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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Solomon Islands I: Friendly Isles in the Coral Sea

Fri 18 Jun 2010 POM ?Honiara (Solomon Islands) SI$1 = S$0.17 / HIR is 3 hours behind SIN. I flew Air Niugini to Honiara (pronounced Honi-ara, not Honia-ra) today.  The flight was  full. A large number of the passengers were mainland Chinese who had just flown into POM on 
the weekly Air Niugini flight from SIN (& before that from Guangzhou to SIN), to connect to Honiara.  Many of them are from rural parts of Guangdong Province, came here 10 to 20 years ago, and have possibly missed the province great manufacturing boom.  Many spoke very poor Mandarin.  Being less educated and perhaps even holding less-than-perfect entry documents, many of them often get bullied by local officials.  One Chinese told me that they were subject to bribery extortion by PNG immigration every time they transit in POM, but there are few viable alternative flight routing to the Solomons.

I was told that many have remained in Solomon Islands even after the 2006 riots which saw the looting and burning down of Honiara's historic Chinatown.  It was rumoured that the new prime minister who came to power after elections that year had received illegal Asian 
financial support.  This prompted anti-Asian riots that resulted in the mayhem and destruction of Chinatown.  That PM was forced to resign within months and another election was held. As with the history of Chinese commerce in much of Asia (or Jewish commerce in Europe), the locals could hardly live without the merchantile race playing an intermediary role.  It was not long before the Chinese rebuilt their lives and Chinatown.  As I would see later, most of the shops in Honiara, whether in Chinatown or in other parts of the city, appears to be run by Chinese.  The next election would be held next month (July 2010), and a Chinese told me that she is worried about the repeat of 2006's riots.   They would have to store more precious goods in safer locations and hope for the best.

During the flight, I sat beside a Solomon Islander from Gizo (second largest city in SI) who works as an accountant.  He was returning home from a visit to POM to attend the presentation of a new accounting software.  Companies operating in PNG or SI where the stock exchange is either non-existent or at an infant stage have less worries about accounting standards - in fact Trevor told me most of them fudge their profits to avoid the tax man.  Trevor, who used to have some Singapore classmates while doing his undergraduate degree in Melbourne, has become interested in how the stock market functions.  He was intrigued to hear that even the elderly in Singapore dabbles in internet trading.

Clearing immigration in the Solomons was easy.  I just had to crack a few jokes with the  bored ladies at immigration and my passport was stamped.  HIR Airport was a lot smaller than POM's and somewhat run down too.  But at least it had an ANZ ATM.  Got into a taxi to downtown for SI$70 (S$14). 

I've booked 4 nights' stay at Chester Rest House, a guesthouse run by the Melanesian Brotherhood, a religious order which belongs to the Church of Melanesia (the Anglican offshoot in PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu).  25 y/o Brother Albert, a broad-shouldered young man in black robes, welcomed me to the guesthouse and helped carry my luggage to level 2 of this cosy wooden building on a ridge overlooking the (not-very-big) centre of Honiara and its port.  Signs on the wall reminded residents not to bring companions of the opposite sex here, not to run around or speak loudly beyond 9pm, wear footwear and chew betel, and also to tell their wantok and relatives that the objectives of the brotherhood is to serve the needy.  Wantok (One Talk) is a local term referring to people who speak the same language or dialect.  In a small country with 500,000 people but 74 mutually intelligible languages, national consciousness is shallow and people often break rules in order to meet obligations to one's wantok.  A cross is hung outside the doors of most rooms (though not on mine). 

As I walked through the corridors, I was greeted by friendly black-robed brothers and blue- robed novices, as well as various layhelpers and other guests who happened to be around.  Everyone was courteous and carried a wide smile.  A few had been to Singapore on stopovers on their way to the UK. What a welcoming change from the tension I felt in Port Moresby!  My room at looked out to the serene blue waters of the Iron Bottom Sound, hemmed in by the silhouette of volcanic island of Savo (famous for its crater, hot springs and megaplode birds which lay their enormous eggs on a beach), the Florida islands (excellent for diving) and the large island province of Malaita to the east.  

It was hard to imagine that more than 60 Japanese and American warships sank at the bottom of this small body of water during the famous Battle of the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal Campaigns 1942-3.  These battles, which involved one of modern history's greatest naval 
engagements and bitter jungle fighting, were the subject of many books, films and productions, the latest being the episodes 1 and 2 of the blockbuster new HBO series, "The Pacific" And yes, the sea here was named "Iron Bottom Sound" precisely because so many huge modern warships still lie at its deep ocean floors.  The remains of these warships have made the Solomons a world-class destination for divers keen on wrecks.  Someone I met said that divers might even come across underwater wrecks of fighter planes with the skeletons of the pilots still strapped onto their seats.  

There are, however, problems as well.  Today's Solomon Star newspaper reported that the cash-strapped Solomon Government is seeking international aid in financing underwater survey to identify potential oil leakage and prevent implosion of eroded unexploded ordnance.

And John F Kennedy, first became famous when he survived a Japanese attack on his submarine in the Solomons and succeeded in escaping to safety despite the odds.

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Honiara is a dusty small city of 50,000 inhabitants.  It has one main street and a few dirt tracks by its side, plus a scattering of tin sheds and one or two storey houses in the narrow coastal plain squeezed between 2,500m high mountains and the Iron Bottom Sound.  

There is hardly any notable building or landmark worth visiting on its own merit.  Honiara was built as a capital from scratch after WWII, after the war led to the destruction of Tulagi, the old capital of British Solomon Islands Protectorate on an island north of the Sound.

Solomon Islands became independent in 1978 but ethnic conflict flared out in 1999 between native Guadalcanalans and immigrant Malaitans (from the island of Malaita to the east of the Sound) that led to the near collapse of Solomon Islands as a country.  Malaita has long been overcrowded and many Malaitans have moved to Honiara where they have secured good jobs or bought good farming land on the island of Guadalcanal where the capital is located.  

Conflict started when Guadalcanal gangs (which later evolved into private armies and warlords) began ethnic cleansing of Malaitans from Guadalcanal, and the latter, in response, then began their own armies to fight the Guadalcanalans.  Ultimately, South Pacific peace keeping forces (RAMSI) led by the Australians arrived in 2000 to keep peace and have since remained in the country.  

Some Malaitans have returned to Malaita but many have stayed on in Honiara.  In fact, I've been told that the island of Guadalcanal probably still has more Malaitans than native Guadalcanalans, though many of the former are now concentrated in Honiara and surrounding areas.  Some tension has remained, as Solomon Star's headlines today, reported the visit of Guadalcanal Provincial premier to Malaita Province for reconciliation and goodwill ahead of next week's national games to be held in Malaita. I asked a local from Malaita if there was any difference in physical appearance between Malaitans and Guadalcanalans.  No, he said, all of them looked typically Melanesian (the broad ethnic family of peoples who live in eastern Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji), i.e., dark skin and sometimes with fuzzy hair.  In any case, Malaita and Guadalcanal all contain many languages and sub-ethnic groups.  Everyone in Solomon Islands speak Pijin (Solomons version of Pidgin) to anyone who is not their wantok.  Perhaps one can pick up some broad Malaitan or Guadalcanalan accents, but one can still get it totally wrong.  My conclusion is that, this is yet another conflict created by greedy politicians among ethnic groups that are not very different from one another. 

Life in those conflict days were really bad.  I was told that there were roadblocks everywhere.  Within Honiara, which was controlled by the Malaitan militia, militants looked out for anyone who looked Guadalcanalans.  Even people from other provinces might be treated as suspected Guadalcanalan spies.  The government was held hostage by the Malaitan militia, who would raid the national treasury at their whims and fancy.  Government at all levels became corrupt and social order broke down completely.  SI is still suffering the consequences of that era, as tourism has yet to return to pre-conflict levels.Life in the other provinces were more peaceful, but due to the chaos in Honiara, the provinces faced acute shortage of medicine, food and basic necessities that cannot be produced in sufficient quantities in their own area.

Posted via email from Nomadic Republic2

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