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Policing a Clash of Cultures

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This is the first five chapters of a new book “Policing a Clash of Cultures” written by former Police Commissioner Englishman FRANK SHORT. The Sunday Star has been given permission to serialise the book in its upcoming issues.

Part 1: The "Happy Isles" - Right Place Wrong Time


Excerpt from my memoirs.

It seems appropriate to style this introduction as – The “Happy Isles” – Right Place Wrong Time.

In July 1997, I was appointed by the Solomon Islands Government to be the Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.

This entailed overseeing the policing of these ‘Happy Isles,’ an archipelago of 992 tropical islands which were regarded internationally, as a hidden paradise in the South Pacific.

My arrival in the Solomons coincided with the end of the Solomon Mamaloni administration and the ushering in of the Solomon Islands Alliance For Change (SIAC) Government led by Bartholomew Ulufa’ala.

I had spent most of my adult life in an exciting profession as a successful police officer in several countries, including Vanuatu and Hong Kong; so the Pacific region’s breathtaking tropical beauty, crystal clear waters and unique culture and friendliness of its people were all familiar to me.

I was excited by the prospect of two years in the Solomons.

I was not so familiar with the state of the economy, the political intrigues and the run down state of the police force. I had some prior knowledge of the government’s finances but only after my arrival did I discover the real plight of the Mamaloni Government’s accrued staggering debts of $US200 million.

Added to the problem was the fact that revenue collection was insufficient to meet salaries, which then accounted for 50 per cent of government expenditure.

I quickly realised my new job could become a volunteer position very quickly.

From the initial prospect of a bright future, coupled with a determination to succeed in revitalising the police force and gain community support in aiding the police to meet expectations and fulfil their duties with professionalism, honesty and fairness: instead my time in office was beset by issues and events beyond my control.

I have written a book of my time and other related events in the Solomon Islands.

I expect to publish brief weekly segments to highlight how and why things went horribly wrong, revealing information for the first time, why my timely advice to the Solomon Islands Government and to regional governments might have prevented the civil war that occurred after my departure.

I did not disappear, but instead maintained close contact with the Solomon Islands and its people and now feel that it is time for hidden events and actions to surface for all to see and understand.

Part 2: The selection process

It was back in October 1996 when all this started. I had first seen an ad in the British ‘Police Review,’ calling for candidates for the then vacant post of Police Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force in the south Pacific.

Time moved on, situations likewise; a resume and application to the UK recruiting agent; the Overseas Police Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London were submitted.

A month passed and then a letter arrived acknowledging my application and advising me that it had been sent to the British High Commission in Honiara for forwarding to the Government of the Solomon Islands.

With the letter came a set of ‘In Country’ notes giving an accurate account of life in the South Seas – much different from the movie ‘South Pacific.’

The writer of those notes certainly had both a sense of humour and the desire to inform accurately about the climate conditions and health risks: constant reference to mosquitoes, malaria, hookworm and other forms of health affecting problems were prominent in the notes.

These notes were silent regarding the political situation as I was to find out soon enough.
The constant references to the prevailing health risks were enough, I thought, to put off the average English policeman seeking the Police Commissioner’s job and think, instead, of finding work in healthier places at home like, Eastbourne or Skegness.

In my case, going back to my original roots was not that simple as I had worked overseas for a lengthy period.

Once you travel from your home base for more than a year things change. You have moved on, so to say, and have experienced different situations and different lifestyles and cultures in foreign lands.

Those who stayed home have stayed put. Your experiences are not theirs.

You have lost touch with the local goings on, the TV series, the soccer league, even the weather: you have little to talk about with the neighbours: your focus points are in other countries – mention an episode somewhere else in the world during casual conversation and you get different kinds of looks, including resentment.

How can you chat about Mafeking in South Africa where Colonel Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts organisation made his mark on history in a long forgotten war?

Bring up meeting the original Suzy Wong in Wanchai, Hong Kong, the heroine of the 1950’s book and later movie.

Being able to talk knowledgeably about the site of the plane crash of Dag Hammarskjold, the late UN Secretary-General, simply because you were stationed in Ndola in Central Africa after the crash happened.

The conversation tends to lag after the updates on ‘who is now married to whom, who is now divorced, who is now dead, who lives where’…….

Time continued apace until February 1997, when I received a fax telling me I had been selected for an interview by phone due to take place the next day at around 7.45 pm Honiara time.
Right on time the call came.

I was impressed by the polite and friendly approach of the various interviewing panel members, along with their searching questions.

In fact I didn’t know until later that the chairperson on the phone was Sir Peter Kenilorea KBE., PC who had been the Solomon’s first Prime Minister after Independence and then the Ombudsman … a gentleman.

The interview went smoothly and it felt both sides of the discussion, questions and answers went well.

It was noticeable that the panel had done their homework about me. The overall feeling was good – it felt as if were on the same page with the conversation; certainly not a waste of time.

Naturally, there were other candidates – five from the UK and ten or more applicants from the senior ranks of the local police force.

Time went on in its relentless way, as anyone familiar with the Solomon Islands will understand, and several more weeks passed before a late night phone call came from Joses Sanga, the then Secretary to the Prime Minister, the late Solomon Mamaloni.

“I had the job if I still wanted it,” was the basis of his message.

On the surface I should have jumped at it as I knew the region from my previous police experience when serving in Vanuatu, but at the time when it was referred to as the New Hebrides.

I needed time to consider because I knew the government of the Solomon Islands was in serious debt and unable to meet its commitments.


Part 3: Considerations

I eventually accepted the job as Police Commissioner but only after very careful consideration and perhaps there was the detection of a hint of relief in Joses Sangu’s voice when I did agree to take the job.

My concerns had centred on several issues. The Solomon Islands was then in serious economic decline.

Three quarters of the population were involved in mainly rural pursuits, fishing and farming. Logging the export mainstay, was at the point of over exploitation and the industry was in danger of becoming unsustainable unless re-planting occurred.

The biggest potential was the vast Pacific Ocean and a start had been made here by the Japanese who had built a cannery in the Western Province to process tuna caught by their offshore fleets.

However, the cannery was in an ‘iffy’ situation and facing fierce competition as other Island nations were bidding for the foreign fishing fleets and their catches.

The local Solomon’s press also updated me as to why a new Police Commissioner was needed.

It seemed that local recruitment to the position over the last fifteen years had not met the expected standard and that to regain credibility the government had decided that the post of Police Commissioner was going to revert to an experienced expatriate for the next two years.
A clear definition one would suppose.

Yes, there were others who thought themselves more qualified or indeed more capable of doing the job: and yes that situation would soon be met – indeed face to face in some instances.

However, I sensed that I had been pre-selected for a purpose – that of bringing the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force back up to the standard it once held.

My past experience in other related positions around the world told me this new posting was going to be a challenge – and then some.

Standards associated with the old British Colonial Service had been integrity, dedication and honest forthrightness; principles that appeared to have slipped in the vastness of the Solomon Islands group.

The old Colonial service tended to think how our traditions of rule of law and fair government had to be upheld first and foremost.

We brought along those we thought to be honest, capable people to run things as we drew back: a wary eye was kept on those ‘locals’ who professed Independence but underneath were more often self-seeking.

Many of Britain’s former colonies and overseas possessions had occurred because of accidental colonisation. Accidental trading came first and then expanded in line with other of its possessions.

The Solomon Islands were a perfect example of accidental colonisation, firstly by the Spanish when, in 1568, the Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana, named the islands “Isles of Solomon”, after discovering gold, believed to have belonged to King Solomon.

The fact is however, the islands had been inhabited for around 5000 years before the European discovery was made -- according to historians.

Honiara had become the national capital on the island of Guadalcanal in replacement of the original capital of Tulagi after World War 2.

From about the 1950’s both the Solomon’s economy and population expanded. Ocean fishing fleets arrived to use Honiara as a base, local timber exports expanded. Buildings were constructed and other entities grew.

The economy began to flourish and job seekers began to migrate to the capital from the provinces.

However, the migration of many Maliatans to the more prosperous island of Guadalcanal also increased.

Their culture and traditions differ largely from those of the indigenous Guadalcanal people. Over time clashes occurred and other problems surfaced.

Land ownership being one of the biggest concerns – who sold what to whom – where was the written proof. Add intermarriage and therefore inter property and ownership rights.

Another important factor now became one of age. Most of the population were under 30 years old, unemployed, with limited education, or none at all; unwanted.

Some lived rural lives, but increasingly urban and in mushrooming informal settlements on the outskirts of Honiara.

Cultural clashes, old traditions trying to move with the times; or rejecting them – all needed strong government and wealth. These last two needs were basically missing.

And there was one already smoking gun that at the time of my arrival that was neither really thought about nor understood…….

It was finally the hint that the government had embarked on structural adjustments to find remedies to the plight of the government’s coffers, that persuaded me to accept the job.

Part 4: Seeking Support

Once I had accepted the Commissioner’s job in 1997, I knew that I would have my work cut out and I felt it important that I get as much help as possible in aiding the work of the policemen and policewomen of the Solomon Islands.

It wasn’t so much a sense of compulsion but my cumulative experience and many years of police service in other overseas territories that led me to know that police training, development support and technical assistance would most likely feature highly on my forthcoming agenda.

I knew that Britain, through the auspices of its Department of Overseas Development, had an advisory and support service providing for restructuring, man management and training in specialised and technical fields; it also offered advice on police development projects.

I had in mind to seek British help once the opportunity of assessing local policing requirements in the Solomons had been completed.

With an expected appointment date just two weeks away, I began a serious study of the history, culture and customs of the Solomon Islands, as well as the government system, religion, health and way of the people.

It became obvious pretty quickly, that apart from the economic woes I had read about, there was widespread unemployment, urban drift and a high population growth: concerns exacerbated all the more by the fact that the country had experienced serious incursions and hostilities on its border with Bougainville.

Paying my own way, I opted to visit Singapore and Canberra in order to liaise and to seek support from the Singapore Police Force and the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

My particular interest in Singapore centered on the overwhelming success the Singapore Police Force had achieved in community policing, with a lessening of crime each year since 1983.

I met with the Commissioner of Police, Mr Koo Boon Hui, and he offered to help with training in community policing.

I left Singapore with assurances that the Singapore Police Force would pay for and train selected local officers from the Solomons in community policing, both in Singapore and in Japan.

Having successfully obtained the promise of help from Singapore, I optimistically travelled to Canberra to seek support from the Australian Federal Police, whom I thought best able to help a neighbouring police force in Australia’s strategic back yard.

Unfortunately, the visit to the AFP was totally disappointing. I received what can best be described as the ‘cold shoulder.’

The Pacific Islands Liaison Officer, Superintendent John Murray, who met me on arrival at the AFP headquarters ushered me into a meeting room filled with a group of people I assumed to have been other AFP officers.

After a brief introduction, Murray asked me to say why I was seeking help from the AFP. I had hardly begun to explain when Murray interrupted and said from enquiries he had made; based on my job application and CV, my qualifications and experience were unsuitable for the Commissioner’s job in the Solomon Islands.

I was taken aback by his unfounded statements and made my feelings known. I was astounded by his unprofessional behaviour; especially since my application for the job and my CV had only been sent to the British High Commission in Honiara for forwarding to the Solomon Islands Government.

On what authority had Murray obtained copies of those documents and on who’s authority, and why, had Murray and the AFP carried out vetting on me?

I left the AFP headquarters feeling bitterly disappointed and, unlike my reception in Singapore, came away with no support whatsoever from Canberra.

Murray’s criticism of me didn’t stop at that. When he eventually retired from the AFP he published a book in which he repeated his claims as to my unsuitability for the job.

His actions in putting into print his earlier opinions contravened what surely was forbidden in the AFP’s Police Act and Regulations.

Any information sourced or obtained in the course of official enquiries, must remain confidential and any unauthorised release or publication of such information a punishable offence.

It was not until 1998, nearly a year after I had been in the job in the Solomons, that the then AFP’s Deputy Commissioner, Adrian Whiddett, when addressing a Pacific Chiefs of Police Conference in Nadi, Fiji, which I was attending, said, “Frank Short passed us the ball but we dropped it.”

In the months following Nadi, Deputy Commissioner Whiddet contacted all Australian police forces and collected surplus police uniform items and equipment which he sent to me. Given the shortage of such items they were readily utilided.

Later when I left the Solomon Islands, I paid a courtesy visit to the AFP in Canberra to thank Mr Whiddet for his generous assistance.

After leaving his office, I received the following compliment from Terry Allan, the successor to Murray as the Pacific Islands Liaison Officer: “You achieved alone in the Solomons what we in the AFP could not achieve in PNG having spent A$60 million on aiding the police there.”

From the two comments made above, one wishes that only if the same level of understanding and support had been reached at the beginning of my tour, how much more successful would have been the changes for the better in the resources and training of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force?

Such, alas, is history.

Part 5: Getting there

The Solomon Airlines scheduled passenger jet throttled back slightly as it started to descend slowly on this Saturday afternoon in July 1997.

Frank Short, the newly designated Police Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was about to take up his contract post with the Solomon Islands Government.

If only he knew then what the future would unfold…….

It was a three hour flight from Brisbane, Australia, to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific. Settled in his comfortable business class seat, he looked out of the window as the plane continued its slow descent finding the glide path to his future home.

The azure, one colour tropical sea started to form distinct shades. Deep water blue offset with shallow water lighter blue. It looked so tranquil; yet below the surface laid the ageing remains of a less peaceful and tranquil past.

My mind raced back to the time of WWII when, in 1942, Japanese Imperial troops had invaded and occupied Guadalcanal, occasioning one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Western Pacific.

It was only when the casualty lists started filtering through that people worldwide; especially in the United States, started to pay attention, for very few had ever heard of the Solomon Islands.

The battle of “Bloody Ridge” became synonymous with a great loss of life, both Japanese and American troops when U.S forces, led by Colonel Merritt Edson defended the ridge against the Japanese, attempting to capture the nearby airfield.

Japanese and American losses had exceeded 40,000 men on Guadalcanal, mostly dead: survival rates amongst the wounded were poor due to the climate and the Japanese perchance for suicide over surrender

The U.S. forces eventually triumphed and the battle weary 1st US Marine Division withdrew when the war ended.

The Solomon Islands again became mostly forgotten. The British Colonial Administration returned and continued: self government arrived in 1976, followed by independence two years later.

British expatriate support in various degrees continued but funds from the former Colonial mentor could not be sustained and, basically, the Solomon Islands were left on their own.

Some notable academics have said that the Solomon Islands were ill-prepared for Independence in 1978 and I believe this to be true in the light of subsequent happenings, but more of this…….

Now a wing dipped, the flaps came out and down and buildings below came in sight. The hilly slopes were much browner than I had expected to find, giving the impression there had been little rain.

The river courses snaked out ground divides, producing deep valleys with evidence of sporadic and ribbon like buildings, some very shanty in appearance, stretching all along the narrow coastal edge into the far distance.

I could now visualize with real clarity from a thousand feet or so above the thickly wooded ridges and tall grasses, just how difficult it must have been to move through the terrain, fight hot humid conditions and an often unseen enemy and still survive.

American, Japanese and Solomon Islanders had left the imprint of WWII both on and under the ground: now close to seventy one years later, disappearing into memory and name changes.

Now the wings started to shake slightly – a shudder here and there, a downdraft, an updraft as the plane reached warmer air; a rattle in the cabin galley and then the sound of the flaps as they made a slight grinding, whining noise as they were lowered and extended; wheels gave a slight thump as they dropped and locked into the landing position for landing.

One wheel touched down, then the other, followed by sound of reverse thrusters and the de-acceleration moving us forward against our seat belts.

We had arrived at the original legendary Henderson Airfield, named after Marine Major Lofton R Henderson, an American dive bomber squadron commander who lost his life and earned the US Navy Cross at the battle of Midway.

To be continued...