Sydney (Reuters) – Four people were killed during violent anti-government protests in the Solomon Islands that prompted Australia to send police and soldiers to help keep order.
In three days of unrest last week, buildings were set ablaze and shops looted by protesters angered by problems such as high unemployment and crowded housing, witnesses said.
The unrest followed protests by residents of Malaita, the South Pacific island nation’s most populous province, which opposed a decision by Prime Minister Sogavare’s government in 2019 to formally recognise China instead of Taiwan.
That decision has not only contributed to strains in relations between Malaita and the Solomon Islands government, but also left the island nation of 650,000 at the centre of a geopolitical tussle involving big powers.
What Happened In The Unrest?
The violence began after protesters from a group called Malaita for Democracy travelled to Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital in Guadalcanal province, and gathered outside parliament. They called for Sogavare to address them on Nov. 24.
Witnesses said rioting erupted after Sogavare failed to meet them. Much of Honiara’s Chinatown area was destroyed during the unrest that followed, involving young men from Honiara’s outskirt settlements which have no running water.
Australian sent 100 police and soldiers, and 50 peacekeepers were dispatched by Papua New Guinea, in response to requests from the Solomon Islands government. They helped local police restore calm, and Fiji said it would send 50 troops.
Sogavare said unnamed foreign powers had intervened because they did not want the Solomon Islands to have diplomatic relations with China. Taiwan has denied any involvement in the unrest.
How Have Taiwan-China Tension Affected The Solomon Islands?
China and Taiwan have been rivals in the South Pacific for decades. Some island nations have switched allegiances and allegations have surfaced about rival offers of aid and infrastructure being made to sway influence.
Fifteen countries maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The last two to ditch Taipei in favour of Beijing were the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in September 2019.
Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, has banned Chinese companies from the province and accepted development aid from the United States.
Suidani visited Taipei for medical treatment in May, sparking protests from Sogavare’s government and the Chinese embassy in Honiara.
Suidani’s doctors said they suspected a brain tumour and recommended overseas hospital treatment. Suidani returned to Malaita in October after a series of delays caused by the government’s COVID-19 restrictions.
What Do China And Taiwan Say?
Taiwan said it had nothing to do with the unrest. China’s foreign ministry said it was concerned about developments in the Solomon Islands and that attempts to undermine these ties were “futile”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman said: “Facts have proven that the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Solomon Islands is in line with the fundamental and long-term development of the Solomon Islands.”
What Do Other Pacific Island Nations Say?
The secretary general of the Pacific Island Forum, the main regional group, Henry Puna, issued a statement urging patience by “all parties” and adherence to the rule of law and the constitution.
What about United States?
The U.S. State Department has expressed concern about the violence in Honiara and supported the rapid restoration of peace and security. It said the United States has “enduring ties” with the Solomon Islands.
In 2020, the U.S. Agency for International Aid Development (U.S. Aid) granted $25 million for a development program to be based in Malaita, beginning with a sustainable forestry project, and re-establishing the Peace Corps.
The Solomon Islands government said in October 2020 the U.S. aid program would need to be approved by the national government first, cautioned Malaita province to respect the proper processes and urged people to stop “politicizing foreign aid”.
The U.S. aid was made in response to a letter from the Solomon Islands national government requesting aid, before the 2019 switch to recognise China, a political adviser to Suidani said.
Why did Australia send troops?
Australia said it responded to Sogavare’s request to send police to restore order in Honiara under a bilateral security treaty and that “our focus is to support stability, we do not take sides in these differences”.
Malaita province said it was surprised by Australia’s decision.
Australian police were previously deployed to the Solomon Islands in 2003 under a peacekeeping mission authorised by a Pacific Island Forum declaration, and stayed for a decade.
Severe internal unrest and armed conflict from 1998 to 2003 involved militant groups from Guadalcanal and Malaita.
Australia’s diplomatic relationship with China is tense. Its defence minister has accused China of “alarming” actions which do not match its rhetoric about promoting regional peace and prosperity, prompting a rebuke from Beijing.