Academic journal article Oceania

'The Chiefs' Country': A Malaitan View of the Conflict in Solomon Islands

Academic journal article Oceania

'The Chiefs' Country': A Malaitan View of the Conflict in Solomon Islands

Article excerpt

Editorial preface by Ben Burt

The recent conflict in Solomon Islands between the peoples of Malaita and Guadalcanal has been documented in news bulletins, internet commentaries and investigative reports, enabling the main political and economic developments to be summarised in two books (Fraenkel 2004, Moore 2004). But while such publications reflect the experience of both Solomon Islands and foreign professionals, they do not necessarily convey the views of the ordinary Islanders whose circumstances led to the conflict and who found themselves most closely involved.

Michael Kwa'ioloa, a Kwara'ae brought up in rural Malaita, speaks here from long experience of the Malaitan village communities of Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital on Guadalcanal. He has dealt personally with grievances between Honiara's diverse ethnic groups, before and during the crisis, not as a professional politician, administrator or academic, but as a local community activist for the Kwara'ae chiefs and as a front-line officer in the Royal Solomon Islands Police. As such his views on the historical causes and the necessary resolution of the conflict reflect a local understanding which has yet to be fully appreciated by the national and international policymakers who have such influence on the future of Solomon Islands.

In explaining the background to the conflict, Kwa'ioloa emphasises the inherited relationships with Guadalcanal landholders that legitimate the land claims of Malaitan settlers, the authority which clan leaders hold as chiefs to resolve disputes between communities, the importance of political consensus and economic co-operation rather than the competition of winners and losers, and the necessity for conciliation in resolving conflict. In recounting the course of events, he stresses the attempts of the Malaita chiefs to avert the crisis, the defensive origins of the Malaita Eagle Force and the efforts of the Special Constables to contain the violence.

This local perspective is Kwa 'ioloa's own, while my task as long-term research partner and co-author has been to communicate it to those it might not otherwise reach. Kwa 'ioloa proposed the present account as part of a sequal to his autobiography, Living Tradition (Kwa'ioloa & Burt 1997) but we present it here for its topical importance. In the aftermath of the events recounted here, he sent me writings and recordings of reflections and recollections which 1 edited to clarify his argument and narrative, then supplemented with further recordings in conversation with him on a visit to Solomon Islands in 2004.

Kwa'ioloa's underlying theme is his faith in the values of local tradition, in particular the need to involve local chiefs in the government of Solomon Islands and the resolution of the crisis, and a deep but ambivalent resentment of the individualistic values of capitalist economic development, which are blamed for the corruption of the political elite. While he confirms that the tensions between Guadalcanal and Malaita were exploited by politicians and militia leaders for personal gain, bringing militias and police into disrepute, he shows the values of tradition to be deeper-rooted than the exploitative compensation claims emphasised by Fraenkel (2004) as 'the manipulation of custom'. Kwa'ioloa's concept of tradition (translating Kwara'ae falafala, colonial custom and Pijin kastom) has a long history as an ideological focus for Malaitan and other political movements seeking to recover local self-determination under values founded in particular interpretations of ancestral heritage (see Burt 1994). As Akin explains (2005 and forthcoming) and Kwa'ioloa demonstrates here, this ideology has long resisted attempts" by colonial and state authorities to coopt it for their own purposes, as it will survive abuses by lawless militants. Far from merely reinventing tradition as the political symbol described by Keesing (1982) and others, Kwa'ioloa and his fellow chiefs treat their cultural heritage as a source of moral values which they mediate as clan leaders in a network of local communities in Honiara and 'home' in Malaita. …

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