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SYDNEY — Once the world romanticized about the South Pacific paradise. Today, Australia is guardedly debating the Balkanization of the South Pacific.

Nowhere is the apparent breakdown of democratic government among the young South Pacific island-states of more concern than in Canberra. There, a hand-wringing Howard government is being berated for doing too little too late to stop the bloodshed among warring Melanesian groups.

A smouldering coup in Fiji represents a turning point in once-balmy South Pacific politics. Already it has spawned a copycat coup in neighboring Solomon Islands. Where next, Australia is asking.

The list of who’s next is already on observers’ computer screens. Bougainville, a gold-rich island in the Solomon islands but under the control (by one of many quirks of Pacific history) of Papua New Guinea, is high on the list. Papua New Guinea itself is an economic basket case. West Papua, the Melanesian part of Indonesia, is in foment as tribes try to resist “Javanization” colonizing.

The whole region has fingers crossed that Indonesia, by far the most populous nation, may democratically hold together. Australian Prime Minister John Howard met Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid in Tokyo recently. He got a promise for a Canberra visit to cement improving relations in the wake of East Timor. But the on-again off-again signals from Jakarta make a July visit here problematic.

Closer to Australia’s big cities brood two island states of politically explosive potential. Vanuatu, once a British-French protectorate, is dogged by financial scandals and political upheaval. New Caledonia, a volatile mix of indigenous Kanaks and French descendants, seethes under Paris control.

Australia badly wants to see Fiji and the Solomons to restore democratic government. But it does not want to be seen doing the pushing. Cautious Howard is guarded in response to urgings that he intervene. Beyond sending in a navy ship to evacuate expatriates and shunting Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer on peace missions, Howard declines to interfere in what he rightly sees as these nations’ own prime responsibility.

Even to harry the U.N. Security Council into sending a peacekeeping force is viewed in Canberra as a no-no.

True, it worked in East Timor. But the 6 million Melanesians granted independence in the past half century are in a quite different geopolitical bind.

Australia wants to raise its diplomatic, through not military, presence in the troubled region, where it is the major aid donor. But taking a wrong step while coup leaders posture could only antagonize would-be petty dictators. Yet taking no step seems to be helping nobody.

To distant Japan, the South Pacific may still seem to be a tropical paradise of the travel brochure variety. Nowadays Japanese tourists, like their Australian counterparts, are voting with their feet to avoid the conflict areas. The tourist dollar, that key income earner in all of these islands, will be absent for so long that their recovery can only be delayed.

Japanese visitors once provided an economic mainstay hereabouts. Many came as pilgrims to see where their fathers died during World War II. Sadly, the Solomons coup erupted on an island where fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces was at its bloodiest. Now the Battle of Guadalcanal is being replicated in miniature.

Ironically, behind the current anger is an inter-island dispute linked to the first bloody battle. Indigenes from nearby Malaita island brought in to build landing strips for U.S. bombers have since multiplied and prospered. Feeling disposessed, native Guadalcanal people have raised an armed militia, some firing World War II guns, to regain what they claims is their birthright.

These jungle fighters, known as the Isatabu Freedom Movement, tossed out Malaitan settlers from Honiara, the young nation’s capital. The Malaitans sent in their Eagle Force.

As Honiara went up in smoke, and commerce and administration with it, Canberra sent in ships to rescue 1,000 expatriates of half a dozen nationalities. Prime Minister Bart Ulufa’au resigned, then stayed put to provide some semblance of administration.

Could the bloodshed have been prevented if Canberra had sent a police contingent as Ulufa’au has been begging for a year, or at least pressed the U.N. Security Council for joint action? The Australian leadership that islanders have come to expect was not forthcoming. That leadership will take a long time to regain.

Much the same goes for that other South Pacific flashpoint, Fiji. Here, thougth, Canberra has finally managed to stir itself, a month late. The London-based Commonwealth Secretariat has sent in a team to find what Downer calls a road map to recovery.

Ethnic tensions will continue to haunt Fiji long after sanity returns. As in the Solomons, the native inhabitants resent hard-working, commerce-minded “outsiders.” Native Fijians hold all the land by law, but they have yet to find a way to govern their ethnically divided islands under a democratic constitution.

Ethnic enmity has been simmering for over a century, ever since the British rulers brought in Indians to work sugar plantatins and mills, often owned by Australian investors. As in the Solomons, the colonials bequeathed postcolonial democracy but forgot about culture and geography.

A disgraced Fijian businessman, George Speight, lit the ethnic fuse. His armed thugs captured Parliament House, seized Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet, and held them captive for the next four weeks. Native Fijians took his cue and looted Indian shops in the capital, Suva. When bullets pockmarked Speight’s car he retaliated by cutting meals to the 31 imprisoned parliamentarians to one a day.

To Australia, accustomed to bestowing an avuncular smile with its South Pacific aid donations, all these goings-on are definitely not cricket.

Alas, the old order has changed, and from within. The protective shield to the north has become an arc of insecurity.

The fair, disinterested umpire that Canberra liked to see itself in regional matches, is suddenly called upon to join in the game.

It’s a role no Australian sees this country fit to play. Yet standing on the sidelines clearly has not worked well. A stronger diplomatic, and perhaps police, presence seems in order.

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