CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign interference over his government’s decision to switch alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for anti-government protests, arson and looting that have ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days.
Critics also pointed out that the unrest was caused by a dearth of accountability and government services, as well as corruption and Chinese companies giving employment opportunities to foreigners rather than locals.
Honiara’s Chinatown and its downtown precinct have been focuses of rioters, looters and protesters who have demanded Sogavare, who has intermittently been prime minister since 2000, to resign.
In two turbulent days when police were unable to contain the mob, the National Parliament building was set ablaze and a station of police was also destroyed.
Sogavare angered many in 2019, particularly leaders of the Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he cut the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Malaita leaders say their island is unfairly being denied investment by the government since the changes.
A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived late Thursday in Honiara, where they will help local police efforts to restore order, Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton said.
Sogavare said he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only issue” in the violence, which was “unfortunately influenced and encouraged by other powers.”
External pressures were a “very big … influence. I don’t want to name names. We’ll leave it there,” Sogavare said.
“I’m not going to bow down to anyone. We are intact, the government’s intact and we’re going to defend democracy,” he added.
Marise Penny, Australian Foreign Minister, did not accept that unrest had been sparked by other countries.
“We have not indicated that at all,” Payne said.
“We’ve been very clear. Our view is we don’t want to see violence. We would very much hope for a return to stability,” she added.
Gina Kekea, a local journalist said that the protests were caused by a combination of factors including the Chinese foreign policy shift to Beijing without much public consultation. Also there was concern that local companies weren’t providing jobs to the people.
“Chinese businesses and (other) Asian businesses … seem to have most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which people feel strongly about,” Kekea said.
Kekea stated that protesters were replaced Friday by looters, scavengers and others in Chinatown.
“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting and protesting and rioting and Honiara is just a small city,” Kekea said of the home to 85,000 people.
“So I think that there’s nothing much left for them to loot and spoil now,” she added.
Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, committed troops and police to assist local police in restoring order and protecting critical infrastructure.
Australia refused to assist with the protection of both the National Parliament (and the Executive Buildings), in an indication that Australia wasn’t taking sides.
Some analysts believe that Australia intervened fast to prevent Chinese security forces entering to restore order.
Morrison claimed that Sogavare sought help as he trusted Australia.
“The Solomon Islands reached out to us first … as family because they trust us and we’ve worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.
“That is our region and we’re standing up to secure our region with our partners, our friends, our family and allies,” he added.
Sogavare sought assistance from Australia in accordance with a bilateral security agreement that was signed since 2017 when Australian peacekeepers left the Solomon Islands.
Australia led the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (international police and military force) that returned peace to Solomon Islands after ethnic violence between 2003-2017.
Morrison asked if Chinese businesses and citizens were being targeted. He described the unrest as “a bit of a mixed story” and noted Chinatown was the scene of rioting before Australia’s 2003 intervention.
China has expressed grave concern at recent attacks on Chinese citizens and institutions. However, it did not give 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 spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Thursday.
He stated that both parties have been benefited by economic and other cooperation after the establishment diplomatic relations.
“Any attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations are futile,” he said.
Dutton claimed that the plane, which carried 23 federal police officers as well as several diplomats, flew from Canberra in Australia to Honiara on Thursday night.
The arrival of up to 50 police and 43 members of the defense force with a boat patrol boat was scheduled for Friday.
The Australian force would also be equipped to “provide a medical response,” Dutton said.
“It’s certainly a dangerous situation on the ground. We’ve seen the rioting that’s taken place, the arson and the general disorder that’s there at the moment as well,” Dutton said.
“So there’s a lot of work for the police to do on the ground,” he added.
After about 1000 protestors gathered in Honiara demanding Sogavare’s resignation, Sogavare ordered a lockdown on Wednesday.
The government stated that the protesters broke into the National Parliament building. They also set fire to the thatched roof of nearby buildings. A police station was also destroyed and several other buildings were set on fire.
Sogavare ordered the capital locked down from 7 p.m. Wednesday through 7 p.m. Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down.”
Protesters took to the streets again Thursday, despite an announcement by the Solomon Islands Police force about increased patrols in Honiara during the lockdown.
Local media claimed that the majority of protestors were Malaita’s premier Daniel Suidani. He has always been against Sogavare whom he claims is too close with Beijing.
Suidani claimed he wasn’t responsible for violence in Honiara but said that he had agreed to Sogavare’s call for him to step down.
The Solomon Islands were located approximately 1,500 km (1,000 mi) northeastern of Australia. They witnessed bloody fighting during World War II.
U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal on August 22, 1942, after the Japanese captured it. This was to launch a campaign for retaking control. They succeeded, but fighting around and in the Solomon Islands continued until the end.
Bangkok reports Rising