RAMSI realities: 10 years later
Restoring lasting peace has only just started
Who said nation rebuilding would be easy? Definitely not the Solomon Islands, where the July 24 date marked the 10-year anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to the country, known as RAMSI for short, and branded under ‘Helpem Fren’.
The milestone moment allowed the government and RAMSI’s special coordination unit to bring in Pacific Islands Forum leaders to celebrate the achievements of the decade since 2000 peacekeeping troops first landed and made their home at Honiara Airport in July 2003. But beneath the hype and pan-pipes, three days of public events and closed door briefings across Guadalcanal province also highlighted a blaring reality: ten years out from troop touchdown, the work of restoring lasting peace has only just started.
“It was just surreal,” recalls journalist Dorothy Wickham of the thousands who witnessed the first ‘intervention’ of Pacific troops on July 24, 2003.
“We were there, early in the morning, waiting for the first plane to arrive. I just remember it being a beautiful, quiet, dawn. The sunrise colours all over the sky. Me standing there watching for the first troops to come. And so many people, men women and children, all crowding and waiting there.
“It amazed me to be standing there, waiting to report on the first ever military intervention in my country. I never thought I would see the day…and you should have heard the cheers from the crowds at the fence, it was an amazing feeling. The people who were there will never forget that morning.
“One thing I knew for sure from the moment they landed. I knew Honiara would be different from that very night. And it was. The feeling on the street was there—people felt good about the fact someone new was in town, even the militants. I don’t know about their leaders but on the street, some of them were relieved, as if they knew they had lost the plot.”
Ten years on from the peace agreements, collection and destruction of firearms, people’s surveys, peace rallies and reconciliation ceremonies, reviews and laws, arrests and court cases, reports and many news stories, what stands out?
Wickham shakes her head, lost for words, and chuckles. “There’s a big difference—apart from the potholes. They are still the same.”
While the potholes provide a taunting reminder for the RAMSI brigade that some challenges just keep emerging no matter what you throw at them, what’s clear is that the Regional Assistance Mission achieved the short-term goal of bringing a country back from the brink, and is now itself already in the midst of massive change.
Of RAMSI’s three arms—the police, military and civilians—the military presence will be the most absent after a decade of helping restore law and order, with final troop rotations leaving this month.
That doesn’t mean a shutdown of the GBR compound which housed them. Around 150 police officers from across the Pacific will continue to be based at the Henderson HQ to support policing work and backstop the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.
Special Coordinator Nicholas Coppel and his special assistant, Fiji’s Masi Lomaloma, will continue to lead the smaller, streamlined RAMSI presence from their current headquarters on the Lelei seafront.
The downsizing at Lelei and GBR reflects the key switch in focus for RAMSI, from military to civilian and policing support—with the Pacific policing support being the continuing feel-good factor in the Solomon Islands’ partnership with its Pacific family.
While the Forum’s role in the RAMSI partnership is largely that of the Pacific Police Forces and the regular review processes, it is the shift in organising civilian advisers that has taken up much of the development budget talks of late.
Key shifts in the RAMSI budget lines are coming via bilateral agreements led by Australia and New Zealand, aimed at absorbing the ranks of around 60 advisers and technical experts into new partnership programmes via AusAID and NZAID.
The RAMSI public affairs machine has had three years to build up public awareness—and acceptance—that RAMSI in its military form was ‘leaving’ the Solomon Islands.
Annual ‘People’s Survey’ polls on public perceptions and opinions have helped send a message to successive Solomon Island’s governments—and people themselves—that having a conversation with citizens is a great way to keep tabs on the things that matter. The ‘People’s Survey’ polls also revealed the levels of credibility and ownership which have made RAMSI a word for security to Solomon Islanders, and served as a Pacific role model for global peacekeeping.
Special Coordinator Nicholas Coppel notes the core lesson RAMSI highlights to the global community in conflict resolution and peacekeeping is that “each situation is different and what you need to do is tailor it to circumstances.”
At a 2012 international best practices gathering in peacekeeping, the Pacific’s RAMSI story was lauded for the relatively peaceful return to law and order. “Yes, there’s been interest from the UN,” says Coppel.
“People are admiring RAMSI and looking at the situation…they understood it was a breakdown not just in law and order but in functional government and services. The key lesson is you need to know the environment, the causes and what needs to be fixed and design assistance accordingly. All the elements have to be brought together.
The key word in the Solomons’ context is coordination.”
His role in coordinating the switch in RAMSI’s character to a singular policing focus will largely be in peer support and training assistance to the RSIPF, which has been an iconic feature of the country’s rebuilding programme.
The re-emergence of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and the strengthening of their policing work in the community has been key to restoring public confidence in the force, perceptions of law and order and RAMSI’s exit strategy.
In the last decade, the growing profile of women in the RSIPF ranks and the introduction of legislation ensuring some independence for the police from political interference, along with an open door policy for the media have signalled a new beginning and helped regain credibility for the RSIPF.
Respect for media
For Wickham and her journalism colleagues who’ve tracked the tension period and the road to recovery via RAMSI, the past decade has also resulted in a major shift in public and state perceptions of the media.
“One thing RAMSI bought was respect for the media from the police. We never got that recognition before.
“When RAMSI came in, they always made sure the media was there at the forefront witnessing and reporting what was happening and I think the police came to understand that we were a missing link in keeping the peace,” she says.
“As with all other sectors, the media also had to handle criticism in the last decade of how it has handled itself. One thing we’ve learnt is not to take freedom for granted - but also not to be intimidated by a uniform. Now, we watch the police very closely because we understand their role and how they are supposed to do the work of keeping law and order in society.”
Wickham and other media leaders also share another trend under RAMSI—the impact of deregulation on telecommunications and services to consumers, and the growth of independent media and indigenous media managers in the last decade.
From her work as a stringer for overseas news outlets, Wickham now leads the country’s first TV news company, and is eyeing a return to free to air from pay TV. Many of her news company’s founding directors are leading freelancers.
Two more newspapers have joined the country’s iconic Solomon Star. Along with a thriving social media presence, Solomon Islanders are more informed and more keen to share what they think on the issues of the day than they have ever been.
RAMSI’s Public Affairs manager Johnson Honimae was himself a journalist with the national broadcaster through the tension years, taking up the General Manager role during the recovery before stepping out for a six-year media stint with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
“The country was basically on its knees—what people would call a failed state,” recalls Honimae.
“For many, RAMSI was like a breath of fresh air coming through. Ten years later, we’ve moved ahead, past the militants and guns. Law and order is back. Security is there. Development is happening.
“We have to think about where we want to be in the next ten years, knowing RAMSI is not here forever, that they are scaling down more in 2017. As a Solomon Islander, I think we need to ask ourselves as individuals, what needs to be done now, and what can I do make it happen?”
Island Sun founding Editor Richard Toke agrees. He says the core issue is leadership and political will to address underlying and complex issues around reconciliation and land tenure that will not go away.
From his vantage point in communications work for the Church of Melanesia more than 10 years ago, he watched the leading role of faith-based groups and networks in brokering peace, and is constantly struck, over the last ten years of reporting his country, by the need for leaders “to stop beating around the bush, face reality, and get down to difficult choices.”
The comments echo a word of caution from RAMSI’s Special Coordinator.
“I don’t want to paint a picture that’s too rosy,” says Coppel after listing all RAMSI’s achievements.
“The challenges facing this country are very real. That’s all the more reason for every dollar to be spent well. It’s going to take a long time.”
Trust critical ingredient to peace
The most critical ingredient for lasting peace? Trust, says the Solomons’ National Council of Women President Jenny Tuhaika.
Like many Solomon Islands entrepreneurs who lost businesses during the tensions and whose family was displaced during the tension years, she says the lessons of the past have shown the fragile nature of different ethnicities living under one nationality.
“People say we are a sovereign country, but I don’t think we uphold that word. We still have factions within, and for me that damages the whole meaning of being a sovereign country, under one flag…this generation is already polluted with all the bad memories,” says Tuhaika.
She says the work of restoring lasting peace requires active ownership in the spaces that are at the heart of engagement for Solomon Islands families—their churches, and their homes. She sees the results of her one flag, one family approach in her four-year old grand-daughter.
“She doesn’t know the difference between a brother in her home and a brother in her church. She sees them all as Solomon Islanders, not as ethnic group. And until this happens for all, we have no lasting peace.”
Sort out land and we’ll have peace: Liloqula
“Land is the most important issue in addressing the ethnic tension. We’ve done everything else, addressed law and order, done a lot of other things, but we have not touched on the root cause. No one wants to touch the land.”
So says the former Lands Commissioner for the Solomon Islands, Ruth Liloqula. Recognised and awarded for her outspoken commitment to transparent and effective governance, Liloqula was part of the documentary screening of a commemoration programme produced by RAMSI, in which she featured.
“We need to touch base and deal with it (land tenure, access and use),” she says, claiming the Government is losing billions in revenues it should be getting from state-owned land.
“It’s a chronic issue. We must address land or we will impact into ethnic tension again. There will be no lasting peace unless we sort out land availability, land access, land rights and everything else to do with land to enable this country to go forward.”
Many at the various events commemorating the decade of RAMSI—including a rather lively futures forum that danced around questions on minerals and mining—were also quick to identify land as the biggest worm in the unopened can of unresolved issues for the Solomon Islands.
Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo has long acknowledged the scale and size of the challenge, and has appointed Liloqula to a special Land Reform Taskforce.
Liloqula, however, says what’s needed is a Commission of Enquiry to broaden the terms of reference of the taskforce and allow for more public participation.
With 85% of land being under custom title, the issues around communal ownership and questions over development has no legal reference other than a Land and Titles Act which covers state-owned land.
“At the moment, people are using that legislation and applying it to custom land and that’s where the danger lies. We need to have a different legislation governing customary land ownership, titles, accessibility, and availability for development—it needs to be sorted out.”
Not just a source of tension for home owners, investors, and those without land, the issue is a constant source of frustration for development projects. Issues over access and landowner permissions have cost millions in delays and bottlenecks, and roading and water development in parts of Honiara.
Add to that, the mushrooming rise in squatter settlements or informal settlers paying annual ‘rent’ fees to landlords under a poorly understood system, perceptions and evidence of corruption and illegal acquisitions, and a real estate rental bubble created by Honiara’s expatriate workforce, and the conditions for simmering tension are already in place.
“The other thing you see in lands is that it’s where corrupt activity comes together,” says Liloqula, whose probing style as Lands Commissioner led to her abrupt transfer.
For Liloqula, the buck begins—and stops—at the very top.
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