Australian police landed in the Solomon Islands after the protests shook the capital city of Honiara for two days in a row, leaving flames and smoke rising above the city, after calls for calm and demands for the Prime Minister to resign.
About 40 Australian Defense Force personnel and a navy ship will join Australian Federal Police officers in a peacekeeping role later today as local authorities struggle to contain the unrest, which experts say stems from a complex web of problems.
They say much of the tension stems from long-standing differences between Malaita, the most populous of the hundreds of Solomon Islands, and Guadalcanal, where the capital and Parliament are located.
According to local media reports, Malaitalian demonstrators traveled to the capital, raging over a range of domestic issues, including unfulfilled infrastructure promises.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a curfew on Wednesday after nearly 1,000 people gathered to protest in the capital, Honiara, demanding his resignation over a range of domestic issues.
The government said protesters breached the national Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building.
Experts say the problems range from concerns over resource allocation, registration and representation to the 2019 transition in diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China.
Edvard Hviding, professor of social anthropology and founding director of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group, told 9News.com.au that tensions date back to the early 2000s before Australia took the RAMSI peacekeeping mission to the islands.
The person who had previously experienced “three or four such riots” while living in the Solomon Islands said he was “not too pessimistic” about the situation.
“There are many lines of thought about this, but I think the Solomon Islanders will be reborn somehow, if not from the ashes, resilient, but this will pass,” he told 9News.com.au.
“But our hope, everybody’s hope, is that the national government is now talking to the rebels.”
Pacific Islands expert Transform Aqorau described the unrest as “unexpected but not surprising” and called for reforms in the country’s political system.
But he did tip when the Solomon Islands’ next ambassador to the United Nations once said that frustration was growing at the great influence of foreign lumberjacks, miners, and other companies, even outside of Malaita.
“The Solomon Islands are drifting towards self-destruction,” he wrote.
“One of the most aid dependent countries in the world. Significant donor support is given to the health and education sectors.”
According to local media reports, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called for calm in the capital and rejected calls for his resignation, saying he would simply be removed from the Parliament floor.
Malaita state Prime Minister Suidani joined calls for the Prime Minister to step down, saying the leader should hear the protesters’ demands before calling for peace.
Support from Australia comes with a 2017 deal and what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said was a call for support from Mr Sogavare.
“We’re there to support them[local law enforcement]and what they’re doing, and to provide that support, especially in relation to the critical infrastructure that’s there,” he said.
“It was important for us to be very clear about the nature of our involvement with our Pacific Island countries, especially with the Prime Minister.”
He said on Thursday that all Australian high commission staff were held accountable.
Catherine Ebert-Gray, former US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, said Australia’s continued security assistance was “very important for the Solomon Islands and the region”.
“Australian troops will find it difficult to bring long-term peace without accompanying changes in national leadership.
“Malaitan Parliamentarians are many and should be part of any government. More women should come to office and get the support they need to actively participate in government.”
Dr Aqorau said it was important to address a “feeling of alienation, disempowerment and neglect” that had “built up for some time”.
“Yesterday’s protests and riots are evidence of the neglect of serious underlying currents,” he wrote.
“The political system must be reformed, including by making the government more inclusive.
“Those who are rioting today are probably getting nothing from the government. That has to change, otherwise the Solomon Islands may be on the path to explosion.”