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Malaita Eagles Force
Isatabu Freedom Movement

Solomon Islands, with a population of approximately 450,000, is an archipelago stretching over 840 miles in the South Pacific. There are six major and approximately 992 smaller islands, attolls and reefs. The archipelago covers are area of about 249,000 square nautical miles while the land area is 10,938 sq. miles (28,446 sq. Km). About 75 percent of the population engage to some extent in subsistence farming and fishing and have little involvement in the cash economy. Commercial activities include some plantation production of copra, cocoa, and palm oil, one fish cannery, a gold mine on Guadalcanal, and small resort and diving enterprises.

The first documented European contact was made in 1568 by the Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana. Mendana discovered alluvial gold on Guadalcanal and, perhaps thinking he found the source of King Solomon's great wealth (the Biblical King Solomon's mine), named the islands the "Isles of Solomon," and many of the islands in the Solomon Islands bear original Spanish names. Great Britain declared a Protectorate in 1893 over the southern Solomons, adding the Santa Cruz group in 1898 and 1899. The islands of the Shortland group were transferred by treaty from Germany to Great Britain in 1900. The British Solomons gained independence as the Solomon Islands on 07 July 1978.

The country is composed of over 27 islands with approximately 70 language groups. In the precolonial era, these groups existed in a state of endemic warfare with one another, and even today many islanders see themselves first as members of a clan, next as inhabitants of their natal island, and only third as citizens of their nation. Most people consider themselves to be part of an immediate family of 200 and can trace back their ancestors at least ten generations.

Situated on the island of Guadalcanal, the country's biggest island, Honiara is the capital of and gateway to Solomon Islands. During World War II the fight for Guadalcanal was the first battle to include an American amphibious invasion of Japanese-held territory. The invasion was launched on 07 August 1942, and jungle fighting continued until American forces had secured the island in early February 1943. After the Second World War, much of the development in the Solomons concentrated around Honiara. The Malaitans, who comprise about one-third of the population, generally dominate the elected government and the business sector around Honiara.

Malaita Province is one of the most populous and developed of the Solomon Islands' Provinces. It consists of the main island of Malaita, home to many tribes of Melanesian peoples with many different language groups and customs, South Malaita island, and the two remote Polynesian atolls of Sikaiana and Ontong Java (or Lord Howe) to the east and far north, respectively. The Provincial capital is AukiOver the past century, many persons from the poor, heavily populated island of Malaita have settled on Guadalcanal where the resentment they engendered culminated in violence.

Ethnic tension escalated on Guadalcanal in December 1998, although tensions had ebbed and flowed for some years before that. Guadalcanal people resented the influence of settlers from other islands and their occupation of land. The settlers, particularly from Malaita, were drawn to Honiara and its environs by economic opportunities.

During 1999 ethnic violence perpetrated by some indigenous residents of Guadalcanal against immigrants from Malaita (both constituent parts of the country) led to several deaths, kidnapings, and the flight of nearly 23,000 persons from Guadalcanal. An uncounted number of Guadalcanal villagers also abandoned their homes to hide in the bush for extended periods, due to fear of militant and police activity or retribution from dispossessed Malaitans.

Two armed rival factions emerged in the crisis. The Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) claims indigenous rights to land on Guadalcanal and wants the Malaitans to move out of the capital, Honiara. The Malaita Eagles Force (MEF) is fighting for land and buildings left behind in Honiara by Malaitans who have fled Guadalcanal.

The violence began in January 1999 when Guadalcanal militants began attacking homesteads and workplaces of persons originally from the island of Malaita. There is considerable confusion, but it is estimated that the militants killed 12 persons. Guadalcanal militants admitted to kidnaping a prison officer, and 17 other persons were reported missing on Gualdalcanal. Some of the missing may have been killed; others were believed to be held by militants.

The Solomon Islands Government, led by Prime Minister, Bart Ulufa'alu, and the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) faced serious challenges in dealing with growing tensions and by mid-1999 the Guadalcanal militants had taken control of the countryside around Honiara. The militants first called themselves the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army (GRA) but later adopted the name the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM). Up to 20,000 Malaitan settlers (many second-generation) fled into Honiara and were repatriated to Malaita by the Red Cross. Many later returned and were concentrated within Honiara.

Violence increased in mid-1999 with the emergence of a Malaitan militant group, the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), which undertook armed action on Guadalcanal. The Parliament enacted a 4-month state of emergency on 17 June 1999, which extended the arrest and search powers of the police and resulted in infringements on citizens' rights and also included limits on press reporting and freedom of association. The Commonwealth Special Envoy, Sitiveni Rabuka, brokered the Honiara Peace Accord, signed by members of the National and Provincial Governments and the Opposition, but the Accord failed to resolve the conflict. Despite several subsequent efforts to negotiate a cease-fire, the conflict continued throughout 1999. A Multinational Police Peace Monitoring group, sponsored by the Commonwealth with assistance from Australia and New Zealand, comprising police from Fiji and Vanuatu, arrived in Honiara in October 1999. Violent incidents and harassment continued to escalate.

On 5 June 2000, MEF militants, together with disaffected police officers ("the Joint Operations Force"), seized control of key installations in Honiara and took Prime Minister Ulufa'alu hostage, demanding his resignation. On 13 June 2000, Ulufa'alu submitted his resignation. At a meeting of Parliament on 30 June 2000, following intimidation of MPs and action to prevent attendance by some MPs supporting Ulufa'alu, Manasseh Sogavare (who had been Finance Minister in the Ulufa'alu government) was elected Prime Minister and formed a new government.

Following Sogavare's election, reinvigorated efforts were made, assisted as previously by Australia and New Zealand, to bring the militant groups to the negotiating table. Talks took place on board HMAS Tobruk in July 2000, concluding successfully with agreement to a ceasefire on 3 August 2000. These talks provided the momentumleading to the peace talks at the RAAF base in Townsville, between 9 and 16 October 2000.

The Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA) provided a framework for consolidating peace. It provided for a weapons and general amnesty, disarmament and demilitarisation, restructuring of the Royal Solomon Islands Police and the decommissioning of the "Joint Operations Force". It also provided for the compensation of individuals and proposed development of areas affected by the violence and displacement of people. An indigenous Peace Monitoring Council (PMC) was charged with responsibility for implementing the peace, with the assistance of an International Peace Monitoring Team (IPMT), established at the invitation of TPA signatories.

The TPA brought an end to almost two years of high level violence by Malaitan and Guadalcanal militants on Guadalcanal. NGOs and civil society called for reconciliation, reconstruction and good governance. Schools re-opened and many small businesses resumed some operations. The PMC and the Australian-led IPMT made some progress in supervising the surrender of arms (receiving some 1,300 weapons, of which about 150 were military-style) and sought to rebuild community confidence.

A number of former militants continue to operate personal "fiefdoms" with armed followers. Some militant groups split and engaged in internecine conflict; some others pursued criminal activities. This has contributed to a general climate of lawlessness and criminal violence, particularly in Honiara, elsewhere on Guadalcanal, and on Malaita, which has exacerbated the serious social and economic decline evident in Solomon Islands in recent years.

The 5 December 2001 elections returned a government with a mandate to redress the country's severe decline. Donors, including Australia and New Zealand, provided substantial support to promote free and fair elections, particularly through support to the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission, to the RSIP, and through the provision of 90 international electoral observers from Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands Forum, Forum Islands countries, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the UN, the EU, UK, US, Japan and Taiwan. The elections proceeded peacefully and the large contingent of international observers concluded the elections were fair and reflected the will of the people of Solomon Islands. About two-thirds of sitting members were defeated, including the majority of ministers of the outgoing Sogavare Government.

Prime Minister Kemakeza and his Cabinet made efforts to address law and order problems, to develop credible economic policies, and to include the wider community in discussions to address the major problems facing Solomon Islands. Prime Minister Kemakeza recognized both the seriousness of the situation and that significant progress in addressing the law and order problems in Solomon Islands is a prerequisite for social and economic recovery. But significant obstacles to recovery remained. There is a prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness with frequent outbreaks of violence and incidents of extortion. And by 2003 the government's ongoing commitment to reform and fiscal discipline appeared to be waning.

Following agreement by the Solomon Islands Government and the Governments of Australia and New Zealand that the International Peace Monitoring Team (IPMT) had done all it could to assist the peace process, the IPMT departed Solomon Islands on 25 June 2002. Australia continued to assist Solomon Islands to address the law and order situation through working with the government and Royal Solomon Islands Police Force on a Law and Justice Sector Program aimed at strengthening the police, prison and legal services, assisting the work of the National Peace Council, financial support for the UNDP project for the Demobilization of Special Constables, and communications and logistics support for the Police through the Defence Cooperation Program.

The assassination of former Police Commissioner (1982-1996) and National Peace Councillor Sir Fred Soaki in Auki on 10 February 2003 underscored the serious state of lawlessness in Solomon Islands. The appointment of an expatriate police commissioner funded by the EU in late January 2003 was aimed at strengthening police leadership and providing impetus to rebuilding the police force.

On 24 July 2003 Australia launched Operation Helpem Fren [pidgin for Helping Friend] to restore law and order in Solomon Islands. Australian police worked with the Solomon Islands police to provide safety and security to streets and villages and to get guns out of communities. Australia, New Zealand, and the other Pacific countries involved in the regional assistance mission were present at the formal and explicit request of the Solomons government. Australian diplomat Nick Warner left for Honiara on 24 July 2003 to take up his appointment as Special Coordinator to Solomon Islands. As Special Coordinator, Mr Warner was responsible on behalf of the Pacific Island Forum, for overseeing the implementation of the strengthened assistance program to Solomon Islands. This is a unique and complex initiative involving contributions from a number of South Pacific Governments and the deployment of police, military and civilian personnel. Experts from Pacific Islands nations were also be attached to advisory positions in key Government ministries.

Since July 24, 2003 the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a coalition of Pacific Island states that includes military and police forces from Australia and several other Pacific Island nations, has helped the Solomon Islands improve law and order. The Solomon Islands government and the vast majority of its citizens have welcomed the intervention. By the end of September 2003, more than 3500 weapons were surrendered or seized as part of a countrywide weapons amnesty. While there has been a marked drop in crime and violent incidents since the arrival of the RAMSI mission, the potential for tension and civil unrest remains.

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Page last modified: 21-11-2018 12:18:18 ZULU