By Tom Tom
This morning the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) received delivery of 60 Daniel’s Defense MK18 short Barrel Rifles (SBR) and 13 vehicles as part of the Australia Federal Police (AFP) Policing Partnership Program (RAPPP). Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Police Minister Anthony Veke and other Solomon Islands Government (SIG) dignitaries were at Rove for the handover and lavish the photo opportunity with the goods, especially the guns.
The irony is that nearly 20 years ago, Australia led the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to restore peace, strengthen the Solomon Islands state, and collect and destroy guns. Many (if not most) of the manufactured guns used in that conflict and were subsequently destroyed by RAMSI came from the RSIPF armoury. But this morning the Australians were supplying guns. Perhaps that is a reflection of Australia’s confidence in the SIG and the RSIPF’s to safely store and use the guns responsibly.
The fundamental question, however, is whether Solomon Islanders trust the RSIPF and are confident the guns will not be used against citizens, or find their ways into communities. It is Solomon Islanders verdict that is more important.
In accepting the weapons, prime minister Manasseh Sogavare said, “We do not have any enemy within or external- nor hold any animosity against anyone, however, it is the sworn duty of the government of the day to ensure the protection of liberty, life-wellbeing and property of citizens and any persons in Solomon Islands.”
In other words: liberty, wellbeing and the protection of people are dependent on the barrel of a gun.
For me, the questions are: Who/what is the enemy? Where and how do they hope to use those weapons?
The likelihood of Solomon Islands being attacked from outside is slim, if not negligible. The most serious threat is border incursions, illicit drug and people smuggling, especially across the Solomon Islands-PNG border. It is however unlikely that PNG will invade Solomon Islands. However, proponents of arming the RSIPF could point to the PNG Defense Force (PNGDF) incursions and the killing Solomon Islanders during the Bougainville war. That is a fair argument. But that particular incident was an exception, rather than the norm. Such incursions would be best resolved diplomatically. If Bougainville is granted independence, its relationship with Solomon Islands should be sealed and strengthened with diplomacy, rather than brandishing weapons. Challenges at the borders do not justify the possession and use of assault weapons, especially now when many people still carry the scars of what happened in 1998 to 2003.
Given the unlikelihood of an external threat, one could therefore conclude that the Solomon Islands government sees the threats as internal; the RSIPF is armed to be used on perceived domestic threats. In other words, the SIG will ultimately use the weapon on Solomon Islanders.
It is worth noting that many third world countries with no obviously external threats tend to use their military and/or armed forces domestically – on their own citizens. It is mostly to quell political discontent against the government, to support unpopular governments, or to carry out military coups.
In the Pacific Islands three countries have conventional military forces: Fiji, PNG and Tonga. Fiji has a history of using its military for UN peacekeeping missions. However, the most consequential use of the Fiji military has been in coups (1987, 2000 & 2006) that have resulted in the militarization of Fijian politics, and the parallel politicization of the Fijian military. The PNGDF’s overseas deployments include during the Santo Rebellion in Vanuatu in 1980, RAMSI and 2021 Honiara riots. Apart from those, the most brutal deployment of the PNGDF was domestic: in Bougainville. That was supported by Australia. Tongan military has been deployed for peacekeeping missions such the 55 soldiers sent to Afghanistan in 2010 and their participation in RAMSI. Vanuatu’s paramilitary police unit is relatively small, lightly armed and well managed.
During the height of the Bougainville conflict, the Solomon Islands government acquired $10 million worth of arms from a U.S. arms dealer, arguably for border protection. Nearly all of the arms that made it into Solomon Islands ended up in the hands of militants and used during the conflict.
What is evident is that the most brutal use of Pacific Islands militaries and arms have been internal: the Fiji coups, the Bougainville conflict and the Solomon Islands conflict.
Given, the history of how arms were used in Solomon Islands, it is concerning that donors, including Australia and China, have chosen to arm the RSIPF and train them on how to use high-powered automatic assault weapons.
There is a celebration and fetishization of high-power weapons, trainings on how to use them, and the militarization of police forces. Implicit in this is the idea that the measure of a state is the size and power of its amoury.
Solomon Islands greatest threat is the lack of opportunities: employment, education, health care, business, to reach one’s creative dreams, etc. None of those need high-powered assault weapons.
Some may think this view is naïve, arguing that security is fundamental to development. But the causes of insecurities lie beyond a well-armed police force. They are due to poor policies and governance. It is not the power of one’s guns that determine a good government. Rather, it is the ability of a government to deliver opportunities and better livelihood to its people.
Perhaps for donors, Solomon Islands is a pawn in the broader geopolitical competition: one provides Kung Fu training and replica guns and the other tries out-compete with real assault weapons. In these times of hyper-geopolitical competition, the arming of police forces with assault weapons could result in dangerous outcomes in the future.
Perhaps in a decade or so, Canberra will again finance an expensive intervention to collect and destroy its guns.
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