Violence in the Solomon Islands subsides, but not the underlying tension
Canberra – Violence subsided on Friday in the capital of the Solomon Islands, but the government showed no signs of addressing the underlying grievances that fueled the two-day riots, including concerns about the country’s growing ties with China.
Solomon Islands’ prime minister, Manasseh Sogavari, has sought to divert attention from domestic issues by blaming outside interference for provoking protesters, with a veiled reference to Taiwan and the United States.
External pressures had the effect of “too big… I don’t want to name names. We’ll leave it there,” Sogavary said.
Honiara’s Chinatown and downtown area have been the focus of rioters, thieves and protesters who have called for the resignation of Sogavari, who has been prime minister intermittently since 2000.
The city of Sugavari has been widely criticized by leaders of the country’s most populous island of Malaita for its decision in 2019 to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of mainland China. Meanwhile, his government was resentful of the millions of US aid that Malaita had promised directly, rather than through the central government.
These issues are only the latest in decades of rivalry between Malaita and Guadalcanal, where the capital, Honiara, said Jonathan Brake, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.
“Most drivers of tension have been present in the country for decades and generations, many of which were born out of the country’s extreme poverty, limited economic development opportunities and inter-ethnic and intra-island competition between the two most populous islands.”
“So everyone is pointing the finger, but the finger must also be pointed at the political leaders in the Solomon Islands.”
The Solomon Islands, with a population of about 700,000, are located 1,500 kilometers (1,000 mi) northeast of Australia. Internationally, they may still be known for the bloody fighting that took place there during World War II between the United States and Japan.
Rioting and looting erupted on Wednesday following a peaceful protest in Honiara, mainly involving people from Malaita demonstrating over a number of grievances. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters, setting fire to the National Parliament, a police station, and several other buildings.
Demonstrators defied the lockdown announced by Sogavari on Wednesday to take to the streets again on Thursday.
Critics have also blamed the unrest on complaints of a lack of government services, accountability, corruption, and Chinese companies giving jobs to foreigners rather than locals.
Since the 2019 switch of allegiance from Taiwan to China, there have been expectations of massive infrastructure investment from Beijing – locally rumored to be in the region of $500 million – but with the COVID-19 epidemic spreading soon after the switch, none of that has happened. which has not yet been achieved.
Malaita threatened to hold an independence referendum on the issue, but the Sugavari government overruled it.
Sogavari said on Friday he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “single issue” in the violence, which he “unfortunately has been influenced and encouraged by other forces”.
“I will not kneel to anyone. We are the way we are, the government is intact and we will defend democracy.”
More than broad geopolitical concerns, however, Brik said the demonstrations really boil down to frustration over the lack of opportunities for young people largely, and the concentration of much of the country’s wealth in the capital.
“I guarantee you that the vast majority of people involved in rioting and looting cannot point China or Taiwan into the map,” he said. They were opportunists there because their economic opportunities were very limited. It’s a very poor country with high youth unemployment rates, and it shows how quickly these things can get out of control in a volatile country.”
Andrew Yang, a professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan and a former deputy defense minister, said China’s efforts to win diplomatic recognition from the Solomon Islands government are part of the competition for regional hegemony.
“I think it is part of the power competition between the United States and China because China is expanding its influence in the Pacific region and is also taking advantage of this opportunity to settle the so-called Indo-Pacific Security Strategy,” he said. So, island nations in the South Pacific regions are a very important part of the United States’ security umbrella in the Indo-Pacific.”
A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived late Thursday in Honiara to help local police restore order.
Up to 50 Australian police as well as 43 defense force personnel are due to arrive aboard a Navy patrol boat on Friday.
They were required by Sugavari under a bilateral treaty with Australia, and the presence of an independent force, though small, appears to help quell some of the violence.
Australia has a history of helping the Solomon Islands, where it intervened after years of bloody ethnic violence known as “tensions” in 2003. Australian-led international police and a military force called the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission helped restore peace and departed in 2017.
Australian staff are expected to be on hand “for weeks”, according to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
Payne told reporters on Friday she had no indication that other countries had fomented the unrest.
“We didn’t make it clear at all,” Payne said.
Australia does not help protect the national parliament and executive buildings, indicating that it does not take sides with any political party.
“We’ve been very clear. Our view is that we don’t want to see violence. We very much hope that stability will return,” Payne said.
Local journalist Gina Kekia said a foreign policy shift 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.
“Chinese companies and (others) Asian companies … seem to have the most work, especially when it comes to resource extraction, which people feel very strongly about,” Kekia said.
Kikia said the protesters were replaced with loot and trash on Friday in Chinatown.
“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting, protesting, rioting and Honiara is just a small town,” Kikia said. The capital is 85,000 people.
“So I think they don’t have much left to plunder and spoil now,” she said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has questioned whether Chinese citizens and businesses are being targeted. He called the unrest “a somewhat mixed story” and noted that Chinatown had been the scene of riots before Australia’s 2003 intervention.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday condemned the violence and reiterated Beijing’s support for the Solomon Islands government. He said China is taking measures to protect the safety and rights of Chinese people and institutions in the country.
“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sugavari, Suleiman’s government can restore order and stabilize the internal situation as soon as possible,” he said.
The establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing “has won the sincere support of the people,” Zhao said, and “any attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations are futile.”
Rising reports from Bangkok.
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