In recent years, the Pacific has not been an ocean of peace. After a generally harmonious transition from European colonialism to independence, a number of the small Pacific island states have been plagued by internal conflict.
The largest of the Pacific island states, Papua New Guinea, having withstood the challenge of regional separatist groups in Papua and in Bougainville on the eve of independence, faced a rebellion on Bougainville from 1988 to 1997 (and is still in the process of implementing a peace agreement) and has seen an escalation of local-level inter-group fighting in the central highlands over the past two decades. Fiji became the first Pacific island state to have a military coup, in 1987, and continues to suffer the effects of racially-based tensions. In the Solomon Islands, ethnic divisions contributed to an outbreak of violence on the island of Guadalcanal in 1998, which culminated in the effective collapse of government two years later. Vanuatu’s transition to independence was marred by a separatist rebellion on the island of Santo, and although it has enjoyed a relatively peaceful history since 1980 it has had to survive more than one constitutional crisis. In New Caledonia, independence demands by the indigenous kanak people resulted in violent confrontation between pro- and anti-independence groups in the 1980s, and New Caledonia remains a French dependency.
While each of these cases is, to some extent, a unique reflection of particular historical and other circumstances, there are some recurring features of the internal conflicts, which largely derive from the fragmented nature of the pre-colonial societies and/or ethnic divisions created by the influx of settler populations during the colonial period, and the absence, in all these cases, of a developed sense of national (as opposed to local) identity.
This paper will briefly describe the nature of the conflicts in each of the four states and one territory listed above, and the processes of conflict resolution in each. It will then attempt to identify what features are common and what are unique in the five cases, and to suggest some lessons from their experience, which might be relevant to conflict and peace-making elsewhere.