Peacekeeping: Australia The Persistent

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October 9, 2014: Australia is spending nearly $2 billion to replace the 22 Pacific Forum class patrol boats they built and gave to twelve Pacific Island nations in the 1980s and 90s. This is part of the Pacific Patrol Boat Program, which was started in the 1980s. The twenty new patrol boats will go to the original twelve (Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Samoa, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Cook Islands) members plus East Timor. The patrol boats are used for things like fisheries protection, search & rescue and dealing with smuggling. The original boats were 31.5-meters (101 feet) long and designed to last at least 15 years. As those original boats reached their service limit it was noted that they had held up better than expected. So Australia refurbished them but now these original boats are definitely in need of replacement. About a third of the money will go for building the new patrol boats while the rest will be spent over the next 30 years to help maintain and operate the boats.

The Pacific Patrol Boat Program is one of many efforts by the more affluent (like Australia and New Zealand) Pacific nations to assist the many poor Polynesian and Melanesian states that were formed since the 1950s. While the Polynesian nations of the south and central Pacific mainly need economic and technical assistance, the Melanesian nations (Papua, the Solomons, East Timor and a few others) are not only closer but more often in need of peacekeepers (occasionally) and help (more frequently) with internal security. As a result of those needs Australia has found itself, often against its will, deputized as the policeman of Melanesia. It's a thankless task that has sent Australian peacekeepers to several different island trouble spots since the 1990s.

But what the hell is Melanesia? It's the arc of settlement, from the easternmost islands of Indonesia (like the Malukus and Timor) to New Guinea, the Solomons and Fiji. The Melanesians have a very dark complexion and curly hair, appearing as if they originally came from Africa. But, no, their ancestors, thousands of generations ago, came from ancient populations in southern India and island hopped to their current locations. Later waves of migration from East Asia (who became the Malays and Polynesians) brought with them superior technology, and either absorbed, killed or chased away the small groups of stone-age Melanesians they encountered. Meanwhile, the distant cousins of the Melanesians back in India went on to develop one of the first advanced civilizations in the ancient world. But the Melanesians were stuck out in the jungles, scattered among hundreds of islands and, on New Guinea, in hundreds of isolated mountain valleys. By the time the rest of the world rediscovered Melanesia in the 18th and 19th centuries, they found a culture that was largely still in the Stone Age, and spoke thousands of different languages. Until the 1970s, most Melanesians were ruled, rather loosely, as colonies of European nations. But then came decolonization, and the Melanesian areas were organized into independent nations and set up as such. Didn't work. The Melanesians couldn't even get dictatorships going. The basic problem was tribalism. Like so many other parts of the world, where effective central governments have not developed, people cling to their tribes for all manner of "government services" (from protection to justice and public works) and resist efforts to replace those ancient customs which are so familiar.

Trying to impose a central government on a tribal society has proved very difficult. And most current politicians, peacekeepers and diplomats forget, or never bothered to find out, how tribalism disappeared in other countries. The United States, and all the nations of the Western Hemisphere, largely avoided tribalism by arriving as migrants. Few tribal social structures survived such migration. It was a given that some form of government would have to be organized in the new lands of America, and so it was. Thus the appearance of many of the first modern democracies took place in the Western Hemisphere.

But back in the rest of the world, tribalism disappeared via evolution. First it went to feudalism, where a local military commander retained power by successfully supporting his boss (a king, emperor or whatever), at the expense of tribal officials and customs. Kingdoms developed representative assemblies, first of feudal overlords, and eventually everyone. At that point you had democracy. But there were plenty of possible intermediary phases that were neither tribal, not democratic.

So the problems the Melanesians have is one of too many tribes, and no tradition of the tribes working out (in a non-violent way) who shall rule them all. Iraq and Afghanistan are similar, although these two, despite their surviving tribal structures, also have a long history of tribes cooperating to elect a king. The Iranians, Egyptians, Chinese and Europeans went through the feudal phase, and, to varying degrees, have some kind of democracy or dictatorship.

Australia is the wealthiest nation bordering Melanesia, and thus the only one able to supply peacekeepers quickly. The other large neighbor, Indonesia, already has internal problems with its own Melanesian populations (and a few Malay tribes as well). Moreover, it was Indonesian attempts to use force to get one group of Melanesians (and Malay-Melanesians) in East Timor to stop demanding independence that led to Australian peacekeepers "invading" Indonesia to help liberate and set up East Timor as a separate nation. Indonesia also has its hands full with hundreds of independent minded Melanesian tribes in Papua (the western half of New Guinea).

Australia gets some help from other nations in the region, like New Zealand, Malaysia, Philippines and one of the few successful (well, mostly) Melanesian democracies in the region; Fiji. But, basically, the Australians are stuck with the problems. And there are lots of them. New Guinea (the eastern half of the island of New Guinea) is basically a failed state. Next door is the Solomons, and way to the east, Vanutu and Fiji. But the biggest problems are the Solomons and New Guinea (all of it). No one has come up with a quick solution to the problem. It's going to take education and economic development. Those two items are difficult to pull off without a stable government, and you need time, decades or generations, to develop good-government attitudes and habits.

Australia, without really wanting to, is being thrust in the vanguard of developing more effective peacekeeping and nation building techniques. Australia has to either succeed, or deal with perpetual anarchy off its northern coast.

 

 


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