Solomon Islands: Why Are People Protesting?

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Protests rocked the capital of the Solomon Islands on Thursday for the second straight day as people clashed with the police and demanded that Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare resign. Some set buildings ablaze and looted stores.

Protesters were met by police tear gas and rubber bullets on Wednesday after they stormed the national Parliament in the capital, Honiara, and set a police station and buildings in Chinatown on fire, the authorities said. On Thursday, more buildings went up in flames. Outnumbered, the police set up a heavily guarded barricade to stop demonstrators from entering the city’s main business district.

On Thursday afternoon, the Australian government announced that, after a request for assistance from Mr. Sogavare, it would send a peacekeeping force to the Solomon Islands.

Here’s what we know about the unrest.

Many of the protesters had traveled from the island of Malaita to Guadalcanal Island, which houses the nation’s capital, according to officials and local news reports.

Experts say discontent has simmered for decades between the two islands, mainly over a perceived unequal distribution of resources and a lack of economic support that has left Malaita one of the least-developed provinces in the island nation.

There has also been lingering dissatisfaction in Malaita over the central government’s decision in 2019 to switch diplomatic allegiances to Beijing from Taipei, Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its territory.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Beijing of bribing Solomons politicians to abandon Taipei in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago made up of nearly a thousand islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia. The island chain has a population of 710,000, primarily farmers and fishers.

Malaita is the most populous of the islands, with residents numbering 160,500 as of last year. Densely forested, mountainous and volcanic, it lies 30 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, the larger island, across Indispensable Strait.

The island nation found itself in a heightened geopolitical tug of war because of the 2019 decision, which dealt a blow both to Taipei’s global standing and to Washington’s regional diplomacy.

The United States sees the Solomon Islands, and other Pacific nations, as crucial in preventing China from asserting influence in the region.

China has been investing heavily in the Pacific, to the alarm of U.S. officials. In 2019, a Chinese company signed an agreement to lease one of the islands, but the agreement was subsequently ruled illegal by the attorney general of the Solomon Islands.

This is not the first time China’s presence on the islands has been a source of contention. In 2006, riots broke out amid rumors that the election of an unpopular prime minister had been influenced by Chinese or Taiwanese money.

Some experts draw a straight line from the 2019 decision to this week’s unrest.

Behind the riots was “quite a lot of unhappiness about that switch,” said Sinclair Dinnen, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs.

Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, has been a vocal critic of that decision by the prime minister, and Malaita continues to maintain a relationship with and receive support from Taiwan — in contravention to the central government’s position, said Mihai Sora, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former Australian diplomat stationed in the Solomon Islands.

With the United States providing Malaita with direct foreign aid while China supports the central government, existing fractures in the nation have deepened, he said.

“Geostrategic competition does not by itself trigger rioting,” Mr. Sora said, “but it’s the actions of these large nations as they curry sympathy with local actors — favoring some over others to pursue their own strategic objectives without pausing to consider what are already deep social and political undercurrents in the country — that have a destabilizing effect on social cohesion.”

After hundreds of people took to the streets and set fire to a building near Parliament, Mr. Sogavare announced a 36-hour curfew: from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Friday.

He accused the protesters of being politically motivated, saying in a video address, “Today our nation witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down.”



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