The tenth anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) causes me to reflect on my personal ten-year anniversary. It was ten years ago yesterday that I stepped on a plane to Honiara to take up a short-term mission as DFAT Policy Advisor to the Special Coordinator of RAMSI, Nick Warner. I was excited about the opportunity to be a part of the mission that would deliver desperately needed assistance to help Solomon Islanders deal with their law and order nightmare and improve their broken government system.
Although I knew the size of Operation Helpem Fren (as the RAMSI intervention was initially known), I was astonished to look out of the plane window at the sight of a sea of khaki tents on Henderson Airfield. It was like we had happened onto the set of The Thin Red Line. The small group of American surfing tourists on my plane, oblivious to the headlines about a virtual civil war in Solomon Islands which had dominated the Australian press for weeks, was even more astonished.
I was later to appreciate that the size of the military component was intended as a display of shock and awe, a phrase I had associated with the US invasion of Iraq and which I felt was foreign to the South Pacific.
I was a bit sceptical of the need for such a large military force but the multi-country military force and police contingent was warmly welcomed by the Solomon Islands public, anxious to see an end to the criminality which had pervaded their daily lives. The first commanding officer of RAMSI's military contingent, Lt Col John Frewen, makes a good case here for the size of the military deployment in what was a police-led operation.
The mission's immediate focus was on the restoration of law and order. In fairly quick order, wanted militants and criminal thugs handed themselves in to RAMSI police or negotiated surrender. The most famous of these, the Malaitan Eagle Force's Jimmy Rasta Lusibea, was arrested in October 2003 after earlier initiating the terms of his surrender. He had perhaps acknowledged that his own khaki outfit and collection of guns was no match for 1800 soldiers, 200 police and a big grey warship (see HMAS Manoora above; photo courtesy of the Defence Department) sitting off the coast of Guadalcanal.
While RAMSI's Executive was busy negotiating the surrender of militants and pursuing the surrender of notorious mass murderer Harold Keke, I was charged with advancing the Mission's decision to manage a gun amnesty. This involved negotiating the terms of the amnesty in some difficult meetings with Solomon Islands police, the Attorney-General's office, the Prime Minister's office and civil society.
Gun amnesties had been tried before without much success. To make this one work, RAMSI needed the Prime Minister's authorisation and cooperation from every part of government and society, as well as significant coordination across all elements of the RAMSI operation; no easy task in the early days.
After we reached agreement on the details of the amnesty, RAMSI police and military did a fantastic job fanning out across the vast archipelago to collect weapons, helped out by local churches and community groups. Back in Honiara we focused on a public relations campaign on the radio and through civil society to encourage people to give up their weapons. The gun amnesty was a great success in collecting and destroying approximately 4000 weapons, including high-powered ones stolen from the police armoury. A scourge that had caused so much trauma in Solomon Islands had ended.
I started RAMSI's community outreach with civil society and churches, which gave me a unique perspective on how ordinary Solomon Islanders regarded the mission and the opportunity to use their feedback to improve what we did.
I got to know Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza pretty well as I accompanied Nick Warner to his daily briefing sessions with the PM. Although Kemakeza has been criticised, I thought he showed a lot of courage to not only facilitate the intervention but to work so closely with RAMSI to ensure the mission's success, especially given that he knew he would one day be arrested by RAMSI police and probably jailed for his role in a raid on a law firm in 2002, which he eventually was in 2008.
I was the only pidgin speaker in the Special Coordinator's office and participated in a number of meetings with politicians, officials and civilians where details of criminal activities were sometimes discussed only in pidgin. Very little in my diplomatic career had prepared me for the some of the alarming information I learned. It seemed that almost every government representative we met had been touched by the ethnic tensions and the breakdown in law and order – most often as victims but also as perpetrators of crime.
The first year of Operation Helpem Fren was a success on many fronts but as the mission moved its focus from law and order to state-building (economic governance and the machinery of government) it came up against more political sensitivities and became more challenging. What I regret most about the first year was that RAMSI did not do more in what was perhaps a small window of opportunity to encourage Solomon Islands to reform its rotten political system, which allowed so much self-serving and bad behaviour from politicians, and which endures today. But that may have been a bridge too far for a mission that needed the support of the Solomon Islands Government to help the people of the Solomon Islands.
Nick Warner invented the phrase 'unique and complex' to describe Operation Helpem Fren. He used it so often in public consultations and speeches that it became a bit of a running joke to describe our everyday tasks. There was barely a day in my time working with RAMSI that was not unique and complex. I liked the phrase so much that to this day I own a T-shirt featuring the RAMSI logo and the words 'A unique and complex operation'.
It was an extraordinary time in the Solomon Islands. I was privileged to have been a part of it.