Pacific democracy: dilemmas of intervention

Jon Fraenkel
28 November 2006

Australian and New Zealand troops descended on riot-torn Tonga on 18 November 2006, after demonstrators burned down most of the business district in the capital, Nuku'alofa. The deployment represents the latest stepping up in Antipodean intervention along the southwest Pacific "arc of instability". The regional formula implanted in many minds in recent years - local riots, security breakdowns, government crises, coup fears - appears to lend itself naturally to a call for such intervention as the most appropriate solvent for the Pacific Islands' internal political tensions. But is it?

Australian security forces have been stationed in the Solomon Islands since July 2003, leading a Pacific Islands Forum-backed Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi). A bilateral Australian deployment to neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG) fell foul of a ruling by that country's supreme court in May 2005 due to controversies about the associated immunity provisions for Australian security personnel.

When Canberra's new hands-on Pacific policy commenced in mid-2003, the ostensible justification was the post 9/11 threat posed by "failed states" in Australia's backyard. Failed or fragile states were seen as "petri-dishes" breeding terrorism, and potential havens for transnational criminals and drug-smugglers.

That threat was overblown, and soon Australian officials on the ground in PNG and in the Solomons were talking more reasonably about nation-building, good governance and the need for greater accountability in the management of Australian aid. The trouble is that Pacific state-building is a complex process, and the most effective governance tends to occur when administration is under local popular control, rather than dependent on outside support. More worryingly, intervention almost inevitably has unforeseen political ramifications, and tends to reshape domestic politics in ways that prove potentially troublesome.

The Tongan debacle

The intervention in Tonga is a case in point. Trouble started on 16 November after clashes between government supporters and pro-democracy protestors at Pangai Si'i, a park near where Tonga's parliament had just adjourned having failed to pass legislation facilitating political reform.

Disturbances mushroomed into riots in downtown Nuku'alofa, targeting the Molisi Tonga supermarket owned by prime minister Fred Sevele, offices of the Shoreline Group owned by the Tongan king and various Chinese businesses. Six protestors died after being trapped in the burning buildings.

Jon Fraenkel is senior research fellow at the Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji. His research and publications focus on the economic history of Oceania, electoral systems and contemporary Pacific politics. His academic writings have been published in the Pacific Economic Bulletin, the Journal of Pacific History, the Australian Journal of Politics and History, and the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Economic History. Among his books is The Manipulation of Custom: From uprising to intervention in the Solomon Islands (Victoria University Press/Pandanus Books, 2004)

The riots abated, at least temporarily, after a plea on the radio from veteran democracy campaigner Akilisi Pohiva. Many commentators have subsequently been quick to play down the political aspect to the disturbances, emphasising instead the role of opportunist elements in the town, growing wealth discrepancies, youth discontent and anti-Chinese sentiment.

These were real enough. The myth that high levels of Tongan youth out-migration serves as a "safety-valve" ruling out popular unrest has been buried forever in the rubble of Nuku'alofa. Yet, in the larger view, frustrations caused by the slow pace of reform have threatened to break out in social disturbances for some years now, and it is no great surprise that they should do so just as the old order looks at its most vulnerable.

Tonga is unique in the Pacific in having a monarchical system, based on an 1875 constitution originally introduced in the hope of preserving independence during the 19th century carve-up of the Pacific. Previous arrangements gave popularly elected MPs only nine of the thirty seats in parliament. Another nine were elected by the thirty-three holders of noble titles, and the remaining twelve were selected by the king.

Under the former monarch, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, a growing democracy movement emerged, urging constitutional change. The new king, George Tupou V, had indicated support for reform even before his accession to the throne in September 2006. Fred Sevele, for example, is the first "commoner" prime minister for decades, and popularly elected MPs have belatedly been allowed to enter the cabinet.

Yet the new king appears to favour British style gradualist change by shifting conventions, rather than far-reaching constitutional transformation. Proposals to increase the number of people's representatives remained modest and the anticipated pace of change is slow.

The riots triggered a rethink by Tonga's political establishment, and the announcement that twenty-one of the thirty MPs will be popularly elected in polls scheduled for 2008. The arrival of 150 Australian and New Zealand security personnel to reopen the airport and restore order has been condemned by leading democracy activists as designed to prop up the ailing monarchy. New Zealand defence minister Phil Goff said on 28 November that both contingents (apart from some police officers) are ready to be withdrawn now that their mission has been achieved.

The Solomon Islands crisis

In the Solomon Islands, the Ramsi mission began three and a half years ago, giving ample time to assess its political ramifications. There and then, difficulties were much more severe than in Tonga. Low-intensity civil warfare over 1998-2003 left hundreds dead, and armed militias had virtually bankrupted the state with spurious "compensation" claims. The Ramsi operation was sanctioned by the Pacific Islands Forum under its 2000 Biketawa declaration allowing regional intervention after an invitation from the government of the country concerned.

At first, Ramsi was highly successful. The militia groups surrendered with barely a whimper. Most of the guns circulating in the community were destroyed. That was the easy part. More difficult was the state-building aspect, and the pursuit of convictions against the so-called "big fish" politicians who had been aided and abetted by the militia groups.

In particular, prime minister Sir Allen Kemakeza had himself been responsible for hefty handouts of state "compensation" to cronies (including S$850,000 for himself), and had formerly made little secret of his links with the militia groups. Even after Ramsi's arrival, three known members of the notorious Malaita Eagle Forces remained in cabinet, until they were arrested by police and imprisoned by the courts.

Australian intervention might have been justified by the need to rescue a "failed state", but to get regional support under the Biketawa Declaration, the mission would have needed an invitation from the head of what was undoubtedly a failed government. And so Kemakeza, for the sake of convenience, became the darling of the Australian-led mission, restyling his government as a loyal ally of Ramsi. He was "the best of a bad bunch", according to Australian high-commissioner Patrick Cole. Senior opposition MPs, including two successive leaders of the opposition, crossed the floor to take up cabinet portfolios, while ministers critical of Ramsi were sacked and joined the opposition. Kemakeza became the first ever Solomons prime minister whose government survived a full term in office.

At the first post-Ramsi elections in April 2006, the political repercussions of this realignment became painfully apparent. Following a familiar Melanesian pattern, 50% of MPs lost their seats, as did nine of Kemakeza's former ministers. In the habitual post-election battle for the prime-ministerial post, the remaining eleven former ministers and other pro-government backbenchers deserted Kemakeza and regrouped around 2001-06 deputy prime minister, Snyder Rini.

As ever in Solomon Islands politics, the absence of robust political parties, loose political allegiances and continual side-switching made the outcome of the prime-ministerial election highly uncertain. In the days leading up to that election, the opposition - a ragtag grouping of ministers who had been sacked by Kemakeza, anti-Ramsi politicians left out in the cold and genuine reformists horrified by corruption during the Kemakeza years - seemed poised for victory. But Rini unexpectedly emerged triumphant in the prime-ministerial election on 18 April, after a group of wavering opportunists swung support behind him.

The announcement of victory for the old guard triggered angry scenes outside parliament, culminating in riots. Egged on by disappointed opposition MPs, disturbances spread to downtown Honiara, and the bulk of the capital's Chinatown district was burnt to the ground. Australia hastily reinforced its presence, sending additional troops from Townsville to quell the unrest.

The ferocity of the popular reaction to the 18 April prime-ministerial election rendered the new government unsustainable. Eight days after his election, Rini resigned ahead of inevitable impending defeat in a no-confidence vote. Ten of the wavering MPs had switched sides after senior opposition leaders had struck a deal with one of their number, Manasseh Sogavare, making him their preferred candidate in the scheduled election for a successor to Snyder Rini. On 4 May, Sogavare - a martial-arts expert and himself a former prime minister during the crisis years of 2000-01 - assumed office as the new head of government.

The Sogavare government's programme of encouraging rural development was quickly overshadowed by continual clashes with Canberra. Two MPs charged with inciting the April riots were given ministerial portfolios. One of these, Charles Dausabea, was made minister of police. Australian high-commissioner, Patrick Cole, was expelled after he was accused of "political interference".

An enquiry established by the new government to look into the causes of the 18 April riots looked tailor-made to blame Ramsi personnel for having provoked the crowds, and to recommend the release of the controversial Dausabea. When attorney-general Primo Afeau queried the enquiry's terms of reference, insisting that Dausabea's guilt or innocence was a matter for the courts, he was sacked. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer was, understandably, angered. But the reaction that followed was petulant; as one of the original architects of the Ramsi operation put it, Australia had reverted to "puerile, immature diplomacy ".

When Sogavare sought to appoint Julian Moti, a Fiji Indian with Australian citizenship, as replacement attorney-general, Canberra cancelled his passport. As Moti transited PNG heading for the Solomon Islands to take up his new position, the Australian government arranged to have him arrested on charges of child-sex offences allegedly committed in Vanuatu back in 1997 (Canberra here relied on an obscure law allowing conviction of Australian nationals for sex offences committed overseas).

Moti, now lacking official papers, escaped extradition proceedings, after he was smuggled out of the country aboard a PNG defence forces plane bound for the remote Munda airfield in the western Solomons. Alexander Downer retaliated by barring all PNG ministers from entering Australia. Canberra got wind of Moti's illicit flight, and Australian police serving with Ramsi arrested him in Munda this time on charges of entering the country illegally.

When the Solomon Islands immigration minister, Peter Shanel, claimed to have issued forms allowing Moti to cross the border without a passport, the Solomons Australian police commissioner accused him of lying, and Shanel too was arrested. Australian police then raided prime minister Sogavare's offices seeking evidence of prime-ministerial complicity in the alleged after-the-event issuing of papers-of-transit to the would-be attorney-general.

That incident provoked outrage from the prime ministers of PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, who were attending a summit of the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji. The accident-prone Sogavare's wayward and unstable government would probably, if left to its own devices, have lasted only a short time, but it has been consolidated by ongoing evidence of Australian heavy-handedness.

Fiji's civil-military tensions

Fiji has, so far, avoided Australian military intervention, but mounting civil-military tensions in October and November led to active consideration of yet another Biketawa-brokered mission. Threats by the commander of the military forces, Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, to force the government to resign have encouraged fears of an impending military coup in Fiji. Australia had two warships off the coast near the capital, Suva, until they were diverted to Tonga in the wake of the riots in Nuku'alofa. Meetings are being assembled hastily in response to an escalating crisis: the New Zealand foreign minister Winston Peters is brokering a dialogue between Bainimarama and Fijian prime minister Laisenia Qarase in Wellington on 28 November, while Pacific Islands foreign ministers are preparing to meet in Sydney on 1 December.

Historically, coups in Fiji have followed the election of governments backed by the Fiji Indians, who now make up around 40% of the population, and are descended from indentured labourers brought by the British to work on sugar cane plantations. So it was in 1987 and so again in 2000.

The current threat, however, arises from conflict between the overwhelmingly indigenous-Fijian Fiji Military Forces and a ruling party which obtained 80% of the indigenous Fijian vote at the May 2006 elections. Bainimarama is angered by the government's failure to come down hard on politicians convicted for their part in the coup in May 2000 and the associated mutiny of November in that same year. He also strongly opposes proposed government legislation which he perceives as pandering to ethnic Fijian coup-supporters.

A three-week ultimatum issued to the government to drop those bills or resign came and went, sparking suspicion that the commander's antics were mere brinkmanship. But threats against the government earned the commander a police investigation for sedition, spearheaded by Fiji's Australian police commissioner Andrew Hughes.

Senior military officers' alleged usage of forged papers to secure the release of a consignment of weaponry at the Suva wharf, which Hughes feared would be used for a coup, is also under police scrutiny, with files now with the office of the director of public prosecutions. In response, the commander now demands that the police commissioner resign and leave the country, threatens to "clean up" Fiji in two weeks' time and has ordered reservists to make themselves available at the military camps.

Also worrying is the potential collapse of Fiji's power-sharing government, which has entailed a hitherto unprecedented top-level experiment in cooperation between indigenous Fijian and Indian political leaders. After the elections in May, when Laisenia Qarase was re-elected as prime minister, he unexpectedly offered the opposition Fiji Labour Party (FLP) portfolios in his new cabinet. Although FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry remained on the backbenches, nine of his colleagues entered cabinet. Chaudhry opposed the power-sharing arrangement from the outset, and, most believe, wants to become leader of the opposition by destroying the multi-party cabinet.

Until now, Qarase has avoided putting potentially controversial legislation before the house, hoping to find ways to ensure the survival of his new government. But in the vote on the budget on 22 November, Labour ministers were forced to take sides. Chaudhry insisted that they follow the party line, and oppose the budget. Qarase insisted that any minister who voted against the government's budget would be in breach of Westminster doctrines of "collective responsibility," and should resign. In the event, four voted against the budget, and five conveniently absented themselves.

One part of Fiji's problem is the ambiguity inherent in the 1997 constitution's mix of Westminster rules and incongruent power-sharing provisions. Another is that many of the country's politicians, steeped in communalism, have little constructive way forward to offer. And Fiji's puritanical commander, who has little political support among ethnic Fijians, has undermined democracy on the pretext of upholding constitutionalism and the rule of law.

In such circumstances, good neighbourly advice and assistance is helpful, but foreign military intervention is potentially disastrous. It would not have helped after the Fiji coup in 1987, nor after the coup in 2000, and it will not help now. Fiji has to find its own way through its current difficulties, and no outside military intervention can assist that process usefully. If a coup were to take place, it would have debilitating repercussions for Fiji, but the commander would find it impossible to install a legitimate interim government and divisions would be likely to emerge rapidly within the military forces.

In the Solomon Islands, many believed that - back in mid-2003 - the country did not have the internal capacity to turn itself around, and that Ramsi was indispensable. Whether or not that was true is now impossible to answer, but the fact remains that essentially the same problem is revisited continually by those engaged in ongoing efforts at state-building. In the case of Tonga, intervention occurred so rapidly that there was insufficient time to establish whether the country might have halted the mayhem without outside support.

Democracy and intervention

The political situations in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Tonga differ markedly, but in each case governments face protracted legitimacy crises. None have found a stable political equilibrium. Top-level instability sparks the potential for political crises, and weak economic growth ensures that, when crises occur, there are plenty of underemployed youths hanging around urbanised capitals, ready to take advantage of the mayhem.

The knee-jerk "instability justifies intervention" reaction to such crises may restore order over the short-term, but it is likely, at best, to freeze existing political alignments or, at worst, to tilt the domestic political balance one way or the other. Instability, after all, unleashes positive as well as negative forces. Some instability may be a critical and necessary, if unfortunate, driving force of political change.

The interventionist proclivities of neighbouring big powers means that nothing faintly resembling Europe's mid-19th-century "springtime for democracy" seems possible in the contemporary Pacific, unless it occurs as a smooth, squeaky-clean and untroubled transition. Democratic change tends to be messier than this.

This is not to counsel, absurdly, against all types of intervention, or even against military intervention in cases of humanitarian catastrophe (the Pacific, fortunately, has no Rwandas, Cambodias or Sierra Leones). But it is to suggest that a greater degree of caution is needed, and a less in-your-face style of diplomacy is required. It is no accident that the most successful peace process in the Pacific region over recent years, that in Bougainville, has remained more or less firmly under local control. And the most politically stable of the Pacific Islands, Samoa, was also the country most able to determine its own constitutional arrangements, and still remains highly resistant to outside pressures.

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