Demonstrators defy government lockdown orders in Solomon Islands

Demonstrators defy government lockdown orders in Solomon Islands

Canberra Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari on Friday blamed foreign interference over his government’s decision to shift its alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for the anti-government protests, arson and looting that have swept the capital, Honiara, in recent days.

But critics blamed the unrest on complaints of a lack of government services and accountability, corruption and foreign workers taking up local jobs.

Sugavari angered many in 2019, particularly the leaders of Malaita, the largest province in the Solomon Islands, when he cut diplomatic ties between the country and Taiwan.

Defense Minister Peter Dutton said a plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived late Thursday in Honiara, where they will assist local police efforts to restore order after a second day of violent anti-government protests.

Sogavary said he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “single issue” in the violence, which “unfortunately has been influenced and encouraged by other forces”.

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External pressures were having an effect “too big… I don’t want to name the names. We’ll leave it there,” Sogavary said.

“I will not kneel to anyone. We are the way we are, the government is intact and we will defend democracy.”

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not agree that other countries had fomented the unrest.

“We didn’t make that clear at all,” Payne said.

“We have been very clear. Our view is that we do not want to see violence. We very much hope that stability will return.”

Local journalist Gina Kekia said the shift of foreign policy to Beijing with little public consultation was one of a combination of issues that led to the protests. There have also been complaints that foreign companies are not providing local jobs.

Kekia told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

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Kikia said protesters were replaced by thieves and trash on Friday in the hard-hit Chinatown of Honiara.

“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting and protesting and rioting and Honiara is just a small town,” Kekia said. “So I guess there’s not much left for them to plunder and spoil now.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday pledged to send troops, police and diplomats to help local police restore order and protect critical infrastructure.

Australia will not help protect the national parliament and executive buildings, indicating that Australia does not take sides with any political party.

Some observers argue that Australia intervened quickly to avoid a move by Chinese security forces to restore order.

But Morrison said Sugavari asked for help because he trusted Australia.

“The Solomon Islands reached out to us first…as a family because they trust us and we have worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.

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“This is our region and we stand to secure our region with our partners, friends, family and allies,” he added.

Sugavari has requested assistance from Australia under a bilateral security treaty that has been in place since 2017, when Australian peacekeepers last left the Solomon Islands.

Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands that restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 until 2017.

Meanwhile, China expressed its grave concern over the recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without providing details.

“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sugavari, the Solomon Islands government can restore social order and stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday.

He said that economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations have benefited both sides.

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“Any attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations are futile,” he said.

Dutton said a plane carrying 23 federal police officers and several diplomats flew from the Australian capital, Canberra, to Honiara late Thursday.

Up to 50 police as well as 43 members of the Defense Forces are scheduled to arrive aboard a Navy patrol boat on Friday.

Dutton said the Australian force would also be equipped to “provide a medical response”.

It is definitely a dangerous situation on the ground. “We’ve seen the riots that have occurred, the arson and the general commotion that’s there at the moment as well,” Dutton said.

“So there is a lot of work that the police have to do on the ground,” he added.

Sugavari announced the closure on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in Honiara to demand his resignation over a host of internal issues.

The government said protesters stormed the National Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of an adjacent building. They also set fire to a police station and other buildings.

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Sogavari ordered the capital city closed from 7 pm Wednesday until 7 pm Friday after saying he had “witnessed another unfortunate and sad event aimed at bringing down a democratically elected government”.

Despite the Solomon Islands police force announcing that it would increase patrols across Honiara amid the lockdown, protesters once again took to the streets on Thursday.

Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, who Prime Minister Daniel Swedani has been at odds with with Sugavari, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.

Swedani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told the Solomon Star News he agreed with Sogavari’s calls to resign.

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Rising reports from Bangkok.

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