HONIARA, Solomon Islands: This screengrab taken and received yesterday from a video from ZFM Radio shows parts of the Chinatown district on fire in Honiara on Solomon Islands, as rioters torched buildings in the capital in a second day of anti-government protests. – AFP

HONIARA, Solomon Islands: Australia rushed peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands yesterday hoping to quell riots that threatened to topple the Pacific nation’s government and left its capital ablaze. After a second day of violent protests that saw widespread rioting, looting and several buildings set alight, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison authorized the snap deployment of a 100-strong police and military force.

Meanwhile, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare rejected calls to step down yesterday, despite admitting widespread rioting and protests against his rule had brought the Pacific nation “to its knees”. “If I am removed as Prime Minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament,” a defiant Sogavare said in a late-night address, calling on protesters who have rampaged through the capital Honiara for two days to return to their homes.

Thousands of protesters in the capital Honiara have defied a government lockdown order and taken to the streets to demand the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. The tensions have been sparked by pandemic-fuelled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government. Yesterday several buildings around Honiara’s Chinatown district were set alight, including commercial properties and a bank branch.

The Chinese government expressed “grave concern” that Chinese-owned businesses appeared to be the target of several of the attacks. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organizations”. Chinese-owned businesses are a frequent target for violence across Melanesia.

The unrest began on Wednesday when demonstrators attempted to storm parliament to depose Sogavare and ransacked local police stations, making clear the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was overwhelmed. “There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident told AFP, asking not to be named. Sogavare had initially insisted his government was in total control, that the “country is safe” and that rioters would “face the full brunt of the law”.

But within hours blazes raged across Honiara, plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city and Sogavare had asked Australia to send in troops. Morrison said the Australian deployment was immediate and expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s last peacekeeping mission to the Solomons, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost about US$2.2 billion. “It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, that is for them to resolve,” he said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security.”

Island tensions
The Solomon Islands has struggled repeatedly with ethnic tensions and political violence since gaining independence from Britain in 1978. In the late 1990s Guadalcanal militants launched attacks on settlers, particularly targeting those from Malaita, and for five years unrest brought the country to its knees. The so-called Tensions only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission-named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

But Malaita residents continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government. Since 2019 the feud has been turbocharged by a row over Sogavare’s decision to abruptly break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize Beijing. Malaita authorities opposed the move and defiantly maintained contact with the Taiwan authorities. As a result the province continues to receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington. The province’s premier Daniel Suidani has accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, alleging he had “elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders”.

“People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore,” he said.
Experts say geopolitics is now fuelling the crisis. “Political competition doesn’t trigger a riot in Honiara,” said Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific at Australia’s Lowy Institute. “But the actions of these great powers-while they curry favor with individual political actors-has a destabilizing effect on what is already a fragile and vulnerable country.”

“Then of course the contemporary context is one of extended economic hardship due to COVID restrictions, a COVID state of emergency,” he said. “The health and economic impacts of COVID have only added to the pressures that any developing country was facing before the pandemic hit.” – AFP