Preparations are being made in the Solomon Islands for the mid-year transfer of power from the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) intervention force, which has policed the islands since 2003 after the country’s civil unrest, to the Royal Solomon Island Police Force (RSIPF).
Part of this restoration of full sovereignty in the Solomon Islands involves reestablishing international security cooperation to combat criminal activity, and the country is presently in the process of organizing an agreement with Indonesia. A draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Royal Solomon Island Police Force (RSIPF) and the Indonesian National Police was discussed at recent meetings within the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) structure, and it is expected to be signed soon.
The MoU involves cooperation in preventing, detecting, and combating trafficking of illicit drugs, smuggling, trafficking in persons, money laundering, arms smuggling, cyber crime, international and economic crime, and corruption. There are also plans for Indonesian police to be involved in the continued training of the RSIPF.
However, this cooperation between the Solomon Islands and Indonesia has not come without some controversy. The Solomon Islands is a staunch supporter of the West Papuan movement for self-determination and a consistent critic of human rights abuses by Indonesian police and military in the region, and cooperation with the Indonesian National Police, particularly in regards to training, may be seen to be in conflict with these positions.
Presently the tensions between the Melanesian states and Indonesia over West Papua are playing out within the Melanesian Spearhead Group. The MSG was established in 1988 as a forum to cooperate on issues of regional importance to the Melanesian states and peoples. The membership of the MSG consists of the four Melanesian sovereign states — Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu — as well as the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), a political party in New Caledonia that seeks independence from France. Alongside these full members Indonesia has associate membership status, and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) has observer status.
Indonesia’s participation in the group rests not only on West Papua’s status as a Melanesian region, but several other Indonesian islands in the area that Jakarta claims have inhabitants of Melanesian ethnicity. There is some debate among anthropologists and linguists over this assessment.
In 2013 ULMWP applied to the MSG for full membership status, seeing their situation as similar to that of FLNKS. However, Indonesia has opposed this recognition of the organization, not wishing to give the group greater international credibility. The issue has caused divisions within the forum, with PNG and Fiji siding with Indonesia, and Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and FLNKS supporting ULMWP’s bid. The presence of Indonesia and ULMWP within the MSG seems to have had a disruptive effect on its mission of developing common positions on areas of regional interest.
Although Indonesia seeks to prevent greater recognition of ULMWP, the participation of both parties within the MSG makes it the only forum where Indonesia and the West Papuan independence movement are able to engage in any kind of dialogue, providing an opportunity for the two parties to engage in contact that would not be possible within Indonesia’s domestic structures.
Despite concerns that enhanced cooperation between Indonesian and the Solomon Island police would compromise their position on West Papua independence, Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Milner Tozaka has stated that the forthcoming MoU would fall under the existing bilateral relations with Indonesia and not undermine its stance. Tozaka has been keen to stress that the Solomon Islands maintains a good relationship with Indonesia, despite its position on West Papua. “We are at liberty to maintain our good relationship with any country,” he said. “Therefore in terms of policing, if the ministry of police and corrections see that this is in line with our policy and it is best for our Royal Solomon Islands Police Force that should be quite acceptable.”
The transition of the security forces back to the Solomon Islands’ government after 14 years will complete the normalization of the country. While RAMSI’s scheduled mid-year withdrawal indicates a confidence that the government will be able to maintain its internal security, some suspicion still remains within the country as to whether the government has the capacity to do so. However, alongside internal security, the Solomon Islands will also need to build its capacity to be able to cooperate on issues of security with its neighbors. This will mean that its relations with large regional states like Indonesia will need to be solid, and a balance will need to be struck between this reality and the Solomon Islands’ solidarity with West Papua.