Solomon Islands: what’s behind the protests?

MELBOURNE, Australia – Protests rocked the capital of the Solomon Islands on Thursday for the second consecutive day as rioters clashed with police, set buildings on fire, looted property and demanded Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare resign.

Protesters were fired on Wednesday with police tear gas and rubber bullets after storming the national parliament and setting fire to a police station and buildings in Chinatown, authorities said. On Thursday, more buildings in Chinatown went up in flames, according to local news media.

Here’s what we know about the protesters’ grievances.

Many of the protesters traveled from Malaita Island to Guadalcanal Island, which is home to the country’s capital, according to officials and local news reports.

Experts say discontent between the two islands has been rampant for decades, mainly over an alleged unequal distribution of resources and a lack of economic support, which has made Malaita one of the island’s least developed provinces.

There is also ongoing discontent in Malaita over the central government’s 2019 decision to transfer diplomatic loyalty to China from Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its territory.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry accused Beijing of bribing Solomons politicians to leave Taipei ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago made up of nearly a thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia. The island chain has only 650,000 inhabitants, mainly farmers and fishermen.

Malaita is the most populous of the islands, with a population of 160,500 as of last year. It is densely forested, mountainous and volcanic and is located 30 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the larger island, across the Indispensable Strait.

The island nation found itself in a heightened geopolitical tug of war over the 2019 decision, which dealt a blow to both Taipei’s global reputation and Washington’s regional diplomacy.

The United States considers the Solomon Islands and other Pacific countries crucial to preventing China from exerting influence in the region.

China has invested heavily in the Pacific, to the alarm of US officials. In 2019, a Chinese company signed an agreement to lease one of the islands, but the agreement was subsequently declared illegal by the Attorney General of the Solomon Islands.

Some experts are drawing a straight line from the 2019 decision to this week’s turmoil.

Behind the riots was “a lot of dissatisfaction with that move,” said Sinclair Dinnen, an associate professor in the Australian National University’s Pacific Affairs Department.

Malaita’s Prime Minister Daniel Suidani has been an outspoken critic of that prime minister’s decision, and Malaita continues to maintain relations with and receive support from Taiwan — contrary to the central government’s stance, said Mihai Sora, a research associate at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat to the Solomon Islands.

With the United States offering Malaita foreign direct aid while China is backing the central government, existing rifts in the country have widened, he said.

“Geostrategic competition in itself does not lead to riots,” said Mr. Sora, “but it is the actions of these major countries, as they generate sympathy for local actors – favoring some over others to pursue their own strategic goals without standing still. stand by what is already deep social and political undercurrents in the country – which have a destabilizing effect on social cohesion.”

After hundreds of people took to the streets and set fire to a building near parliament, Mr Sogavare announced a three-day curfew: from 7pm Wednesday to 7am Friday.

He accused the protesters of being politically motivated, saying in a video speech: “Today our nation witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government.”

Mr Sogavare also promised that authorities would find the organizers of the protest and bring them to justice.

The Chinese embassy in Honiara called on authorities to protect Chinese residents, according to a statement posted on social media.

The embassy said it had asked the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to strengthen the protection of Chinese companies and personnel.

It also advised Chinese residents in “risk areas” to close their businesses and hire security guards.

Mr Sora, the former Australian diplomat, said that in a country where civil unrest is not uncommon, it appeared that the police had responded “quite adeptly”. He said he had not yet seen any indications that the government would not be able to maintain control.

On Tuesday, before the protests started, but as Malaitans began to gather in the capital, a group of federal Malaitan lawmakers called on Mr Suidani and protest leaders to “not incite the Malaitans to engage in illegal activities”.

They also urged opposition MPs “to refrain from fanning the flames of violence and incitement”.

But on Thursday, 16 buildings in Chinatown were either on fire or had burned down, according to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He arrived at the number by referring to videos and photos on the spot showing maps of the area.

Videos posted to social media show large crowds gathering in Chinatown as plumes of smoke rise from buildings.

Other individuals and groups joined the protest for various reasons, said Dr. din.

Machinations by the political opposition to overthrow the government, and opportunistic rioters, added to the size of the crowd, he said.

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