Dr. Ride, you have a long association with Solomon Islands, including over a decade working as a social scientist in Honiara. How did your interest in Solomon Islands begin?
I lived a fairly nomadic life before coming to Solomon Islands, and I went there thinking I might be there a year or two in order to do my doctoral research. It wasn’t something planned, but I did end up staying a long time, for family reasons and also for my own curiosity.
Solomon Islands is a fascinating place. It is a melting pot of Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian peoples as well as being in the process of rapid changes from subsistence to cash economies, from old to modern technologies, from tribal ways and languages to more interactions with foreign migrants and the outside world and, increasingly, political and geopolitical changes.
In the international development sector in particular, staying in one place is often seen as a bad thing for your career. But in terms of being able to get stuff done, I’ve found the opposite: building relationships and layers of knowledge over time allows you to be a part of change.
Your PhD reframed the causes of conflicts in Solomon Islands by de-emphasising ethnicity and drawing attention to tensions between society and its elites. Has your thinking evolved on this question?
A few years after I finished the PhD conflict conditions worsened, there was unrest over the election of the current prime minister, the switch in bilateral relations from Taiwan to China, and relations and power-sharing (or lack of it) between provinces and the national government. All this unrest and these frictions have an underlying cause of disconnect between the elites in control of parliament and government and the people. So, if anything, my hypothesis that elite capture of the state is a fundamental cause of conflict has been proven right, but ethnic links are still important in how this cause manifests.
For example, leaders of, and dissenters from, the current government will try to rally supporters based on ethnic links. Psychology tells us people look through the lens of ‘us’ versus ‘others’, but researchers are not necessarily aware of ethnic stereotypes and lenses to the study of conflict in other countries. Researchers need to be more reflexive about their own biases and look for the evidence before presenting analyses that frame ethnicity as a cause of conflict. Some of the writing by academics outside Solomon Islands suggests that ethnicity divides Islanders, whereas there is far more peaceful coexistence and melding of ethnicities than conflict overall in its modern history.
Solomon Islands has made world news in recent years, including during the 2021 riots which you lived through and wrote about. In a 2020 article, you predicted that riots could soon break out from causes you could observe.
The 2021 riots were severe, caused widespread damage, a few deaths and were terrible for all who saw them. To add to that, I was disturbed because I thought the events were preventable and predictable and I had predicted a similar pattern of violence in an article for the Australian National University in December 2020.¹ It was sort of like seeing a nightmare you envisaged coming true, but at the time I was too tired and sad to write about it.
A friend called me and said, ‘You have to write about this now, what has happened is exactly what you said would happen.’ After that call, I wrote a piece for the Lowy Institute, which I hope was helpful in interpreting events.² We have to look beyond the day of the riot to understand how these processes happen, and what we can do to prevent them. Learning from history is our only hope for the future.
You have argued that writers outside Solomon Islands should not be too quick to reach for geopolitical explanations when analysing local events. Does this habit reflect a thin understanding of realities on the ground?
Up until recently, Solomon Islands was rarely in the news. Then it was the front page or leading story, and it was funny seeing all the commentators come up. I would estimate that around 90 per cent of the researchers interviewed were not in the country when events unfolded and had not been for some time, as Solomon Islands closed its borders for two years during COVID-19.
The political discourse was also extreme and did little to increase understanding of what was happening, something I and Initiative for Peacebuilding colleagues were very concerned about.³
So, few commentators had an idea of internal conditions and the geopolitical angle was an easy reach, simply assuming that local actors acted primarily because of geopolitical allegiances. However, people’s motivations are complex, and this is certainly the case in Solomon Islands.
The prime minister might be “pro-China” but this is also linked to an idea of maintaining his centralised control of the country, a more authoritarian approach to governance and the like. Malaita province might be “pro-West” but this is positioning to try to maintain or strengthen their freedoms and abilities to govern their own affairs.
There is a fundamental power struggle within the country over inappropriate governance systems in need of reform, as Dr Transform Aqorau has pointed out.⁴
Structural change to governance needs to be addressed. That has nothing to do with geopolitics and everything to do with Solomon Islanders needing to decide what system of governance they want and can maintain themselves.
In 2021, the Australian Defence Force was invited by the government to help restore law and order, as it was during a period of civil conflict in 1998-2003. What is Australia’s image among locals and does it affect your experience?
When I first went to Solomon Islands back in 2008 and started interacting with Solomon professionals and visiting communities, a comment I would get a lot is that I was different from other Australians. It took me a while to figure out what that meant, but I think there was this idea that Australians would come in and “run the show”. They were known to have specific ideas about things, to be somewhat bossy, socialise largely among themselves, eat different foods, and behave differently and then leave.
Generally speaking, New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders who were part of the intervention known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RASMI) had a better image in the eyes of local people. This was a huge wake up call to me in terms of influencing how I behaved and seeing how other Australians behave in the Pacific more critically. I think Australians have this idea that they can walk into a room and be “mates” with anyone, but when you have history and huge power and cultural differentials between you and others, it’s not that simple.
The Australians who worked well and were well liked were ones who listened, took their time, could work with different perspectives, and devolved power. This is particularly important now in relation to the security sector,⁵ otherwise there is a danger at some point that Pacific countries will opt not to work with Australia on security matters.
Australians’ engagement with Solomon Islanders seems quite top-heavy in the sense of being driven by the government and development sector.
I am not sure I have much to say about this, except some colleagues have pointed to the need for more Australians to be more literate about the Pacific. And this is something I would support, but to be literate based on Pacific teachers and literature written by Pacific Islanders in order to break through our cultural biases and frames.
Do you think the bottom-up, that is social, cultural, religious, and private sector ties between Australians and Solomon Islanders are under-done?
One immediate concern I have at the moment is the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly in Solomon Islands. Several people in the NGO and religious sectors have been threatened by the police or by court cases, pursued by the government simply because of what they said in public or online forums.
I would hope to see more support by Australian civil society to Solomon Islands civil society, including local NGOs, the arts, youth and women’s organisations and networks. Not just financial support but the support of friendship, exchange, prayer, even refuge if required. These ties can be powerful in more ways than one.
Synkrētic has a strong interest in the oral forms of Pacific thought. Should the local concept of tok stori be seen as a method of philosophising?
One of the exciting things about working in Solomon Islands at the moment is engaging with its leading scholars on indigenous methodologies, epistemologies and research. These discussions have always been around but are getting much more attention, and I would say even reshaping mainstream research in many fields.
I would love your readers to become more familiar with the work of Dr David Gegeo and Dr Kabini Sanga who are both leaders in this domain. They also have lectures and papers online as resources. My friends and colleagues currently doing Masters and PhDs are mostly engaging with local research methods, sometimes in addition to other methods such as marine science, and I find this very exciting.
Tok stori is a method of philosophising but it is also a way of being, of relationships and relation not just to thoughts and concepts but to each other. This is one of the things that has been missing from mainstream science, to its detriment in my opinion. There is still much to be learnt across cultures, across methodologies, across the region.
What sources, writers, and thinkers could you recommend for readers wanting to explore Solomon Islanders’ perspectives?
Some of those great academics I have mentioned: the writings of Dr Transform Aqorau, Dr Kabini Sanga, Dr David Gegeo and also Dr Alice Pollard and Dr Jack Maebuta. Also, the creative works of younger people, particularly film, such as Dreamcast Theatre productions, the films of the Lepping sisters, Chai Comedy and the works published by the Solomon Islands Creative Writers Association, which are mostly available at the University of the South Pacific. There is a lot of dynamism in the arts, women, and youth sectors and by tribal associations that reveal the thoughts and experiences of Solomon Islanders.
You have studied the sources of conflict. What are the sources of peace in Solomon Islands that give you and locals hope in the future?
Peace is about making peaceful choices at the individual, community, or national level. Australia can do what it can to ensure the next election is free and fair, to make sure its policing support is accountable and encourages accountability in the police force, and to learn more from past experiences of conflict, including its own role in shaping current conflict conditions.
Solomon Islanders have a number of ways to resolve the conflicts they have peacefully: through dialogue between people with different perspectives, through greater accountability of the state to the people, through decentralisation of governance, through increasing the transparency and accountability of the police force, and through community-led initiatives to prevent crime and conflict.
And as I said, women, youth, tribal and local leaders have the dynamism to keep pursuing peace and so they deserve support from Australian and Solomon leaders alike.
Anouk Ride, ‘An Australian in Honiara’, in Synkrētic №3 (Dec. 2022): 45-51.