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Eye witness

Despite acclaimed success in East Timor, the Australian government realises it cannot act as regional policeman. Political chaos engulfing Fiji and the Solomon Islands, the independence push in the Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Aceh and the serious problems facing Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu have forced Australia to drop any pretence of ever playing regional "sheriff".

The Pacific Ocean is now a matrix of discontent, said Hugh Laracy, an associate professor of history at the University of Auckland. In making colonies of the islands of the Pacific, the British government suppressed through severe force the fighting by which conflicts between villagers and islands were commonly settled.

"Pacification did not necessarily mean that old rivalries were erased," said Professor Laracy, a Solomon Islands specialist. "Often they were just suspended."

After East Timor, Australia gave the impression that it intended to become the region's guarantor of stability. Political and academic critics of the Howard government believe its responses to the latest upheavals have been inadequate and ill-prepared. Having abolished the Labor post of minister for Pacific island affairs in 1996, the prime minister, John Howard, has no one person or group offering advice or warning of impending disasters. "The Solomons of today are a reflection not only of the history of the past 100 years but also of the resurgence of patterns of action and political fragmentation that Pax Britannica could never erase," said Professor Laracy.

Australia does not want to tackle a task Britain never accomplished. In Tokyo last week, Mr Howard made it clear he saw no need for Australian intervention in either Fiji or the Solomons. "There is a strong underlying view that the countries concerned have to find the solutions to their problems domestically," he said.

Observers said it was not surprising to hear this on the same day the prime minister was to hold a crucial meeting with Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

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