Co-authored by Dr Karl Claxton, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

A decade ago today, lead elements of the 1400 troops, 300 police and officials from the nine Pacific Islands Forum countries initially comprising the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) arrived in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

This backgrounder, compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Lowy Institute for International Policy, offers links to analysis and resources for those following coverage of official commemorations underway this week in Honiara.

Causes and course of 'the tensions'

The start of a violent campaign of harassment by Guadalcanal militants against settlers from Malaita Island and elsewhere in 1998, mainly around Honiara, took most observers by surprise. Deft politics by community leaders had kept pressures in check through the 1990s.

As is common in ethnic conflicts, the campaign involved various elites' instrumental use of a complex mix of old and contemporary cleavages and grievances to advance personal and sectional interests. Key ingredients included the weakness of the postcolonial state; internal migration, inequality, and jealousies; the presence of many underemployed and frustrated young men; inter-generational conflict over resource-distribution associated with rapid social change; and the disruption of patronage networks by declining demand for log exports associated with the Asian financial crisis.

Pre-RAMSI mediation and peacekeeping led to the October 2000 Townsville Peace Agreement which reduced fighting between militias but didn't stop violence claiming some 200 lives, well over 20,000 people fleeing their homes, and causing a near collapse of the national government and economy.

The decision to intervene

Australia and its Pacific Islands Forum partners conducted a major intervention after Canberra had famously all but ruled this out as 'folly in the extreme' because tricky problems required a local solution and outside interference would be resented as neo-colonial.

ASPI called for action on 10 June 2003. The Australian Government's decision occurred in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks, the Bali bombings, and invasion of Iraq, but Australia had also recently led regional interventions in Bougainville and Timor Leste well before the start of the 'national security decade'. The decision to intervene, at the request of the Solomon Islands Government, was made under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum's Biketawa Declaration (2000). 

A unique and complex operation

Operation Helpem Fren was the early local name given to the Regional Assistance Mission. The first Special Coordinator Nick Warner frequently referred to it publicly as a 'unique and complex operation'. In his words, it was unique because 'it came about as the result of an invitation from a democratically elected government, because it has a major focus on police work, because it has regional endorsement and participation; and complex because of the mission's mandate to not only restore law and order but to rebuild the nation of Solomon Islands.'

RAMSI had three pillars: law and justice, economic governance and machinery of government. RAMSI personnel were deployed across all three pillars in in-line and advisory positions.

2006 Chinatown riots

The election of famously corrupt former finance minister Snyder Rini as prime minister in April 2006 was met with public dismay and anger, triggering two days of riots in Honiara. The riots targeted Honiara's Chinatown, thanks to public anger about perceived close links between Rini and prominent businessmen of Chinese origin. RAMSI and Solomon Islands police were criticised for their slow response. China arranged a civilian airlift evacuation of people of Chinese origin. Rini resigned and was replaced by Manasseh Sogavare.

2006-07 trouble with the host government

The term of Manasseh Sogavare as prime minister posed particular challenges for the Australian Government and RAMSI. Sogavare was not sympathetic to Australia and held serious reservations about RAMSI. It was difficult for RAMSI to make progress during this time. The infamous Julian Moti affair was a further unwelcome distraction for RAMSI.

Military and security lessons

The initial visibly muscular approach signalled that change was unstoppable, leading to the quick surrender of most firearms, saving lives, and creating an environment where wider political, economic and social success was at least possible. Operations reinforced the importance of interagency cooperation, especially with police, where the ADF was a vital partner but never in the lead. They also demonstrated that there are operational as well as political benefits to working in a multinational coalition.

The re-emergence of violence in 2006, at a time when the ADF was heavily committed in the Middle East, underscored the need to put 'boots on the ground'. This contributed to the decision to create two more regular infantry battalions, and was reflected in the fact that 2112 of the 7270 Australian personnel who have deployed on Operation ANODE are Army Reservists.

The riots (and the death of a Honiara local shot by RAMSI troops responding to a drunken brawl) also showed infantry battalions require at least basic control capabilities, notwithstanding the separation of civilian and military powers. And RAMSI reminds us even the most permissive interventions aren't without operational risk, with one ADF and one AFP/APS fatality each to date.

The development approach

There is little doubt that RAMSI established an environment which enabled the Solomon Islands Government to collect revenue, stabilise and secure its finances, and deliver services. It also allowed business to conduct trade and invest. RAMSI Treasury and Finance officials played an important role in steadying the economic ship. The Solomon Islands economy, which had been contracting prior to 2003, started to grow and has since achieved record rates of growth, albeit mostly driven by unsustainable logging exports.

The whole-of-government focus of Australia and New Zealand as the principal donors within RAMSI provided Solomon Islands with much more targeted and direct development assistance than any of its Pacific neighbours. It was perceived as an alternative government by many Solomon Islanders frustrated with their own politicians. 

RAMSI has been an expensive model. But was it more effective than other development initiatives? Some thinking here, here and here. Academic literature has focused on whether a top-down focus on reform and state-building was the only practical model and best option for promoting enduring peace, stability and well-being. Some links here, here and here.

Transition and the future

The military component of RAMSI has concluded and will withdraw over the next month. Development assistance is being folded back into bilateral aid programs. RAMSI is now a policing-only mission.

Ten years on, it is worth reflecting on the state-building aspirations of RAMSI. Have lessons been learned and implemented? Have the root causes of the conflict been addressed and has the truth and reconciliation process helped? (Bishop Terry Brown has unofficially released the five-volume Final Report of the Solomon Islands Truth & Reconciliation Commission, which the Government had sat on since February 2012.)

Significant governance problems endure and the sustainability of the nation's key export industry is in doubt. What else could have been or needs to be done? Despite all the analysis, many gaps and disagreements remain in our understanding of RAMSI. We look forward to outcomes of a workshop underway in Honiara and major conference by ANU's State Society and Governance in Melanesia program in November.

Photo courtesy of DFAT.