Solomon Islands leaders accuse foreign powers of unrest

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CANBERRA, Australia – Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign interference in his government’s decision to swap alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for protests against the government, arson and looting that have ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days.

But critics also blamed the unrest on complaints about lack of government services and responsibilities, corruption and Chinese companies providing jobs to foreigners instead of locals.

Honiara’s Chinatown and its center have been the focus of insurgents, looters and protesters who have demanded the resignation of Sogavare, who has been prime minister since 2000.

The Riksdag building, a police station and companies have been set on fire during two tumultuous days when the police failed to control the crowd.

Sogavare made many angry in 2019, especially the leaders of the Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he cut the country’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Malaita’s leaders complain that their island has been unfairly deprived of government investment since the change.

Sogavare said he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only issue” in the violence, which “unfortunately was influenced and encouraged by other powers.”

External pressure was a “very big … influence. I do not want to name names. We leave that,” said Sogavare.

“I do not intend to bow to anyone. We are intact, the government is intact and we will defend democracy, he added.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not agree that other countries had stirred up the unrest.

“We have not indicated it at all,” Payne said.

“We have been very clear. Our view is that we do not want to see violence. We really hope for a return to stability,” she added.

Local journalist Gina Kekea said that the foreign policy transition to Beijing with some public consultation was one of a mixture of issues that led to the protests. There were also complaints that foreign companies did not provide local jobs.

“Chinese companies and (other) Asian companies … seem to have most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which people feel strongly about,” Kekea said.

Protesters had been replaced by looters and scavengers on Friday in Chinatown, Kekea said.

“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting and protests and riots and Honiara is just a small town,” Kekea said of the home of 85,000 people.

“So I think there’s not much left for them to plunder and destroy now,” she added.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday engaged troops, police and diplomats to help local police restore order and protect critical infrastructure.

Australia would not help protect the national parliament and the executive buildings, as a sign that Australia did not take political parties.

Some observers have suggested that Australia intervene quickly to prevent Chinese security forces from moving in to restore order.

But Morrison said Sogavare had asked for help because he trusted Australia.

“The Solomon Islands reached out to us first … as a family because they trust us and we have worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.

“It is our region and we stand up to secure our region with our partners, our friends, our family and allies,” he added.

Sogavare requested assistance from Australia under a bilateral security agreement that has existed since 2017, when Australian peacekeepers last left the Solomon Islands.

Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.

Morrison questioned whether Chinese citizens and businesses were targets. Describing the unrest as “a bit of a mixed story”, he noted that Chinatown was the site of riots before Australia’s 2003 intervention.

China, meanwhile, expressed serious concern over the recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without giving details.

“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sogavare, the Solomon Islands Government can restore social order and stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday.

He said that economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations had benefited both sides.

“Any attempt to undermine the normal development of relations between China and Solomon is meaningless,” he said.

Dutton said a plane carrying 23 federal police officers and several diplomats flew from the Australian capital Canberra to Honiara late on Thursday.

Up to 50 more police officers and 43 members of the Defense Forces with a naval patrol boat were scheduled to arrive on Friday.

The Australian force would also be equipped to “provide a medical response”, Dutton said.

“It is really a dangerous situation on the ground. We have seen the riots that have taken place, the arson and the general chaos that exists at the moment as well,” Dutton said.

“So there is a lot of work for the police to do on the ground,” he added.

Sogavare declared a deadlock on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in Honiara and demanded his resignation due to a number of domestic issues.

The protesters broke into the national parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set fire to a police station and other buildings.

Sogavare ordered that the capital be closed from 7pm on Wednesday to 7pm on Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate incident aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government.”

Despite an announcement from the Solomon Islands police force that they would carry out increased patrols through Honiara in the middle of the lockdown, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.

Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose prime minister Daniel Suidani has disagreed with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.

Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told Solomon Star News that he agreed to the calls for Sogavare to resign.

The Solomon Islands, about 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) northeast of Australia, were the site of bloody battles during World War II.

After being captured by the Japanese, US Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942 to launch a campaign to regain control. They were successful, although fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued during the end of the war.

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Rising is reported from Bangkok.

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