Australia remembers its first victim of ethnic violence

THE streets of Canberra will be lined with mourning people this week for a funeral that has implications for the country’s foreign policy. The funeral procession will carry the body of the first Australian peace keeper killed in the nearby Solomon Islands. The unarmed policeman, Adam Dunning, 26, was shot in the back by a sniper in Honiara, the capital of the Pacific nation that has descended into chaos. While the death might appear insignificant against the loss of civilian and military life in Iraq, where Australia has troops, it has been a wake up call to the nation.

By Ross Peake

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Published: Thu 30 Dec 2004, 11:58 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:58 AM

The government of John Howard recognised last year that the Solomons was descending into anarchy after years of ethnic-based civil war. Canberra holds similar fears for its near northern neighbour, Papua New Guinea, which survives mostly on Australian aid dollars. The problems are more immediate in the Solomons, however, prompting Australian troops to head a multinational military operation to restore order. The heavily armed troops chased the members of the Malaitan Eagle Force ethnic militia out of Honiara, allowing members of the Australian Federal Police and police from other Pacific nations to step into the gap as peacekeepers.

The AFP goes unarmed as a signal of their benign intentions. While the Howard government was only too well aware of the dangers of the military operation, it knew that to do nothing would risk the Solomons becoming a haven for terrorists, right on Australia’s doorstep. In Iraq, Australian troops are not on the frontline and have suffered no casualties. In Honiara, the Australian troops and police are in the frontline but, with the conflict abating, the deployment has been relatively uneventful and has not been making news in Australia. Therefore, it came as an unpleasant shock when Dunning was gunned down by automatic rifle fire in the early hours of the morning last week. The callousness of the shooting rocked the ‘Lucky Country’. The hours immediately after the shooting were pivotal in shaping the community’s response.

The government decided, as expected, that it would not back down, in line with its policy for the deployments to Iraq, East Timor and other peace keeping operations. Therefore 100 crack troops were rushed to Honiara in a show of force against the hostile remnants of the ethnic militia. It may seem a belated action, but it is boosting the morale of the Solomon Islands police who fear violence from their fellow countrymen. In the wake of the shooting, the Solomon Islands police are complaining that they feel at risk because they do not have bullet proof vests. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has built his reputation on being tough. His decision to rush troops to the Solomons has reinforced that image. There has barely been time for the Australian community to consider the consequences of foreign policy. They were not given a choice on Australia joining the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Opinion polls showed a majority against that deployment. Similarly the government decided to bite the bullet on a ‘friendly invasion’ of the Solomons. Will the mood turn against Australia being a ‘regional sheriff’? Probably not, even though the echo of the rifle shot has resounded loudly and harshly around Australia. Voters Down Under have just re-elected Howard with a bigger majority in Parliament for another three year term. They are happy with his stewardship of the nation’s economy and security. As well, the rush deployment of troops is already paying dividends. One militia member, John Ome, has been caught and charged with murder. A dawn raid by Australian troops on a house on the outskirts of Honiara just missed a second suspect, James Tatau, also a member of the Malaitan Eagle Force. Tatau was arrested last year by the Australian-led law and order force and charged with violence and robbery offences. Ome is suspected of involvement in the shooting and wounding in October of another police officer.

Therefore, payback is the suspected motive for the murder of the police officer. While peace keeping forces are needed in troubled areas, there is always risk for their personnel. The unfortunate family of officer Dunning is now grief stricken. The citizens of Canberra are donning chequered blue and white ribbons -- the trademark sign for Australian police -- for the funeral of the country’s first, and hopefully last, victim of ethnic violence on the country’s doorstep.

Ross Peake is a Canberra-based political analyst

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