island nations.
The Solomons and Papua New Guinea
In the latest outrage, Aussie police have raided the office of Solomons PM Manasseh Sogavare. Meanwhile a key report on the Timor crisis hasn’t turned out quite as Howard would have liked.
On 19 October Sogavare accused Canberra of trying to undermine his Government after the Solomons police commissioner, Australian Shane Castles, ordered the arrest of Immigration Minister Peter Shanel. Sogavare warned that he would “deal with” Castles and his fellow Australian, Solicitor-General Nathan Moshinsky.
Now Canberra’s cops have literally kicked down Sogavare’s door. Meanwhile Moshinsky, unable to impose his will, has returned to Melbourne.
This neo-colonial shambles has its origins in 2003, when Howard seized on internal disorder to launch the so-called Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). This policing and administrative force is made up overwhelmingly of Australians. When they gave it the happy Pidgin sobriquet Helpem Fren (helping friends), I wrote somewhere that one day this would turn into “Kickem butt” — and so it proved.
A similar attempt to take a stranglehold on policing in Papua New Guinea (the Enhanced Cooperation Program) broke down when the country’s Supreme Court refused to exempt Australian cops from local laws. But Canberra is pressing on with plans to consolidate a regional police network under Canberra’s hold. The police commissioner in Fiji is Australian Andrew Hughes, and there are a number of Australian-backed “transnational crime units” around the region.
On 16 September Sogavare expelled Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole for interfering in local politics, particularly an inquiry into riots last April. The Howard Government says the inquiry is skewed to get two jailed MPs, allies of Sogavare, off charges of inciting the riots. That might be true, Mr Howard, but it’s still their country.
Canberra next began moves to extradite Solomons Attorney-General Julian Moti from Papua New Guinea. The Australians say they want Moti on child-sex charges. But these charges go back many years, and are apparently full of holes; they were quashed in Vanuatu in 1999 in proceedings involving a number of distinguished judges.1 The reason for reviving them now is to put political pressure on Sogavare.
Sogavare found an ally in Papua New Guinea leader Michael Somare, and Moti managed to get a clandestine military flight to the Solomon Islands. This sent Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer into a rage. Since then Sogavare’s government has been locked in conflict with the Australian-led cops, while Canberra has banned Somare and his ministers receiving visas.
The harder Canberra pushes, the more island politics seems to be polarising, with nationalist politicians popping up to resist Australian demands. Sogavare’s promises to “deal with both Mr Castles and Mr Moshinsky for the unnecessary humiliation of a Government minister” suggests a politician on the front foot.2 He’s even threatened to expel RAMSI, though this is probably just bombast.
But bombast has served Sogavare well so far. He easily survived a no-confidence motion on 11 October, one he was originally expected to lose; and last week he was feeling confident enough to offer grandly to “heal the rift” with Canberra during the Pacific Forum — on the basis of his own position, which was “non-negotiable.”3
In East Timor a United Nations special commission has reported on the upheavals of April and May. This panel of three outsiders can’t really be sure of the facts and is undoubtedly influenced by the Gusmao-Horta government. Even so, the report makes interesting reading.4
In September I described5 how the Australian TV program Four Corners had accused East Timor’s then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri — Canberra’s bete noir — of organizing a hit squad. A man known as Railos claimed to have instructions from Alkaitiri to “eliminate” the PM’s opponents. These accusations forced Alkatiri’s resignation, and the ever-helpful Australian media began referring to him routinely as “digraced.” But in paragraph 94, the UN report specifically rejects Railos’ claims.
In light of these developments it’s interesting that Sogavare has explicitly compared attacks on him with Alkatiri’s fate.
In fact the commission hasn’t found any hard evidence at all against Mari Alkatiri, though it does its best to please President Xanana Gusmao and pro-Australian PM Jose Ramos-Horta by vaguely recommending further investigations. Meanwhile, however, it has dropped a bombshell about the top military figure. Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak connived at the distribution of guns to civilians and in paragraph 134 the report says he should be prosecuted.
Yet Ramos-Horta rushed to declare his complete support for Brigadier Ruak. So the double standards become painfully obvious: Alkatiri is “disgraced” even though there’s no hard evidence against him; while Ruak gets “full confidence” despite the recommendation he be put on trial.6
It seems that everyone else was stashing guns too, including two of Alkatiri’s ministers. But then if the head of the military’s doing it, why wouldn’t all the political factions do likewise, for the sake of sheer survival?
President Gusmao gets off with a slap on the wrist. He should have “exercised more restraint and respect for institutional channels” rather than making a provocative speech. No mention of the fact that his demand for Alkatiri’s resignation in the wake of the Four Corners program was based on false premises – and was also unconstitutional.7
Double standards everywhere! What remains disturbing, meanwhile, is the level of violence that persists in the presence of “peacekeepers.” Radio journalist and Timor veteran Maryann Keady wrote on 11 October:
The Australian and international police presence has done little to reassure the East Timorese people that their ongoing security is a priority. Thousands are still living in refugee camps and are afraid to go home because of ongoing violence [and] security personnel are seen — as I have witnessed personally — sitting idly by while small pockets of individuals create more disturbances.8
Why should this be? Keady sketched in some context back in June:
. . . this is the third time international forces have failed to stop the people of East Timor being terrorized by a third. party. First there was the Indonesian rampage of 1999. Second, the unrest of 4 December 2002 (leading to the first calls by the Australian press for Alkatiri to step down, just prior to oil and gas negotiations. And now, civil chaos in 2006.9
The outside powers have their eyes on other things that outweigh public safety. East Timor has oil; it’s near the strategically vital Ombai Straight; the Chinese are emerging as a diplomatic rival; and therefore Canberra’s quest continues for a submissive government. So no doubt it’s handy to keep the Timorese in a state of apprehensive dependency.
4 Report of the United Nations Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste, Geneva, 2 October 2006., available at:
6 AFP, “Ramos-Horta Backs Accused Defence Chief,” 19 October 2006.
7 See Michael Jones, “Roles of the President and the Prime Minister in the Current Constitutional Crisis in East Timor,” in East Timor Law Journal, 25 June 2006, available at:
Tom O’Lincoln has has been active on the left since 1967, in the German SDS, at UC Berkeley, and for many years in Melbourne Australia. He’s the author or editor of five books on Australian history and politics (Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism; Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era; United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia; Class and Class Conflict in Australia; and Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History), and maintains the Marxist Interventions website: www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/. Tom is a member of Socialist Alternative.