9 Sep 2013

Indonesia accused of buying Solomons vote over trip

4:25 pm on 9 September 2013

Indonesia is being accused of buying the support of Solomon Islands over the prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo's recent visit to that country.

Mr Lilo has faced strong criticism from civil society groups and others for not giving concrete reasons for the trip, as well as for the size and composition of the delegation that accompanied him.

But Mr Lilo has justified the visit, describing it as a breakthrough moment with benefits that will come in time.

Annell Husband reports:

Mr Lilo's lengthy justification in the Solomon Star newspaper, followed by the announcement that Indonesia has refunded the cost of the trip have done nothing to quiet the opposition. The Indonesian embassy in Canberra says it is still waiting for information on the transaction, but Solomon Islands' Central Bank has confirmed that US$171,000 from Indonesia was banked. It wasn't able to give details on exactly which agency the money came from and the Joint Civil Society Group says the supposed refund raises more questions than answers. The group's interim head, Barnabas Henson, says any advance on the remimbursment by Indonesia would have to comply with the Public Finance and Audit Act.

"BARNABAS HENSON: We've searched ourselves and we can't find anywhere that allows the prime minister to do that. So in fact it was, how we see it, it was actually a misappropriation of funds. It wasn't in compliance with any of these relevant legislations that guides how you could spend public money."

Mr Henson says in the absence of a formalised bilateral agreement with his country there are documents showing Mr Lilo has invited Indonesian investors to Solomon Islands. He says it appears Indonesia is using Mr Lilo to buy Solomon Islands' support for its stance on West Papua - something that will not go down well with either the Melanesian Spearhead Group or the Solomon Islands people.

BARNABAS HENSON: The question we've asked him is will the reimbursement and the invitation of the Indonesian investors into the country compromise the country's position on West Papua. He hasn't answered. He hasn't provided an answer on that. But I can assure you that the country is totally against Indonesia on the West Papua issue.

Barnabas Henson says his group is finalising a people's petition, to be circulated throughout Solomon Islands, calling on Mr Lilo to resign and a public forum on the issue is planned for Honiara in the next week. He says the call has solid backing and that rural people especially will not continue to tolerate a lack of government services in the face of questionable spending - as a recent talkback show indicated. Attempts to get an interview with Mr Lilo or a representative of his office have been unsuccessful. The Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii's Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka says the Solomon Islands government cannot afford expensive overseas engagements and the Indonesia trip is only one example.

TARCISIUS TARA KABUTAULAKA: Take for instance at the UN General Assembly meeting last year. There were about 20 people in the Solomon Islands delegation to the UN and it was quite expensive at that time. But we haven't figured out how we benefitted from that meeting.

Dr Kabutaulaka says now is the time for both a physical and ideological march on parliament.