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Australia Struggles to Promote Order in a Troubled Region


2006 was a bad year in Australia's South Pacific neighborhood, with violence and instability in several small nations. Australia sent troops and police officers to trouble spots around the region, but defense analysts are warning that Canberra's efforts to promote stability are being overwhelmed by events. Phil Mercer reports from Sydney.

Australia's neighborhood was a troubled one last year.

There was violence in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Tonga. There was tension in parts of Papua New Guinea, or P.N.G., as it is known.

A military coup last month robbed Fiji of its elected government. Fiji's army leadership on Thursday handed executive control back to the president who was ousted in the coup, but made it clear that this did not represent a weakening of the army's position. Re-instating President Ratu Josefa Iloilo merely clears the way for a government chosen by the military.

The worry in Canberra is that unstable island states like Fiji could be exploited by terrorists or organized criminals. Australia sent hundreds of soldiers and police officers to the region's trouble spots in 2006 in an attempt to restore order, with mixed results at best.

Analysts such as Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, say Prime Minister John Howard's government is struggling to cope with so much regional volatility.

"2006 was a bad year in the Pacific, with East Timor and the Solomon Islands and problems in P.N.G. and Tonga and Fiji," he said. "All of those reinforced the reasons why Australia is involved in the South Pacific, but has undermined our confidence that we know what to do about it."

Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the October 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, Australia has pursued an aggressive role in its region. Among the stated goals are the eradication of corruption and poverty in neighboring nations.

White says one problem for Australia is that its small army is being stretched thin. The regional deployments are in addition to troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of Mr. Howard's commitment to the international struggle against terrorism.

In November Australia joined New Zealand in sending troops and police officers to Tonga. The trouble in the Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa, which followed the death of the king, has been blamed on gangs with links to pro-democracy groups.

The mission to Tonga was short-lived, but Australia is looking at an almost permanent presence in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, where poor governance also led to violence last year.

An Australian government spokesman says the government is committed to helping its island neighbors through difficult times, and that aid and reconstruction efforts have been a success.

Generally, Australia's efforts in the region have been welcomed, but White says Canberra should pay more attention to local concerns. Steven Ratuva of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, agrees.

Ratuva accuses the Howard government of being more worried about terrorism and international crime than the internal problems of the small islands. He says basic security issues in the region are linked to internal political dynamics and economic development problems, and not to terrorism.

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