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Solomons politics: It\'s a riot

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COMMENTS

30 November 2010 19:55

Charles Prestidge-King is a former editorial staff member at East Asia Forum. He is based in Honiara and has contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The imprisonment of controversial Fisheries Minister Jimmy Lusibaea for two years and nine months led to small-scale rioting in Honiara on Tuesday. Australian Participating Police Force officers, some wearing riot gear, worked to maintain order alongside their Solomon Islands counterparts.

Lusibaea was charged with unlawful wounding and assaulting a police officer during the Tensions, the ethnic conflict that raged in Solomon Islands between 1998 and 2003. At the time, Lusibaea was known as Jimmy Rasta, a feared commander of the Malaita Eagle Force militia.

A large crowd had gathered outside the High Court for the sentencing. Occasional yells punctuated the silence – the odd stone crashed against the fence. Australian police looked on warily. Though Jimmy's wife and campaign manager managed to disperse the crowd, a smaller group broke off and headed towards town.

Point Cruz was a mess. Bins were overturned; fluorescent lights smashed. Chinatown, which was looted and burned to the ground in April 2006, was worse. Stones littered the road, and windows were smashed. Police trucks had windows broken (photo showing police vehicle on Honiara's main roundabout by the author).

The Police Commissioner said in a press conference today that 37 arrests were made, and that two tear gas canisters were fired to disperse a crowd of around 200 in Chinatown, which stopped them from damaging it further. The commissioner and others have said that those involved were young opportunists rather than genuine supporters of Jimmy Lusibaea, and that this was a 'shameful episode' for Honiara.

The shopkeepers of Honiara – overwhelmingly Chinese – have suffered. Matthew Quan, President of the Solomon Islands Chinese Association and owner of QQQ store, managed a smile as I walked down the main street of Chinatown from the front of his shop. 'Welcome to life in Solomon Islands,' he said.

Jimmy Lusibaea's imprisonment isn’t just an issue for civil order in Honiara, or for the Australian-led RAMSI. It has put the NCRA Government in Solomon Islands in crisis. The Solomon Islands Constitution forbids anyone serving a prison sentence of more than six months to serve as a Member of Parliament, so Lusibaea's jail term immediately disqualifies him from office. With the recent death of one of its MPs and now Lusibaea's sentencing, the Government no longer has the numbers.

Given the severity of the offences – he pistol-whipped a policeman, and shot an unconscious militant in both knees – Lusibaea was always likely to go away for a while. Even the Government knew that, with the Opposition Leader claiming that the powerful Ministry of Fisheries was being 'marketed' to his MPs well before his conviction.

By-elections for this and two other seats will take place, but Philip can't assume that incoming MPs will join his camp. The Opposition is strong at the moment, with Leader Steve Abana and his Deputy Matthew Wale making an effective team. There is also said to be broad dissatisfaction within the coalition regarding the two powerbrokers in the NCRA Government – Deputy Speaker and casino owner Namson Tran, and Bodo Dettke, the Minister for Forests and a logging magnate.

After today, we can expect heightened security from RAMSI and the Solomon Islands Police at the upcoming by-elections, which won't take place until at least December. Solomon Islands Parliament won't sit again until next year.

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