Destabilizing speculation

Solomon Islands: Here’s what’s behind the unrest


MELBOURNE, Australia – Protesters in Solomon Islands attempted to storm the personal residence of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday, setting a nearby building on fire. Police used tear gas to disperse crowds as riots rocked the nation’s capital for the third day in a row.

Police also fired elsewhere in the capital, Honiara, to disperse protesters, according to local reporters, as anti-government protesters called for Sogavare’s resignation. Police said they arrested two people and sought to quell speculation that officers killed those arrested.

On Friday afternoon, authorities announced that a 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. curfew in Honiara would continue indefinitely. Papua New Guinea has also pledged to send peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands, according to local media, after Australian police arrived in the capital on Thursday evening. Mr Sogavare had requested security assistance, the Australian Prime Minister said.

Here’s what we know about the troubles.

Many protesters had traveled from Malaita Island to Guadalcanal Island, home to the nation’s capital, according to officials and local media.

Experts say discontent has been brewing for decades between the two islands, mainly over a perceived unequal distribution of resources and a lack of economic support that has made Malaita one of the nation’s least developed provinces. islander.

There has also been lingering dissatisfaction in Malaita over the central government’s decision in 2019 to transfer diplomatic allegiances to Beijing from Taipei, Taiwan, an autonomous island that China claims as its territory.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry accused Beijing of bribing Solomons politicians to abandon Taipei as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party approaches.

The Solomon Islands are an archipelago of nearly a thousand islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia. The island chain has a population of 710,000, mostly farmers and fishermen.

Malaita is the most populous of the islands, with 160,500 inhabitants last year. Densely forested, mountainous and volcanic, it lies 30 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the largest island, across the Indispensable Strait.

The island nation found itself in a heightened geopolitical standoff over the 2019 ruling, which dealt a blow to Taipei’s global standing and Washington’s regional diplomacy.

The United States sees the Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries as key to preventing China from asserting influence in the region.

China has invested heavily in the Pacific, much to the chagrin of US officials. In 2019, a Chinese company signed an agreement to lease one of the islands, but the deal was later declared illegal by the Solomon Islands Attorney General.

This is not the first time that China’s presence on the islands has been a source of contention. In 2006 riots broke out amid rumors that the election of an unpopular prime minister was influenced by Chinese or Taiwanese money.

Some experts draw a straight line between the 2019 ruling and this week’s unrest.

Behind the riots there was “a lot of discontent about this change,” said Sinclair Dinnen, associate professor in the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University.

Malaita Prime Minister Daniel Suidani has sharply criticized the Prime Minister’s move, and Malaita continues to maintain relations with Taiwan and receive its support – in violation of the central government’s position, said Mihai Sora, a researcher at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat stationed in the Solomon Islands.

With the United States providing Malaita with direct foreign aid while China supports the central government, existing fractures in the country have deepened, he said.

“Geostrategic competition does not by itself trigger riots,” Sora said, “but it is the actions of these great nations that arouse sympathy with local actors – favoring some over others to continue. their own strategic objectives without stopping to consider what are already deep social and political currents in the country – which have a destabilizing effect on social cohesion. “

On Friday, many buildings were set on fire and shops destroyed. The state of the Prime Minister’s residence in Lunga, on the outskirts of the capital, was not clear. Residents had to deal with food shortages in addition to the ongoing protests as the few stores that remained open had imposed strict purchasing limits.

Protesters stormed the National Parliament in Honiara on Wednesday and set up a police station and Chinatown buildings on fire, according to authorities and local information. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters torched other buildings and looted stores on Thursday.

Mr. Suidani and opposition parliamentarians reiterated their call for the resignation of Mr. Sogavare.

“In the last 20 years Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power, the plight of the Solomonese has worsened as foreigners harvested the country’s best resources,” Suidani told local media on Thursday. “People are not blind to this and no longer want to be cheated.”

Mr Sogavare resisted calls for resignation, saying: “If I am removed from my post as Prime Minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament.

He accused the protesters of being politically motivated and vowed that the authorities would find the organizers of the protests and bring them to justice.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Sogavare also blamed “other powers” for encouraging the protests and said the only source of the conflict was the diplomatic transfer to Beijing, dismissing other concerns about his move. government.

The Chinese embassy in Honiara, meanwhile, said in a statement posted on social media Wednesday that Chinese residents in “high-risk areas” should close their businesses and hire security guards.

Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Thursday that China was “gravely concerned about attacks on Chinese citizens and businesses, and called on the local government to take all necessary measures to protect security. Chinese nationals and institutions “.

He said that over the past two years, relations between the two countries had “experienced healthy development with fruitful results.” He added, “All attempts to disrupt the normal development of China-Solomon Islands relations are simply in vain. “

Inter-island tensions sparked a civil conflict between militias on the two main islands from 1998 to 2003, during a period known as “tensions”. This led to the deployment of an Australia-New Zealand-led peacekeeping force from 2003 to 2017.

On Thursday afternoon, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that his country would send more than 100 police and military forces to the Solomon Islands to “ensure stability and security”. Twenty-three policemen would arrive immediately (up to 50 more could make the trip), and 43 soldiers would follow.

Until then more than a dozen buildings were on fire or had been set on fire in Chinatown, along with 10 more in a nearby industrial area, according to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He crossed videos and photos in the field with maps of the area to estimate the number.

Videos posted to social media showed large crowds gathering in Chinatown as plumes of smoke billowed from buildings.

Other individuals and groups have clung to the protests for a variety of reasons, Dr Dinnen said. Machinations by the political opposition to overthrow the government and opportunist rioters contributed to the size of the crowd, he said.

Elizabeth Osifelo contributed reporting from Honiara, Solomon Islands.