Grim truth behind myth of Pacific idyll

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Another night in Fiji, another fabulous sunset. As dusk descends over the broad sweep of Suva Bay, the jagged mountains in the distance turn purple. The coconut palms sway gently, caressed by a warm evening breeze, and the scent of frangipani is in the air.

Another night in Fiji, another fabulous sunset. As dusk descends over the broad sweep of Suva Bay, the jagged mountains in the distance turn purple. The coconut palms sway gently, caressed by a warm evening breeze, and the scent of frangipani is in the air.

It could be paradise - except for the rattle of gunfire from the parliamentary compound a mile away.

In the lush jungles of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, young men in combat fatigues are stalking each other with hatred in their hearts and home-made rifles slung over their shoulders. Offshore, a gunboat is pounding a coastal village.

These are no longer "The Happy Isles of Oceania", as Paul Theroux entitled the book that he wrote after paddling a kayak through the South Pacific a decade ago.

Glenys Kinnock, the Euro MP and wife of the former Labour Party leader Neil, would attest to that; she flew out of the Solomons in a hail of bullets last week after an attempted coup in the capital, Honiara.

At present, attention is focused on the Solomons, where a civil war looms between rival ethnic groups, and on Fiji, where the deposed prime minister and his cabinet are spending their 24th day in captivity in parliament, reluctant guests of the nationalist coup leader George Speight.

But trouble is brewing elsewhere, in places such as West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, an Indonesian province that is itching to follow East Timor to independence, and Papua New Guinea (PNG), where tribal wars are tearing at the fabric of a country still reeling from a long and bloody separatist revolt on Bougainville Island.

Across the Pacific, crime, graft, poverty and repression are the norm in a region that usually conjures up visions of a pristine Utopia.

In Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, so-called "Raskol" gangs roam the lawless streets, murdering and raping with impunity.

In Kiribati, the former Gilbert Islands, the beaches are piled high with human excrement. In Samoa, the political regime "makes Communist Albania look like a holiday camp", according to one seasoned Pacific-watcher.

It seems a world away from the carefree, idyllic societies encountered by 18th-century explorers such as the Frenchman Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who wrote of Tahiti: "I thought I had been transported to paradise ... soon our men were walking about the island alone and unarmed, and were invited into the islanders' homes and offered food and young girls."

Writers including Robert Louis Stevenson and painters such as Paul Gauguin were captivated by these remote tropical outposts, where people led simple, blissful lives, free of hunger, hardship or sexual inhibition. For the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the natives were "noble savages", at one with nature.

In truth, the South Seas never were a Garden of Eden, even before European contact. As Clive Moore, a Pacific historian at the University of Queensland, pointed out, Polynesian society was violent and hierarchical, characterised by frequent wars, cannibalism, infanticide and human sacrifice.

"The idealised perception bears little relation to reality," said Mr Moore. "The Fijians used to cut off the tongues of defeated chiefs and eat them in front of them.

They christened new canoes by rolling them over human rollers, and they tied children to the masts of boats for target practice. This was still going on in the 1850s."

If life was brutal before the Europeans arrived, it hardly improved afterwards. Sealers, whalers and buccaneers plundered the Pacific's natural resources and introduced diseases such as smallpox and syphilis that ravaged populations.

Missionaries destroyed the islanders' spiritual and cultural life, while colonists enslaved them to build sugar and copra plantations.

Since the Second World War - when events in the Pacific made household names of such places as Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal - the region has stubbornly failed to live up to its Bounty advertisement image.

Nuclear testing by Western powers left a legacy of contamination, with the French persisting with underground explosions at Mururoa Atoll until the mid-1990s. The 1980s saw protracted civil strife in New Caledonia, two coups in Fiji and one in Vanuatu.

The catalyst of the current wave of unrest is deep-seated ethnic rivalries. In the Solomons, the Guadalcanese and Malaitans are at each other's throats.

In PNG, nearly 100 people have died in one tribal dispute in the Southern Highlands. Indigenous Fijian resentment of the wealthier Indo-Fijian population was one factor behind Mr Speight's coup.

Ethnic tensions are not the only source of unhappiness. Across the Pacific, islanders live short, hard lives. In PNG, life expectancy is 45. In Nauru, general health is so poor that the hospital's dialysis schedule is published in the daily newspaper.

In Samoa and Tonga, grinding poverty is accompanied by oppressive politics. In Tonga, the lavish lifestyle of the royal family invites comparisons with the Philippines under Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

In Samoa, a Cabinet minister who tried to clean up public life was assassinated by two colleagues last year.

Samoa, according to Michael Field, a veteran South Pacific-based journalist, is "an oligarchy ruled by semi-literate old men profoundly influenced by the London Missionary Society".

People who fail to attend the church prescribed by village chiefs are imprisoned and trussed up like pigs, as if they were being prepared for the oven.

Where human beings may be kinder, nature is harsh. Cyclones, earthquakes and tidal waves are part of the rhythms of life in the Pacific, while the tiny island of Tuvalu faces being engulfed by the ocean because of global warming.

Little heed is paid to the environment; so filthy is Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, that it is known as "God's toilet", while visitors who swim off the islands have found the sea awash with hospital waste including used syringes.

There is one place that does conform to the stereotype: the peaceful, exquisitely beautiful Cook Islands. However, most Cook Islanders live in New Zealand because there are so few jobs at home.

Pitcairn Island, inhabited by descendants of the Bounty mutineers, has an even more pressing depopulation problem. The 55 islanders live by selling wood carvings to passing cruise ships, but they need eight men to row their boat out to sea and cannot afford to lose one more able-bodied person.

So the South Pacific's picture postcard image - complete with palm-fringed beaches - is, sadly, a fiction. Even coconuts can kill you, when they fall off a tree and land on your head. Walking through a coconut grove is known as Pacific roulette.