The Troops Have Landed!

Dr. John Roughan

Last Thursday, 24 July, Australian military personnel landed on our shores. More than a 1,000 soldiers flying in on Hercules transports from Townsville arrived at our international airport greeted by hundreds of people--men, women but especially kids. In typical Solomonese fashion each time a Hercules pulled up to the main terminal building discharging its cargo of young soldiers, they were met by a bamboo band and welcome songs from secondary school students. Make no mistake about it, this 'invasion' was unlike any other ever witnessed. Our people, young and old, were counting a blessing in this peaceful and efficient 'invasion'!

Three weeks earlier, the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT), a local NGO, conducted a national survey among almost 4,000 Solomon Islanders. Guadalcanal, Malaita, Makira, Honiara, in fact, each of the major islands people took part in the survey.  Villagers and town folk were asked whether they agreed with  government's idea of inviting foreign soldiers to our country. People's positive response was overwhelming! 97 out of every 100  citizens asked, agreed that it was not simply a good idea but a great idea.  SIDT has been conducting surveys for more than 15 years but the current one measuring public feeling on the idea of foreign troops being invited into the country was the highest we ever recorded.

But what lies behind this great enthusiasm? Why are people currently so up beat and positive? What are they expecting from this peaceful invasion? Of course the vast majority of villagers and town folk have suffered greatly over the past five years. Poor schooling, weakened medical service, a destroyed economy and loss of confidence in national leaders have been their lot since 1998. If truth be known, however, their hard lives began long before.  In hindsight,  one can date the destruction of ordinary people's simple life style during the   1987-1997 period when our political elite made sweetheart deals with overseas logging companies to destroy the nation's forest wealth through massive, unsustainable logging exports. Yes, millions of dollars were captured by the wholesale destruction of the nation's tree wealth but that wealth made its way to the pockets of the politically connected while the vast bulk of people who actually owned the trees became poorer.

During the early days of decay ordinary people remained resourceful.  In spite of the loss of basic social services, poor leadership and a deteriorating economy villagers and Honiara's poorest just worked harder and became more inventive.  But the decay became so pronounced by the late 1990s that the corruption, cronyism and out right theft was bringing the whole nation to its knees. The Social Unrest period of 1999-2003 but confirmed the previous poor national leadership patterns.  Guale's  leaders used armed youth to drive ordinary people away from their livelihoods--oil palm plantation, Gold Ridge, local tourism--and Malaita's leaders responded by staging a coup destroying both the state and the economy. In both cases, the nation went from bad to worse.

The hundreds of soldiers recently landed gives us a second chance to turn ourselves around. If we can reinvent ourselves over the next three years, say by the end of 2005 when the next national elections are due, perhaps there's a fair chance that our children will live in a Solomons that we first dreamt of 25 years ago. But to do that we must be clear what we are expecting from the 2,000 newly arrived armed 'visitors'.

They have not come here to repair a few school buildings, fix up some decaying clinics, repair our shocking roads but take the guns away from the thugs, militants and crooks. Their work is basically to give us a chance to do what we should have been doing over the last 25 years of independence.

Think of the work of these newly arrived military in garden terms. The first thing a villager does when working a garden is to cut down every big tree, up-root all the small bushes and weeds and then pile them up against the tree stumps for burning. That's the picture we should have of the military force now camping out at Henderson. They are here to cut down the big trees, e.g. the major criminals, thieves, crooks and then pull up all the weeds and small bushes, e. g. those who made false and bogus compensation payments, stealing and looting from the Treasury,  those that have been hiding under the big trees sucking the nation's wealth into their greedy pockets.

But the second and no less important step that comes after clearing the land for a garden, is digging the holes, preparing the dirt mounds and finally planting new seed yams, pana, potato, etc. That's our work, not the military. And as any village women knows to her fingertips, the hard continuous work comes when the newly planted garden  needs constant weeding and watched over for many months until the fruit finally ripens.

I'm not worried about this year so much as in 2004 and 2005 when the military force has become normal and natural in our lives. What worries me is that once the Big Trees have been cut down and the weeds and bushes have been destroyed, we forget that the garden has to be watched daily, weeded carefully weekly and not allow any insect or disease to kill our new garden. That's our work. The military can't do that for us! It means a major change in our attitude to taking care of our own garden and not letting it get out of hand as we have done over the past 25 years.

28 July 2003   

Contributed by Fr Ambrose Pereira, Catholic Communications, Honiara - email






- received by CathNews 29/7/03