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9 Dec 2021 21:16
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  •   Home > News > International

    Here's what's behind the violent protests in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara

    The federal government deploys AFP and ADF personnel to Solomon Islands amid civil unrest in the Pacific country. Here's why Australia is getting involved.


    Australia will deploy a peacekeeping force to Solomon Islands after violent protests targeted parliament, Chinese businesses and other buildings in the Pacific nation's capital, Honiara.

    Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday afternoon that 23 Australian Federal Police officers and 43 Australian Defence Force personnel will be deployed to Solomon Islands to assist with "riot control".

    "Our presence will seek to calm the situation in the Solomon Islands," Mr Morrison said.

    Mr Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne emphasised that Australia was not becoming involved in the internal affairs of Solomon Islands, but rather helping to restore stability.

    Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, said Australia was committed to "the security and the stability of the Pacific".

    On Wednesday police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse large crowds demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. 

    Mr Sogavare announced a 36-hour lockdown of Honiara after Wednesday's violent protests, which saw buildings including a police station and a leaf hut next to Parliament House set on fire.

    Fresh protests have broken out in the capital on Thursday, with smoke seen from Honiara's Chinatown district.

    What started as a peaceful protest by people primarily from the Malaita Province turned violent on Wednesday as a crowd of about 1,000 people grew agitated.

    Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, while buildings were stoned and others went up in flames.

    Mr Sogavare said it was a "sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically-elected government down".

    So, what has sparked the civil unrest and what do China and Taiwan have to do with it?

    How are China and Taiwan involved?

    At the centre of a deepening rift between the central government and Malaita Province — the most populous island in the Solomon Islands archipelago —  is, somewhat surprisingly, foreign policy.

    Solomon Islands had previously been among only a handful of countries with diplomatic ties to Taipei rather than Beijing — a significant proportion of which are in the South Pacific.

    But in September 2019, Mr Sogavare established formal diplomatic ties with China.

    The ABC reported at the time that some $US500 million ($730 million) worth of financial aid had been promised by Beijing to the Solomons — one of the Pacific's poorest nations — in exchange for the move.

    This led to Taiwan terminating its diplomatic relations with Solomon Islands after 36 years.

    "We sincerely regret and strongly condemn the [Solomon Islands] government's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China," Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen said at the time.

    Malaita Province Premier Daniel Suidani has been outspoken in his opposition of the national government's decision to switch to China, and South Pacific geopolitical researcher Ed Cavanough said there was evidence that a relationship between the province and Taiwan remained in some form.

    Taiwan provided COVID-19 assistance such as personal protective equipment and food aid to Malaita, which Mr Cavanough said was in contravention of national law in Solomon Islands. 

    Mr Suidani also travelled to Taiwan in May 2021 for medical treatment.

    Why did this cause a rift in the Solomons' politics?

    Mr Sogavare said the decision to formalise ties with China was putting Solomon Islands on "the right side of history".

    But not all agreed, with opposition politicians fiercely criticising the move.

    In August 2019, a group of senior politicians published an open letter condemning the shift in relations.

    "We believe the long-term interests of our country — in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity, and mutual respect — lie with Taiwan, not the PRC [People's Republic of China]," it read.

    It also warned that establishing ties with Beijing could see land rights, rule of law and cultural heritage in Solomon Islands "compromised".

    "We are aware of important lessons from many countries — including in our region — who are locked in a serious debt trap as a result of their giving in to China's lures."

    Mr Suidani has continued to rail against the decision, which Mr Cavanough said has served him to leverage "incredible" political popularity in Malaita Province.

    "We are strongly opposed to PRC communist ideology and investment," Mr Suidani was quoted by the Solomon Times newspaper as saying in May last year.

    Could we have predicted violent protests?

    Wednesday's protests appeared to come as a surprise despite recognition of building tensions.

    Maverick Peter Seda is a student at the Honiara campus of the University of the South Pacific who ran into the protests while returning home.

    He told the ABC people were "shocked" and "freaking out" about the protests and the subsequent lockdown.

    "Angry young people have just had enough," he said.

    Peter Kenilorea Jr, the son of Solomon Islands' first prime minister and an opposition MP, last month warned the country's foreign policy was being "overrun" by China and that disagreements over Beijing's influence could lead to violence.

    "Things don't build up very clearly in the Solomon Islands — things explode suddenly," he said in an interview with the Sunday Guardian, an Indian newspaper.

    "The analogy that I think is most apt is that we in the Pacific Islands say we are on the frontline of climate change — here in the Solomons, we are also on the frontline of the aggression from the Chinese Communist Party.

    "The political warfare is on. The geopolitical frontline is in our tiny nation of the Solomon Islands, and even within the provinces within the Solomons.

    "We have one province (Malaita) that has been targeted and harassed — this is a real everyday occurrence," he said.

    Has this sort of thing happened before?

    Yes.

    Australia deployed a peacekeeping mission known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003 after years of ethnic tension and violence between militia from the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita.

    Honiara has also seen violent demonstrations target ethnic Chinese-owned businesses in the past.

    In 2006, following the election of then-prime minister Snyder Rini, rioters looted and burned Chinese-owned businesses, because of claims that the election had been rigged with the financial assistance of Chinese businesspeople.

    Many Chinese residents were left homeless, and the riots led to the deployment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to help restore order.

    Riots again broke out after the current Prime Minister, Mr Sogavare, was elected for the fourth time in 2019, with police using tear gas to dispel crowds in the city's Chinatown.

    "I honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country," Mr Sogavare said in response to Wednesday's unrest.

    "Today's events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go."

    Will Sogavare stand down?

    Most don't think so.

    Mr Cavanough said he believed it was "very unlikely" Mr Sogavare would stand down.

    "He was democratically elected through their process back in 2019," he said.

    "Though the China switch, which has led to a lot of tension, kind of came as a surprise, he had long been on the record really being opposed to the Taiwan partnership. 

    "It didn't come entirely as a surprise."

    Mr Cavanough said the only natural resolution to the enduring stand-off between Mr Sogavare and Mr Suidani would be an election.

    "The next election isn't until 2023 as well, so the reality is that the country is going to be stuck in the dynamic for quite some time."

    What is likely to happen next?

    Neighbouring Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister James Marape has appealed to the people of Solomon Islands to "respect the rule of law and democratic institutions", urging them "not to take the law into their own hands".

    "Solomon Islands has always been a beacon of hope for us in Melanesia, and a middle ground for many of our Pacific and Melanesian issues, so I ask for peaceful democratic dialogue to any issues of discontent," Mr Marape said.

    But those on the ground say there is likely to be more unrest before the dust settles.

    Local journalist Gina Kekea said while the protests surprised most in Honiara, she believes the "worst is yet to come".

    Mr Seda said Honiara residents' "biggest fear" was the continuation of violence.

    Police said they would "continue to conduct high visibility patrols throughout Honiara day and night to make sure those planning to disturb the peace that continues to dominate our communities have any chance of carrying out their criminal activities".

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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