Australia v. the Evil-Doers in the South Pacific

Disorder in the Solomons

Few people in the U.S., and probably in the world, are aware that there is a small nation called the Solomon Islands, independent since 1978, east of New Guinea and about a thousand miles northeast of Australia’s state of Queensland. This cluster of about 1000 islands, best-known perhaps as the venue of the Battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War, is home today of some 450-500,000 Melanesians, speaking 70 languages, alongside a handful of Polynesians, whites, Chinese and “other.” It exports insignificant quantities of timber, fish, copra, and palm oil, but is also rich in zinc, lead, nickel and gold that remain unexploited because of political chaos. Some of the disorder, according to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, might be caused by terrorists operating in an environment that the U.S. CIA describes as one of “ethnic violence, government malfeasance, and endemic crime [which] have undermined stability and civil society” for years.

Thus, Mr. Howard determined last month, Aussie troops (battle-hardened by “anti-terrorist” tasks in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) ought to free this obscure Garden of Eden from its “evildoers.” Indeed, the Australian Associated Press reported that the nation’s military presence in Iraq had been scaled back from about 2,000 to a smaller token force “to ensure there [were] sufficient resources to participate in regional peacekeeping operations, such as in the Solomons.” On July 24 Howard told reporters, “If we do nothing and the [Solomons slide] into further anarchy, and then [the country] becomes a haven for evildoers, whether they’re involved in terrorism, or drugs, or money laundering, or anything else, we will rightly be condemned, not only by the Australian people, but also by countries around the world. This is our patch and we do have a special responsibility here, and we’re doing it in a very careful deliberate cooperative fashion. We’re not throwing our weight around, but we’re willing to do our fair share of the heavy lifting in an area that the rest of the world sees as very much Australia’s responsibility [emph. added].”

Australia’s Record in its “Patch”

I have to doubt whether the world actually acknowledges that Howard’s “patch” extends beyond the borders of his continent-nation, or regards regional “peacekeeping” as Australia’s divinely appointed mission. Anyway, Australia’s relations with its neighbors in recent years have actually been characterized by opportunistic expansionism, dealing no blows to “evil” but rather cooperating with evil, big-time. Australia maintained military aid to the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia following its brutal seizure of East Timor in November 1975, even while the U.S. and Britain somewhat distanced themselves, for political reasons, from the Djakarta regime. (This followed the U.S.-backed suppression of communists, and people in general, conducted by Suharto in the mid-60s, when the Indonesian Army, to Canberra’s applause, killed around 700,000.) Australia, keenly interested in the gas and oil resources of the Timor Sea, alone among nations decided to recognize East Timor as part of Indonesia. In 1989 it signed an agreement with Djakarta establishing a “Zone of Cooperation… in an area between the Indonesian Province of East Timor and Northern Australia.”

In 1995 the two nations signed a security agreement. But in May 1998, Suharto faced a Filipino-style “people’s power” rebellion, and his allies abroad, including Australia, determined it was time for old thug to go. (He had been losing western support anyway because of his failure to comply with some IMF demands.) U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gently pressed him to step down in order to “preserve his legacy as a man who not only led his country, but provided for its democratic transition.” The following year, when the U.N. chose to advocate immediate independence of East Timor, Australia suddenly presented itself as the guarantor of that independence, acquiring UN authorization to midwife it by dispatching about 4000 troops (out of its total army of about 24,000) to the former colony and to protect it from the Indonesian army (which Canberra had been assisting for years). About 1000 Australian troops remain, along with Thai, Malaysian and other forces. East Timor’s Foreign Ministry complains they have not effectively prevented border raids by pro-Indonesia militiamen, but they do help maintain stability as Australian firms prospect for oil.

Beyond East Timor

It’s quite natural that Canberra, as a minor imperialist power, should seek hegemony in the Southwest Pacific. As many predicted in the months before the attack on Iraq, norms governing international relations since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 are breaking down. Now any nation may, citing real or imaginary terrorist threats to itself, deploy its forces against “evil” in emulation of the Bushites. Since Australia was one of a handful of nations that joined the “coalition” invading Iraq (despite massive popular opposition), it enjoys Washington’s favor and may assume U.S. cooperation as it strengthens its hand in its Melanesian patch and even in Southeast Asia. (Last month the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, said Australia might consider sending forces to the Philippines to fight “terrorism” there. What he means, of course, is counter-insurgency. Aussie forces gained some experience in that in Vietnam, where some 50,000 “served” and 432 were killed in action.)

The major rival in the region is France, which still owns Tahiti (mother of Polynesian civilization), and has intermittently (including under the current Chirac administration) conducted nuclear tests on the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls. (These have been “suspended” since 1996.) “Without Polynesia,” Chirac has said, “France would not be the great power that it is, capable of expressing in the concert of nations an autonomous, independent and respected position.” Australia has opposed the tests, not because it’s opposed to nukes in principle but because the tests cause serious damage to the environment–all those irradiated fish and clams, etc.–and to its economy, as well as the economies of neighboring states which it would like to organize into a regional bloc.

It’s quite natural that Australian capital should seek inroads into the economies of French territories like New Caledonia, which boasts 25% of the world’s nickel resources, and that Canberra should seek to stabilize disorderly island nations like the resource-rich Solomons. But Howard, like Bush, needs a pretext for imperialist expansion, saleable to his electorate, and what better pretext than a terror threat posed by evil-doers? Some warn, of course, against intervention, expressing skepticism about the rationale. Peter Urban, former chief economist for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, claims, “We don’t have any significant security interests [in the Solomons, which] can’t be used really effectively as a base for money laundering or terrorism, all of those things” (Australian Associated Press, July 22). He adds that by dispatching troops Australia is supporting “a bad government” and sending a “poor signal” to the islanders. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer himself called the idea “folly in the extreme” in an article published in January.

But in June, Downer (who in the interim had signed on to the “coalition of the willing” assault on Iraq, opposed though it was by the great majority of Australians) expressed a different view. Given the global threat of terrorism, he announced, “instability and even state failure in our neighborhood is a growing concern.” Noting the “inexorable grinding down of the [Solomons’] institutional and economic fabric,” and the inability of Australian “aidto turn around the situation,” he trumpeted the virtues of intervention. “Australia is not a neo-colonial power,” he straight-facedly emphasized, “and we are sensitive to regional concerns about our role, but we will not sit back and watch while a country slips inexorably into decay and disorder.”

“Operation Helpem Fren” and “Fears of Neo-colonialism”

No indeed. (Never mind that the Solomons had been in disorder for five or six years, and that the “War on Terror” had simply provided legitimating rhetoric and precedent for Australian action.) On July 24, the first contingent of a 2,225-strong Australian-led force (including 450 combat troops) arrived on Red Beach in Guadalcanal, site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific War, and entered the Solomons capital of Honiara. Australia will be fielding 1,700 troops; New Zealand, New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa will provide the remainder, constituting a sort of “coalition of the willing” endorsing the Aussie project. Canberra envisions a 10-year intervention, costing some 356 million pounds. It’s called “Operation Helpem Fren” (Operation Help a Friend, in Melanesian pidgin English), and is headed by Nick Warner, a senior official in the Australian Foreign Affairs Department. The Solomons now becomes the third largest recipient of Australian “aid” after Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

So the largest military operation in the South Pacific since World War II is now underway, largely ignored by the world, but with potentially important long-term repercussions. Arms smugglers in Papua New Guinea supply militias in the Solomons; so far the Aussies have declined to deploy forces in “hot pursuit” actions into New Guinean waters, but since the Melanesians don’t necessarily respect the borders drawn up my western colonial powers in the nineteenth century, and some go about their business back and forth, Canberra might wind up expanding its operations by further tightening control over what is already an Australian neo-colony.

But whence this evil disorder occasioning the Aussies’ mission, their heroic assumption of the white man’s burden in their patch? The key factor in the ethnic violence seems to be tension between Malaitans (from Malaita Island) and groups native to the island of Guadalcanal, and to involve the Malaitans’ role in the Guadalcanal economy. In 1997, a Malaitan was elected prime minister. The next year, the Isatubu Freedom Movement, purporting to represent the interests of the native peoples of Guadalcanal, started forcibly evicting Malaitans. Twenty thousand were sent home. The Malaitans responded, forming the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF), and pulling off a coup in 2000. Peace agreements between the rival militias were signed in 2000 and 2001, but fighting has continued, and there has been a general breakdown of government. The main threat to the regime of the current prime minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, has been the Guadalcanal Liberation Force, headed by Harold Keke, based on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. Keke’s militia, which seeks independence for the island, has reportedly razed villages, murdered, looted, raped, and engaged in kidnapping for ransom. The police force for its part is accused of rights abuses and corruption; a newly appointed Australian police commissioner brands some officers “drunkards, thieves and extortionists.” Keke has now surrendered to the Australian-led forces.

(Not to digress, but the breakdown in law and order came at an ideal time for the Bush Administration as it sought, in the face of global opposition, to cobble together a broad international coalition to support its attack Iraq. The Solomon Islands was right there on board, listed on the White House website as one of almost 50 nations enthusiastically endorsing the invasion in March. But when Prime Minister Kemakeza heard about it March 26, he said his government was “completely unaware of such statements being made, therefore wishes to disassociate itself from the report.” Apparently Canberra had told Washington that Honiara was cool with the war, before even having a chat with the Solomons leadership. That might sound borderline neo-colonial to some people, but no problem; Kemakeza soon endorsed the imaginary coalition, and everybody was able to avoid embarrassment.)

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “Helpem Frencould be a precedent for further combined military-police security force deployments in the region.” Howard declares it “it will send a signal to other countries in the region that help is available if it is sought, that we do have a desire to help all the peoples of the Pacific to have conditions of law and order and hope and peace and stability for their future generations.” Opposition leader Simon Crean agrees, wisely exploiting the domino effect fear factor: “You look at the problems in the area and they are on our doorstep. If you let the criminals take over in any country, that does let the gangland in, the drugs, the guns, all the smuggling operations – and that becomes a wider threat to the whole of our region.”

Meanwhile, Independent journalist Kathy Marks reports from Wellington, August 14: “Australia has [urged] tiny South Pacific states to unite with it in a European Union-style political and economic community with a common currency–the Australian dollar.” And concerned that the Solomons, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea constitute an “arc of instability” Howard proposes that states in the region establish a joint police training program, to be based in Fiji (former British colony that sends 26% of its exports to, and receives 40% of its imports from, Australia), to fight evil-doers in its patch. Marks notes that such statements have “ignited fears that [Australia] nurtures neo-colonialist ambitions.”

Understandably. The Pacific islands, while in some cases densely populated, are home to a tiny percentage of humankind. There are only about seven million people in Melanesia, three-quarters of them in Papua New Guinea. There are just over a million in Micronesia and Polynesia (excluding Hawai’i). All the states in these regions are weak and small. Australia, with a population of 20 million (over 90% of them white), a GDP larger than that of the Netherlands, and a powerful military backed by the U.K. and U.S., would be intimidating to neighboring countries even without the recent “war on terror” posturing and rhetoric.

Ask the Aborigines

But I wonder how Australia’s Aborigines view all this. In 1788, numbering between 300,000 and 750,000, they had the continent all to themselves. (In the Torres Straits there was and is another, far smaller separate ethnic community.) But the British found Australia suitable for use as a penal colony, founding Sydney with 700 convicts. By 1853, 160,000 convicts had been so settled, including about 27,000 originating in Ireland (the Irish, of course, particularly victimized themselves by British imperialism). In other words, you could argue, they “let the criminals take over” the country, there being no international peacekeeping force at the time to prevent them from destroying the indigenous culture, which enjoyed a primitive-communistic, innocently pre-class society. Obviously that society had to go, and this was just the beginning of a pattern of colonial plunder and rapine throughout Oceania. The Aboriginal population on Tasmania was wiped out, virtually for sport. On the continent, whole tribes were destroyed when they revolted against the settlers; the survivors were herded into reservations and church missions. Cattle and sheep raising destroyed the Aborigines’ water holes. The Gold Rush of the 1850s brought a huge wave of immigration, and further appropriation. Disease took many lives; only about 60,000 Aborigines were left by the 1930s.

But that was then, and this is now. Australia’s changed, of course. The decade of the ’60s saw social progress, Down Under as in most other places. While entertainer Rolf Harris gained the world’s attention with his “madcap” racist single “Tie Me Kangaroo Down (“Let me abos go loose, Lew/ Let me abos go loose/ They’re of no further use, Lew/ So let me abos go loose/ Altogether now!”) the Aborigines were actually accorded Australian citizenship, with the same rights as anyone else in the land they’d inhabited for over 50,000 years. This they could enjoy in their slums (most of the 200,000 Aborigines live in cities now, rather than the idyllic Outback), along with illiteracy, high infant mortality, high unemployment, low wages, low longevity, and drug addiction. Since the ’60s, they’ve been able to vote. They can serve in the Army. Two-thirds of the Northwest Mobile Force, bolstered after the November 2002 Bali bombings that for some reason targeted Australians, consists of Aboriginal men. Maybe some are even helping cleanse the evil-doers from a country which (did I mention it?), is rich in zinc, lead, nickel and gold.

“Australia,” Downer says, “is not a neo-colonial power.” If that’s true, there are no neo-colonial powers on the planet, but there are settler states that have grown into imperialist powers. Although Australia’s record pales in comparison with some others in this category, it is not a happy one. As a general rule, oppressors can’t be liberators, and while the sketchy reports from the Solomons suggest that Helpem Fren has met with local acceptance so far, the historical record on imperialist help and friendship, in the Pacific and everywhere else, is hardly encouraging.

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(Raising a Fosters): Here’s to the millions of Australians who have opposed the war on Iraq, and the “coalition” juggernaut of no further use. Let’s tie the crazy, out of control kangaroo down.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: