Australian police, troops and diplomats are helping local police restore peace while trying to stay out of the domestic political dispute.
Here is a look at some of the causes behind the concerns:
ETHNIC TENSION OPEN OLD WOUNDS
The Solomon Islands are known as a battlefield during World War II, the central battle of Guadalcanal named after the country’s largest island where the restful capital Honiara is located.
It was then known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and became the Solomon Islands before independence in 1978. The nation of the South Pacific with 700,000 people – mostly Melanesian but also Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese and European – is, like neighboring Australia and New Zealand, a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II the head of state.
Solomon Islands: Pacific archipelago paralyzed by unrest
People walk through the looted streets of Chinatown in Honiara, Solomon Islands. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign officials for his government’s decision to change alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for protests against the government, arson and looting that have ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days. (AP image)
A migration of settlers from Malaita, the country’s second largest island and most populous province, to the economic opportunities on the Guadalcanal and Honiara aroused ethnic tensions and eventually unrest.
In the late 1990s, native Guadalcanal islanders, known as Guales, launched a campaign of violence and threats to drive the Malayans off the island. The Malaita Eagle Force militia was formed to protect them in a conflict that led the government to declare a four-month state of emergency in 1999.
Australia and New Zealand rejected the government’s request for assistance. With the police force ethnically divided, the law and order on Guadalcanal collapsed.
In 2000, the Prime Minister of Malaita kidnapped the Eagle Force Bartolomeus Ulufa‘alu, a malayan, because they did not think he was doing enough for the malay’s cause.
Ulufa’alu resigned in exchange for his freedom and the current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare began the first of his four occasions as the leader of the unstable nation.
WHAT IS CHINA’S ROLE IN THE CURRENT CONCERN?
China has given another reason for society to split, with the government supporting Beijing and the Maltese leaders supporting Taiwan.
The autonomous island of Taiwan split from China after a civil war in 1949, but Beijing claims it is part of its territory and has persuaded all but 15 countries, most of them small and poor in Africa and Latin America, to change recognition to the mainland.
But experts say that the unrest in the Solomon Islands is driven by the same underlying causes that have undermined the social structure for decades: tensions between the islands and ethnic tensions, a perceived lack of resource sharing between Guadalcanal and Malaita, widespread poverty and high youth unemployment.
“Geopolitical tensions have been the spark but not the great driving force,” said Jonathan Pryke, program director for the Pacific Islands at the Lowy Institute’s International think tank.
“I’m sure there is a certain amount of affection for Taiwan in Malaita, but it’s also another way for Malaitans to express their frustration with the national government,” he added.
Pryke said it was too early to assess whether the Solomons would benefit financially from their 2019 change of diplomatic relations with Beijing.
While Beijing’s economic incentive to break ties with Taiwan has not yet borne fruit, the Solomon Islands had closed its borders throughout the pandemic, limiting Chinese involvement.
Anger against Chinese businessmen has long existed in the Solomon Islands and resulted in much of Honiara’s Chinatown being burned in 2006, and again this week.
“Chinese societies are vulnerable in the Solomon Islands because they do not have the traditional support base,” Pryke said. “They do not have the tribes the families would give them an extra degree of cultural isolation from this kind of concern.”
HOW DID AUSTRALIA GET ENGAGED?
Australia and Solomon Islands signed their first bilateral security agreement in 2017. It provides a legal basis for the rapid deployment of Australian police, troops and associated civilians in the event of a major security challenge.
Australian police were in the air aboard a military transport plane within hours of Sogavare invoking the treaty on Thursday.
Australia had led a force of Pacific Island police and troops under the Regional Assurance Mission to the Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, from 2003 to 2017. It included 2,300 police and troops from 17 nations, invited by the Solomon Government. The deployment successfully ended the conflict that killed 200 people.
During the five years of ethics and civil unrest before RAMSI arrived, the Solomon Islands were close to becoming a failed state.
The bilateral treaty recognizes that the underlying causes of the unrest remained and posed development challenges.
“Solomon Islands will need continuous support to maintain the gains made under RAMSI and to help build long-term stability and sustainable growth,” the Australian Government said in 2017.