Challenging the TRC’s findings - Solomon Star News

Challenging the TRC’s findings

24 June 2013

THE report of the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all five volumes, have been released unofficially by the editor of the report, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Terry M. Brown and uploaded to the internet for all to see and read.

Fr. Brown’s action in releasing the report has been variously described as un-procedural and illegal. 

Undoubtedly, the premature release contravened the provisions of the Truth and Reconciliation Act, but in today’s world of instant communications it is no use now crying over spilt milk, as the saying goes.   

Those eager to see the contents will have already accessed the documents irrespective of the legalities Fr. Brown might have been incurred.

Fr. Brown cited the fact that the Prime Minister had refused to pass on the report to Parliament, claiming at various time its large size and sensitivity.

Victims of the “ethnic tension, or “national ordeal,” as it also has been referred to, have reportedly welcomed the release of the report and, some, even praised Fr. Brown for having the “guts” to do it.

Fr. Brown has said the report is very accurate and comprehensive, but having seen the documents myself I do not fully share his conviction.

Let me clarify what I mean.

In Volume 1 of the report there is this comment by the Commission:

“Under-estimating the underlying issues of the unrest in rural Guadalcanal impeded a vigorous reaction of the police to resolve ethnic disputes and confront the rise in militant activity from the outset.

In the third Volume the Commission commented:

 “The TRC believes that the leadership of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force misjudged the situation when the conflict first began.  The violent uprising was prepared over months and as such was predictable, but no adequate measures were taken to prevent it.

“Among police officers and executives, ethnic allegiances prevailed over institutional loyalty.”

In another part of the TRC’s Report there is the following statement, referring to the contents of a letter that I had presented to the Chairman:

“Short’s appreciation of the situation, however, is not shared unanimously by all the executives of the RSIPF.  A high ranking officer interviewed by the TRC is still convinced that Guadalcanal militants could have been militarily defeated an early stage of the tension with a more aggressive attitude.”   It then goes on by quoting (the unnamed high ranking police officer) as saying:

“My officers were very capable officers.  They were all trained by Australia, New Zealand and the US Military.  If they were properly utilized at that time the situation would have been contained at an early stage.”

These findings I refute as the primary arguer, the TRC, has not established a prima facie case and such findings and statements are not based on either factual evidence or on a proper weighting of the probabilities.

The word ‘leadership’ itself is vague and there is ambiguity in its meaning.

A vital question that must be posed, however, is whether the TRC complied with its statutory duties when it came to assessing the evidence I gave to the Commission and whether it upheld its obligations in making its findings in accordance with established legal principles.

The TRC was not a court of law, but it was a commission of inquiry and accordingly it was obliged to make defensible findings according to established legal principles. 

I make the case that it did not take adequate account of all the relevant evidence I presented, verify the testimony I presented, give adequate and fair reasons for its findings or uphold the principles of justice.

1 Taking adequate account of all the relevant evidence

I had taken much time and care in preparing my testimony for the Commission and presented the TRC with two comprehensive volumes of evidence from which I gave oral testimony when I appeared before the Commissioners. 

The TRC did not take adequate account of my evidence.

2. Upholding basic principles of justice

Established legal principles required the TRC to comply with the basic rule of audi alteram partem, but in making a decision clearly detrimental to my role as Commissioner of Police, based on the information given by an unnamed police officer, I argue that I should have been granted an opportunity to make representations or to have submitted other rebuttal evidence.

Even in the common law, ‘persons and bodies (statutory and other) have to observe the rules of natural justice by acting in a fair manner.

The audi alteram partem rule further requires that both sides of a story should not only be ascertained but they should also be taken into proper account.

Whether the principle of nemo judex in sua causa was properly upheld by the TRC, in respect of my testimony, might also be questionable.

The rule requires that those called to adjudicate between parties have no link with either side.

When I gave my evidence in a closed session hearing before the TRC one of the Commissioner’s was absent and three, including the Chairman, were Solomon Islanders, with another, the Deputy Chairman, from Peru.

In a society where the culture of “wantok” exists how much weight was placed on the statement made by the unnamed Solomon Islander police officer than that of my own as a foreigner?

3.  Giving reasons for findings

The TRC, as a statutory commission, was required to give its findings on a balance of probabilities and had to show, as a minimum, the basis on which it weighed the probabilities and came to its findings of fact. 

I consider, in respect of the findings and statements I have highlighted, the TRC omitted to do so.

The  absence, in my view, of proper reasoning, makes it difficult to accept the findings or to assess how well the TRC fulfilled its obligations to carefully weigh competing evidence, and then to base it rulings on a balance of probabilities.

Having dealt with some of the legal aspects of my rebuttal of the TRC’s findings let me now expand my claim.

The basis of good leadership lies in having an honourable character and selfless service to one’s organization and I believe that I had those qualities.

I also had a strong sense of direction and a vision for the future. 

I did not, personally, misjudge or under-estimate the underlying issues of unrest in rural Guadalcanal or fail to give a response to militant activity.

I illustrate my point by giving several examples.

In my testimony to the TRC I quoted this letter that I had given to the Prime Minister as early as November 1998.

“There is a political dimension to the whole situation and this must be addressed in the shortest possible time frame if we are not to see growing militancy that could cause untold damage to national unity and inter-island relations, let alone serious infringements of the criminal law.  There is a need for an effective and reliable, trustworthy police service capable of providing accurate and informed intelligence on which to base advice and action.  The situation cannot be allowed to continue and the police service is coming under increased pressure to deal with crime trends, let alone having to deal with politically motivated activities that seem to develop from misinformation and a lack of national unity and provincial loyalties.  Despite the often lack of in-depth intelligence, this report must be taken with seriousness and looked at in the political context to avoid an escalation of the situation.”

The letter was not acknowledged either by the Prime Minister or any government Minister or official.

I might add at this point that when I did get an opportunity of raising my concerns in a report to the Cabinet in which I outlined the formation of the GRA, the Foreign Minister, Patteson Oti, scoffed at the suggestion and simply got up from the table and walked out of the room.

Back to the letter and what prompted it?

Regular special branch reports that I had sighted provided early evidence of a series of actions that indicated a growing threat to national security.

The first forced evacuations and raids on mainly Malaitan plantation workers and their families occurred in the northern plains to the east of Honiara, including Tasimboko and Malango.

Similar reports started filtering through from other parts of the isolated Weather Coast and at Tambea and Lambi Bay.

The instances at Tasimboko were first thought to have been of a domestic nature but our view quickly changed when we had evidence of beatings and damage to properties.

Much earlier in 1998 Premier Alebua made an inflammatory speech during the occasion of Guadalcanal’s Appointed Day at Ruavatu High School.

On that occasion he said Guadalcanal land had been stolen from its people.

He made another inflammatory speech re-stating the same a couple of months or so later.

These incidences alone rang alarm bells because I had a clear idea of what might follow in a society where pay back has a significant impact.

I was also deeply troubled because of heading a demoralized and wholly un-resourced police force after years of neglect by its leaders and by successive governments, but all the more because of the ethnic make-up of the force personnel.

I could sense real trouble ahead.

I therefore totally reject the TRC findings that the situation was misjudged when the conflict first began and I reject, also, the statement that “no adequate measures were taken to prevent it.”

The TRC was established to examine the root causes of the uprising and it has taken until now, 2013, to come up with some relatively clear answer of the primary reasons.  I had a clear vision of the causes from the onset and made my concerns known to the Prime Minister in my carefully worded letter to him.

Because the RSIPF was in such bad shape and incapable of handling any serious threats to security, I instigated an early Strategic Review of the Solomon Islands security needs by the Australian Government in early 1998, albeit for diplomatic niceties the review was conducted by Australia at the request of the Solomon Islands Government – again a matter the TRC has failed to acknowledge

 That review was conducted by Professor Stewart Woodman a senior defence analyst and adviser of considerable experience and international repute on the then staff of the Australian National University (ANU).

He was ably assisted by a seconded superintendent of the Australian Federal Police.

At the end of their lengthy investigation of the Island’s security situation needs, Professor Woodman summed up the then security situation by saying in his report:

 “The level of serious criminal activity throughout the country remains low.”

Could it be said that Professor Woodman had also “underestimated” or “misjudged” the unrest in rural Guadalcanal? 

As the report was handed to the Prime Minister in April 1999 when ethnic unrest was really troublesome, perhaps it could be argued there was an underestimation and misjudgment of the then reality of the situation.

Again, the TRC appears to have overlooked that very early on in the unfolding situation, I personally conveyed Premier Alebua to Tambea and Visale where, in his presence and that of Dorothy Wickham of the SIBC, I spoke to the community leaders and appealed to them to help put an end to the spate of attacks on Malaitan workers.

I followed this with an address on the national radio appealing for an end to the violence.

Did my personal intervention help?   The answer is no.

In the days that followed, in the very same Tambea area, a security guard was murdered by the GRA because he had allegedly given the police some information.

This case highlighted the pay back concerns and all the more so because the deceased had been a wantok of those that killed him.

In December 1998 there was a pre-dawn raid on Yandina Police Station by Harold Keke, Joseph Sangu and other GRA members when the police armoury was forced open and weapons stolen.

A month later there was a shoot out on Bungana Island when the same group of militants involved in the raid on the Yandina Police Station beached their craft while on route to Tulagi in search of more police weapons.

The shoot out resulted in the death of Ishmael Pada by a rogue policeman who was under suspension at the time.

This constable was arrested, tried and sent to prison for 12 months for manslaughter.  A full investigation was conducted at my request by detectives of the New Zealand Police.   A prompt response to a tragic case.

Keke and Sangu were subsequently released on bail by the Honiara Chief Magistrate despite facing very serious criminal charges, including attempted murder.

This miscarriage of justice, in my view, allowed both Keke and Sangu to re-engage in their criminal pursuits.

If they had been kept in custody and tried and convicted the insurgency could well have ended in the early part of 1999.

The TRC criticism refers to what is said to have been “no adequate measures were taken to prevent it” (alluding to the onset of the conflict).   Emphatically, not true despite the police’s inadequate resources, including equipment.

It was true we needed better intelligence and I said as much in my letter to the PM.  What the TRC again failed to address was the fact I attempted to recruit three senior ex-Royal Hong Kong Police Special Branch Officers to assist our ill-resourced SB.

Contracts were drafted and sent to the three potential recruits and they were signed and exchanged, only to find the government had no money to fund their recruitment.

I referred to this in my resignation letter which I had presented to the Commission when testifying.

The very few detectives we had in the security branch had no transport or covert means of gathering intelligence on which to base reports.

Our capacity to fully know what was occurring in the communities on the Weather Coast was handicapped by their inability to travel and further handicapped by the isolation of the area and the ever present “wantok” problem.

 The TRC was right to find the rural community generally supported the aims of the GRA and had “spies” in the community, including young children.

Any Malaitan SB officer entering GRA controlled territory would have “stuck out like a sore thumb,” so to say, and could well have been in danger.

This is not to say several brave officers didn’t risk attempting to penetrate the trouble spots.

The TRC findings are extremely disappointing in respect of their incorrect assumptions about my leadership role in understanding the onset of the crisis and their failure to have taken on board what I personally did to deal with the crisis.

I concede that officers of my then executive, in the broader definition of the ‘leadership,’ with the exception of the Director of the Special Branch, were swayed in their loyalty and duty to the nation by their ethnic allegiances, but also as I have outlined in my memoirs, published in full recently by Solomon Times, the top executives, including the Deputy Commissioner, begrudged my appointment failing their own bid for the top job.

They made it quite clear they were simply waiting for a “pay out” to leave the force on retirement.

I did my utmost to encourage their support but there was always the suspicion in my mind that they resented an expatriate appointee to the post.

Turning now to this finding in particular, an unfair one, as I see it in the TRC’s report which reads:

“Short’s appreciation of the situation, however, is not shared unanimously by all the executives of the RSIPF.  A high ranking officer interviewed by the TRC is still convinced that Guadalcanal militants could have been militarily defeated at an early stage of the tension with a more aggressive attitude.”  It goes on quoting this unnamed ‘high ranking police officer.’–

“My officers were very capable officers.  They were all trained by Australia, New Zealand and the US Military.  If they were properly utilized at that time the situation would have been contained at an early stage.”

Why the veil of secrecy?   Was it too difficult, or fair, for the TRC not to name the person interviewed?

From the specific comments of this unnamed senior officer the TRC report quotes, I can judge who made the remarks, allegedly Michael Wheatley, the NRSF Commander, and I can say his penchant solely for arms training for the personnel under his charge was not shared by the New Zealand military when I was taken aside during mutual aid talks in that country.

In fact, it was during those talks that I arranged for New Zealand Military Police officers to provide us with more balanced training support for the NRSF.

From what I’ve already said, there were those in the executive who seemed to resent or work against my policies. 

Let me quote just two examples I cited in testimony to the TRC.

Morton Sireheti, the Deputy Commissioner, was extremely angry that I would not promote officers whom he had selected on the recommendations of a promotion board which he had presided over.

I found out that his selections had borrowed considerably sums of money from a fund providing for welfare money for the members of the force generally, but they had never repaid any of the cash borrowed after a considerable time, even years.

The Chairman of the Police and Prison Service Commission, to whom I referred the matter, and who happened to be the Chief Justice, agreed with me.

Sireheti never spoke to me again, shutting himself away in his adjoining office; refused to sign the handing over notes I prepared for him as I was leaving, and not even bidding me farewell on departure.

There were other issues concerning him of more serious concern which I reported to the TRC but for now must remain confidential.

Wilfred Akao, who was the Chief Superintendent and Operations Commander, wanted me to release police weapons from the armoury to the beleaguered members of the Malaitan community to enable them to protect themselves, as he put it.  

His request was ridiculous and would have been quite illegal, but coming from such a senior member of the police executive one simply had to wonder about his loyalties and his mindset.

Now, back to why the TRC reported that my appreciation of the (security) situation was not shared unanimously by all the executives of the RSIPF.

Well, I had given this letter to the Commission’s Chairman.

“Dear Father Ata,

“One of your Commissioners’ put the question to me today at our meeting that I should have used the armed NRSF to put down the militancy.

“The question was fair and needed to be raised, but I would like to, once again, say why it was not a realistic or feasible option.

“The police were used to respond to militant attacks and given arms for self-protection but it became highly risky and dangerous since their vehicles often came under fire from a “faceless” enemy concealed in the thick bush alongside the roads in the higher terrain.

“Policemen deployed on such missions had no protective clothing and their vehicles were also open and limited to carrying just a handful of personnel.  Logistically, the RSIPF was devoid of sufficient and adequate transport, as well as personnel.

“The sea going maritime craft supplied and maintained by the Australians could not be used for operational duties demanded by the nature and scope of the militancy

“The government realized, albeit too late, the need for a political solution to the unfolding crisis and sought the intervention of the Commonwealth.

“The Australians despite their non-intervention had judged correctly that the RSIPF was not equipped, logistically, numerically and provisioned to take on the faceless militants who were capable of hit and run tactics avoiding the police easily.

“There was substantial evidence that the core militants were being manipulated and encouraged by power hungry politicians and by their fellow travellers amongst the ranks of the failed politicians.

“The reasoning was to have used the NRSF the chances were that one element of their ranks would have turned on the other and this could have provoked an all out civil war.

“There was highly reliable intelligence given to our close development partners well in advance of the scale of militancy that it became and they failed to help or render practical aid.

“In the absence of external aid the RSIPF was not able, for the reasons I have explained at length, to take on the militants without incurring great loss of life, including police, provoking a civil war and forever destroying the possibility of future co-existence between the population groups,

“External intervention when it came relatively quickly put down the insurgency but one had to witness the arrival of huge quantities of logistical supplies, boats, vehicles, aircraft, soldiers, communications etc., to understand what the RSIPF lacked to even risk using the NRSF.

“I hope that I have made the position clear by highlighting these points and I stand by my decision not to have deployed the NRSF.”

Before submitting that letter, in giving oral testimony and recorded in the TRC’s report, I said:

“At a time when the Commonwealth Envoy was attempting to broker a peace settlement and the government had offered to make S$2.5 million payment to the self-styled GRA in return to end the conflict and was awaiting Guadalcanal province’s next move, it seemed expedient to me not provoke the situation by ordering all out assaults on the road blocks, but to try and await a peaceful outcome.”

This statement and my letter to Father Ata appears to have prompted the TRC to conclude : “underestimating the underlying issues of the unrest in rural Guadalcanal impeded a vigorous reaction of the police to end ethnic disputes and confront the rise in militant activity from the outset”   A totally unfounded finding not based on the evidence or fact.

“My long experience had taught me in similar security situations overseas that an over-reaction would have had far-reaching and hugely negative results as proved to be the case after I left and new police management adopted a combatant ill-informed direction when dealing with the insurgency.

I will illustrate my point with just one quote, but there are many other examples that were witnessed and can be quoted.

“Extract from the testimony of Mr. Alick Saeni, Public Hearing, Buma, 3 May 2011.

“Once the RSIPF began aggressive actions, they often over-reacted and used heavy handed tactics that inflamed the situation and reinforced community concerns that officers’ were biased and ineffective.

“The police deployed its RRU to selected positions in north and northeast Guadalcanal in search of militant strongholds and to protect economic key areas like the Gold Ridge Mine, where the TRC received statements denouncing abusive behavior of police officers against workers of the company and villagers from surrounding communities.

“During the tension I was employed at the Gold Ridge Mine.  I worked as a barman in the company’s pub.  Not long after the militant activities started the Police Field Force (the NRSF?” (my words) were deployed to provide security for the company, they had sent over seventy plus officers and they were armed.  The police treated us badly.  They accused us of being members of the GRA.  I told them that we were not members of the GRA, we were employed here and have no part in the militancy.”

Let that brief illustration from just one person who gave evidence to the TRC underscore my initial concerns in deploying the NRSF (Field Force), made up of mainly Malaitan police officers.

I find it unconvincing; too, that the TRC failed to connect the initial uprising to the reported involvement of politicians who had tried to oust the SIAC government after successive attempts had failed by way of Motions of No Confidence. 

The TRC report merely concludes that Ulufa’alu had put forward this theory.

If indeed there was an under-estimation of the unfolding situation, as claimed, then it was by the politicians who first ignited the fuse that set off the “ethnic unrest” by their politicking and who misjudged the reactions that followed, to the extent they were unable to prevent the wild fire that ensued.

I might add, also, that Prime Minister Ulufa’alu ,while respecting the operational independence of my role as Police Commissioner, was totally opposed to dividing the nation by a heavy handed use of “military” police  deployment and I shared his real concerns.

I believe it is pertinent to mention, too, that had the Solomon Islands not abandoned the former British Colonial system of administration that had successfully functioned for many years prior to the nation’s Independence, the ethnic divisions over land rights and settlement that first surfaced in the remoter regions of the Weathercoast might well have been dealt with on the spot and effectively nipped in the bud.

For whatever reason the TRC failed to acknowledge the huge effort I put into the introduction of community policing and why I believed it was important from a national security point of view for the police to have their eyes and ears on the ground.

Even before officially taking up my appointment as the Police Commissioner I took the initiative of visiting the Singapore Police Force where I obtained the backing of the Singapore Police Commissioner, Mr. Koo Boon Hui, to help train selected members of the RSIPF in community policing. 

On assuming my appointment in the Solomons, several senior members of the RSIPF, including the Deputy Commissioner, the Commander of the Rapid Response Unit and Superintendent Leslie Mason from the Western Province, attended such training courses in both Singapore and Japan.

My work in achieving my aims of extending community policing across the nation was frustrated in large measure, however, by a lack of money, resources, equipment and personnel.

My conclusion, regrettably, because I have been a great advocate for the TRC, is that if the Commission could get it so wrong in their findings about my leadership role, then how much more will there be disappointment, disagreement and dispute about the TRC’s final report.

By Frank Short
Former Commissioner of Police
Bangkok, Thailand