By Darryl Mason
The relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands has been deteriorating for more than two years, and news breaking this morning about an alleged assassination plot on the prime minister of the Solomon Islands by an Australian Vietnam veteran will only add to the rot.
61 year old veteran, William Johnson, has been charged over the alleged assassination conspiracy against Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare. Four other men, all Solomon Islands nationals, are alleged to have been involved, but they have not yet been named.
When Johnson appeared yesterday in the Honiara Magistrates Court, it was revealed an unnamed Australian "sponsor" may have also been involved in the conspiracy, offering a $50,000 bounty for the proposed killing.
Johnson has been living in the Solomon Islands for more than 15 years and is married to a local woman. He was referred to in some media reports as "a happy drunk" who frequented expat bars in Honiara.
'The Australian' newspaper is reporting that "prosecutors will allege that Mr Johnson initially approached an inspector in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force for assistance in executing the plot to kill Mr Sogavare....
Mr Johnson allegedly thought the senior officer was an opponent of Mr Sogavare and would be able to ensure armed killers could pass through the checkpoints set up around the parliament and offices of the Prime Minister.
The plotters are alleged to have planned their conspiracy in the mountains of Malaita, a hotbed of past ethnic violence. The police inspector is understood to have informed Mr Sogavare's office and an investigation launched."
Prime minister Sogavare's Australian lawyers released information last night that detailed the charges against William Johnson :
"The man is alleged to have made statements to police that he, in company with other people not named in court, had made plans to assassinate the Prime Minister between the 18th and 23rd of this month..."The magistrate refused Johnson's bail request, believing the chargers were serious enough that Johnson might try to leave the Solomon Islands to avoid prosecution.
William Johnson was discovered living in a discount motel in Honiara, where he was arrested by police.
The lawyer representing Johnson told Radio National that his client was denying the charges laid against him. He described the alleged assassination conspiracy plot as "crazy".
Johnson's lawyer said the prosecution had nothing more as evidence against Mr Johnson than "drunken conversations".
The assassination of Prime Minister Sogavare was allegedly planned to take place eight to twelve days ago, around the same time that Sogavare made it known to Australian government officials that he was going to deny their advice and re-arm local police who, he said, will form his personal security detail.
Prime Minister Sogavare described his soon-to-be-armed security force as a "close personal protection unit". Sogavare dismissed a personal guard comprising a number of Australian Federal Police in December last year, infuriating the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer.
According to the Solomon Star, the Australian Federal Police contingent have now withdrawn communications equipment and vehicles from use by the prime minister.
The Sogavare government has brought new vehicles for local police in recent days, along with walkie-talkies for communication purposes, although such communication devices provide next to no privacy and can be easily scanned.
The removal of the Australian police contingent, vehicles and equipment is believed to have come as a direct result of Sogavare's announcement that he will re-arm police. The objections from the Australian government were loud, constant and, according to Sogavare, "bullying tactics".
Sogavare hand-picked the dozen police officers for his personal security force. All twelve are now believed to be taking part in a specialised training program in Taiwan.
This action was described in Solomon Islands media as having "added fuel to the simmering stand-off between Honiara and Canberra."
Once training in Taiwan is complete, the twelve officers are expected to form a unit devoted to the prime minister's personal protection, as well as providing security for visiting VIPs and dignitaries.
Canberra argues that as many ex-militants, believed to have been involved in numerous outbreaks of civil disorder in the past seven years, are currently being released out of police custody, it is the wrong time to re-arm local police.
The Australian government fears the weapons will get into the hands of criminals and militants via the notorious Solomon Islands black market.
From the Solomons Star :
Locally, the move to rearm police has angered community leaders and community groups including the National Council of Women.
They have urged Prime Minister Sogavare to reconsider his decision for fear the guns could end up in the wrong hands.
Mr. Sogavare said the decision to rearm police was taken after he had consulted “a number of senior citizens” who he said had wholeheartedly supported the move.
However, many in the community fear that while rearming police was easy, disarming members of the public in the event the arms ended up in their hands, would be difficult, if not impossible.
In general, the government has dismissed these fears, claiming rearming the police is to protect Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.
An Australian led intervention force entered the Solomon Islands in 2003 and disarmed the police, some of whom were believed to have been involved in violence and corruption, and the smuggling of weapons to local militants.
The dramatic intervention was an attempt by the Australian government to restore peace and order to the islands, which had been wracked by ethnic-related violence for years.
In April 2006, fierce rioting led to violent looting of the Chinatown district of Honiara and the torching of dozens of buildings after locals were outraged by election results.
More than 110 Australian soldiers and 70 Federal Police officers were deployed to the Solomons Islands in a security operation that was then tipped to cost more than $1 billion over the next four years.
Following the riots, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, said : "We do not want failed states on our doorstep. Failed states create vacuums. Vacuums attract people with bad thoughts and not good intentions."
Such talk from Mr Howard has incensed prime minister Sogavare, who has regularly accussed the Australian government of inteferring in local Solomon Islands politics and "throwing his weight around."
The Australian government is currently attempting to enforce a rule that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to local island nations, like Fiji, East Timor and the Solomon Islands, demands the involvement of Australian officials in their local governments and the training of police and military, along with a series of security-related benchmarks that must be met, in order for aid to continue to flow.
The impression amongst many islanders is that Australia is acting as 'colonialists', using promises of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid and development funds, to control the political destiny of their island nations.
April 2006 : Violence And Rioting Explodes In Solomon Islands After Shock Election Results, Chinatown District Torched