Winds of Change Blow in the Solomons
01 August 2004

FEW CONFERENCES hear from a businessman who has paid back £290,000 in cheated taxes, or see victims of brutal ethnic conflict forgive each other.

FEW CONFERENCES hear from a businessman who has paid back £290,000 in cheated taxes, or see victims of brutal ethnic conflict forgive each other. Perhaps this is why an Initiatives of Change conference in the Solomon Islands in June made headlines in the country's media.

The Solomon Islands is a South Pacific archipelago of half a million people and 70 languages. In 1998, tensions over land and economic opportunity exploded into ethnic-based violence as rival militias took up arms, and rogue police joined them. More than 100 people were killed, and more than 10,000 left homeless.

Last year, military-backed intervention from Australia and other Pacific countries restored stability. But many Solomon Islanders fear the departure of the military forces. How can the underlying grievances be resolved so that violence does not break out again? This question lay at the heart of the conference, 'Winds of Change, from tension to transformation'. Among its initiators were Joses Tuhanuku MP, Leader of the Labor Party, and Matthew Wale, a prominent accountant.

During the violence, Wale was one of the few to condemn the militias publicly, and became a target, narrowly escaping death. He also became a rallying point, and the Civil Society Network which he launched offers Solomon Islanders a chance to work for national reconciliation, good governance and integrity. The conference was called to advance these objectives, which are closely linked. As Tuhanuku put it: 'Terrorism is a product of corruption. Corruption is present in all walks of life in the Solomons, and we must declare war on it.'

The conference, attended by 300 people, focused national attention on these issues. When a manager from the Solomon Islands Electricity Authority (SIEA), Jan Sanga, exposed corruption in the authority, the Solomon Star carried her revelations on its front page, and followed up with an editorial. When Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner Joseph Karanja spoke on the bold moves of his country's new President, Mwai Kibaki, to stamp out corruption, much of his speech was broadcast on national radio. When 30 of the country's 50 members of parliament met with conference participants, their questions were mainly directed to Karanja, and most wanted to know about the Clean Election Campaign which he initiated in Kenya.

The logging industry is a major driver of political corruption, environmental destruction and social instability in many Pacific countries. So there was plenty of interest when, Joseph Wong, a Malaysian managing director of logging companies in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands, spoke. Until 1999, he told participants,'I carried five firearms and got my way with money or force.'

That year, at an IC conference in Australia, he was deeply moved by 'the love and care shown to me... for the first time I spoke freely about my pain, and the wrongs in which I was involved'. Back in PNG, he repaid over 1.5 million Kina (£290,000) to the tax authorities, threw away his guns, and refused to be involved in destructive logging practices. Now he has moved to the Solomon Islands to take charge of a new logging operation, which he intends to develop on sound social and environmental principles.'It is pointless to go on making a few people rich and many poor; he said.

Two participants came from South Africa. University lecturer Ginn Fourie lost her only daughter in 1993 when freedom fighters burst into a Cape Town restaurant and gunned down four young people. The attack was ordered by Letlapa Mphahlele, at the time operations commander of the Azanian People's Liberation Army. At the conference, Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele stood shoulder to shoulder as they told their story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The next morning a woman from the island of Guadalcanal, rose to her feet, to tell of her years of pain since her brother was beheaded by militia from the rival island of Malaita. His body was dumped in Honiara's Central Market in an act of contempt that rocked the nation. Susan Kukuti told participants that, having heard Ginn Fourie's story, she had found it in her heart to forgive her brother's killers.

Matthew Wale then invited any Malaitans who wished to accept Susan's forgiveness to come forward. A dozen did so, breaking down in tears as they surrounded her. Among them was the conference chair, Judith Fangalasuu. 'I did not know what my people had done to her family,' Judith said later, 'and yet she is willing to forgive us.'

By the end of the conference, plans were being made to work for reconciliation and to challenge corruption throughout the Solomon Islands. As the Speaker of the Parliament, Sir Peter Kenilorea, told the participants in his closing address: 'At a time when the overwhelming tragedies of the recent ethnic cleansing seem to have stunned our leaders, you are a light in the darkness.'
John Bond

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