Apr 13, 2021 Last Updated 11:41 PM, Apr 12, 2021

I t took 150 years but it now appears that Australia will recognise a damning part of the country’s evil history involving torture and slavery of indigenous Melanesians abducted to work on Australian farms. State governments in Australia’s two most populous states—New South Wales and Queensland —tabled motions in August to rejuvenate interest in what one prominent politician described as “a shameful part of our history that needs to be publicly acknowledged”. Estimates of between 50,000 to 60,000 South Seas Islanders were “kidnapped, coerced and subjected to contracts they could not understand” over 1863-1904 from Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands to work under inclement conditions in northern Australian states—Queensland and New South Wales. Cheap labour from the South Seas region was taken for granted to meet increasing demand from the United States for Australian cotton, followed by sugarcane.

Bundaberg graves Heritage Listed: As part of the testimony to the suffering and ill-treatment of the slaved labourers from the region, 29 graves were recently uncovered in the Queensland town of Bundaberg. Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo and Vanuatu MP Ralph Regenvanu, joined by his country’s tribal chief Richard David Fandanumata of the Council of Chiefs, were accorded with honour in Queensland last month at the commemoration ceremony for the islander graves. Australian authorities have since made the gravespread farm Sunnyside as Heritage listed, thus preserving the area from future development for commercial purposes. Archeologists predict the graves would be 130 years old, farm owner Brian Courtice was quoted in the local media. “Their story needs to be told,” he said. Courtice said his family was deeply touched by the marking of the occasion, attended by leaders from the deceased’s home countries. He said this was the first mass grave ever found on the age-old sugar farm that had been Heritage listed. “It is a part of our history that has been airbrushed out for 130 years,” he said.

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Australians go to the polls to elect their next government on September 7. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, leader of the Australian Labor Party, has nailed his hopes on being able to stop the boats that have been ferrying an influx of asylum seekers for the past two months. High on his campaign agenda are concerns regarding the slowing economy, funding for health and education, and that of national security. Voters will hear earfuls from both sides of the political spectrum on who has more credible solutions to the concerns of the electorates. Nauru and Papua New Guinea have joined the fray within the battles between the contenders for the position of the next Prime Minister of Australia. And both the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands and Fiji’s Foreign Minister have weighed in on the risks of sending refugees destined for Australia to the Pacific Islands.

The regional resettlement: Nauru and Manus (in PNG) have in the past hosted asylum seekers destined for Australia. John Howard during his tenure as Australian prime minister in 2001 instigated the ‘Pacific Solution’. The policy was dismantled in 2008 when the Australian Labor Party won power and Rudd took over as the new PM. Julia Gillard, who took over from Rudd, reopened the detention centres on Nauru and Manus last year in the face of an influx of arrivals by boat from Indonesia and Malaysia. Australian immigration authorities run detention centres on both Nauru and Manus where traditionally refugee claims were assessed. The majority of those detained were ultimately granted refugee status and resettled in Australia.

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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.”

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The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has voted to place French Polynesia back on the UN list of territories that should be decolonised. And it has requested the French Government to “facilitate rapid progress […] towards a self-determination process.” Adopting a consensus resolution tabled by Nauru, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands, the UNGA affirmed “the inalienable right of the people of French Polynesia to self-determination and independence” under the UN Charter, and declared that “an obligation exists [under the Charter] on the part of the Government of France, as the administering power of the territory, to transmit inFrench Polynesia on UN decolonisation list formation on French Polynesia.” The UNGA’s action places French Polynesia back on the UN list of non-self governing territories, bringing the number of inscriptions to 17. Meanwhile, President Gaston Flosse has denounced the UNGA decision to reinscribe French Polynesia on the UN list of territories to be decolonised, describing it as dictatorial and vowing that he won’t ever let the UN flag fly on his palace. The vote in New York, which was boycotted by France, came in the dying hours of the presidency of Oscar Temaru, for whom it was a last minute political win after a personal campaign of more than 30 years. 

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I t was Sir Peter Kenilorea, then Prime Minister, who declared at the flag raising ceremony outside the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York that as of July 7, 1978 Solomon Islands stands equal with all the other UN members. That was when Solomon Islands gained political independence from Britain after 83 years.

Things were looking up. But that was then. In the 35 years since, the nation had gone through a rather tumultuous period, which culminated in a coup that has changed the political, economic and social landscape of this once idyllic South Pacific archipelago. Today, a multi-national regional force, which, a decade ago came to restore law and order is preparing to leave.

As the deadline for the July pullout edges closer, there’s an eerie kind of feeling within that trouble is once again on the horizon. “You can feel it in the air, can’t you?” one senior public servant told me. Such a view is not unfounded. In fact, the feeling of insecurity is sweeping the nation that the departure of the Australia-New Zealand sponsored Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) will leave a vacuum the nation’s police force will be ill-equipped to deal with. Outward signs are that governance is not holding up in every sector.

In the nation’s urban centres, law and order appears to be on the verge of collapse. Take for example the case of two men on Malaita whose arrests were ordered by the court more than two years ago. They are still on the loose. In May, the two were seen having a betel nut lunch with police officers who knew that warrants of arrests were issued for the two men since 2011. But they were never touched.

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