Solomon Islands leaders blame violent anti-government protests on foreign interference | Solomon Islands

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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has accused foreign interference in 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.

But critics have also blamed concerns over complaints about lack of government services and accountability, corruption and foreign workers taking local jobs. In 2019, Sogavare also annoyed many, especially the leaders of Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he cut the country’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Late on Thursday, a plane carrying Australian police, military personnel and diplomats arrived in Honiara, where they will assist local police efforts to restore order after a second day of violent protests against the government. Australia is that deploy more than 100 police and defense personnel to support “riot control” and critical infrastructure security.

Sogavare said on Friday that 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, added he.

Smoke from fires rises from buildings in Honiara on Thursday.
Protesters set fire to buildings in Honiara and looted businesses. Photo: Charley Piringi / AFP / Getty Images

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 told Australian TV broadcaster ABC.

Protesters had been replaced by looters and scavengers on Friday in Honiara’s hard-hit Chinatown, Kekea said.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. “So I think there’s not much left for them to plunder and destroy now.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday committed 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.”

Sogavare requested assistance from Australia under a bilateral security agreement that has been in place 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.

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.

A building next to the parliament building in Honiara was set on fire on Wednesday.
A building next to the parliament building in Honiara was set on fire on Wednesday. Photo: Courtesy of Charley Piringi / AFP / Getty Images

Australian Secretary of Defense Peter Dutton said a plane carrying 23 federal police officers and several diplomats flew from Canberra to Honiara late 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 really is 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,” he added. “So there is a lot of work for the police to do on the spot.”

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”.

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.

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