MELBOURNE – Protests rocked the capital of the Solomon Islands on Thursday as people clashed with police and demanded that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare resign. Some set buildings ablaze and looted stores.
Protesters were met by police tear gas and rubber bullets Wednesday after they stormed the national Parliament in the capital, Honiara, and set a police station and buildings in Chinatown on fire, authorities said. On Thursday, more buildings went up in flames. Outnumbered, police set up a heavily guarded barricade to stop demonstrators from entering the city’s main business district.
On Thursday afternoon, the Australian government announced that, after a request for assistance from Sogavare, it would send a peacekeeping force to the Solomon Islands.
Here is what we know about the unrest.
Who and what are behind the protests?
Many of the protesters had traveled from the island of Malaita to Guadalcanal Island, which houses the nation’s capital, according to officials and local news reports.
Experts say discontent has simmered for decades between the two islands, mainly over a perceived unequal distribution of resources and a lack of economic support that has left Malaita one of the least-developed provinces in the island nation.
There has also been lingering dissatisfaction in Malaita over the central government’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic allegiances to China from Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its territory.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Beijing of bribing Solomon Islands politicians to abandon Taipei in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party.
How did the Solomon Islands become the focus of world powers?
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago made up of nearly 1,000 islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia. The island chain has a population of 710,000, primarily farmers and fishers.
Malaita is the most populous of the islands, with a population of 160,500 as of last year. Densely forested, mountainous and volcanic, it lies 30 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the larger island, across Indispensable Strait.
The island nation found itself in a heightened geopolitical tug of war because of the 2019 decision, which dealt a blow both to Taipei’s global standing and to Washington’s regional diplomacy.
The United States sees the Solomon Islands, and other Pacific nations, as crucial in preventing China from asserting influence in the region.
China has been investing heavily in the Pacific, to the alarm of U.S. officials. In 2019, a Chinese company signed an agreement to lease one of the islands, but the agreement was subsequently ruled illegal by the attorney general of the Solomon Islands.
This is not the first time 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 had been influenced by Chinese or Taiwanese money.
How did the switch in allegiances affect the country?
Some experts draw a straight line from the 2019 decision to this week’s unrest.
Behind the riots was “quite a lot of unhappiness about that switch,” said Sinclair Dinnen, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s department of Pacific affairs.
Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, has been a vocal critic of that decision by the prime minister, and Malaita continues to maintain a relationship with and receive support from Taiwan — in contravention to the central government’s position, said Mihai Sora, a research fellow 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 nation have deepened, he said.
“Geostrategic competition does not by itself trigger rioting,” Sora said, “but it’s the actions of these large nations as they curry sympathy with local actors — favoring some over others to pursue their own strategic objectives without pausing to consider what are already deep social and political undercurrents in the country — that have a destabilizing effect on social cohesion.”
What has been the fallout from the protests?
After hundreds of people took to the streets and set fire to a building near Parliament, Sogavare announced a 36-hour curfew: from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Friday.
He accused the protesters of being politically motivated, saying in a video address, “Today our nation witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down.”
Sogavare vowed that authorities would find the protest’s organizers and bring them to justice.
The Chinese Embassy in Honiara said in a statement posted on social media Wednesday that it had “asked the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to strengthen the protection of Chinese businesses and people.” It also advised Chinese residents in “high-risk areas” to shut their businesses and hire security guards.
On Thursday, it noted that numerous shops, banks and warehouses had been burned.
How could this end?
Interisland tensions spurred civil conflict between militias on the two main islands from 1998 to 2003, during a period known as “the tensions.” That led to the deployment of an Australia- and New Zealand-led peacekeeping force from 2003 to 2017.
On Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia announced that his country would send more than 100 police officers and military forces to the Solomon Islands to “provide stability and security.” Twenty-three police officers would arrive immediately (up to 50 more may make the trip), and 43 military personnel would follow.
Sora said that although small-scale civil unrest had not been unusual in recent years and that local police had been able to control such episodes, the latest protests had evidently escalated beyond what local authorities could handle.
On Tuesday, before the protests started but as Malaitians had started to converge on the capital, a group of federal Malaitan members of Parliament called on Suidani and protest leaders to “refrain from inciting Malaitans to engage in unlawful activities.”
They also urged opposition parliamentarians to “refrain from fanning the flames of violence and incitement.”
But by Thursday, 15 buildings were on fire or had been burned down in Chinatown, as well as 10 more in a nearby industrial zone, according to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He cross-referenced on-the-ground videos and photos with maps of the area to estimate the number.
Videos posted to social media showed large crowds gathering in Chinatown as plumes of smoke billow from buildings.
Other individuals and groups had latched on to the protests for various reasons, Dinnen said.
Machinations by the political opposition to unseat the government, and opportunistic rioters, had contributed to the size of the crowds, he said.
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