solomon: Why this Pacific archipelago has been burning for the last 2 days? – Times of India

NEW DELHI: The Solomon Islands has been witnessing the latest flare-up in its two-decade-old tensions with anti-government protesters breaching the National Parliament building in the capital on Wednesday and burning other buildings, mostly in Chinatown district, since then, besides Australia sending a peacekeeping force to the Pacific archipelago on Thursday.
On Wednesday, about 1,000 people gathered in the capital, Honiara, demanding resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare over a host of domestic issues, forcing him to declare a lockdown from 7 pm Wednesday through 7 pm Friday.
He said he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down”.
“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country. However, today’s events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go,” he said.
The anti-government demonstrators, however, defied the lockdown orders and again took to the streets on Thursday despite an announcement from the Solomon Islands Police force that they would be conducting increased patrols through Honiara.
A local journalist posted photos of a bank, shops and a school in flames on Twitter. Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose premier, Daniel Suidani, has been at odds with Sogavare since his decision to cut ties with Taiwan and favour China instead.
Sogavare, however, rejected calls to step down on Thursday, despite admitting widespread rioting and protests had brought the Pacific nation “to its knees”.
“If I am removed as prime minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament,” a defiant Sogavare said, calling on the protesters to return to their homes.
Australia, meanwhile, announced on Thursday that it was sending police, troops and diplomats to the Solomon Islands with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying he decided to send help after it became clear that the local police were “stretched”. He said the deployment included a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 more to provide security at critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 defence force personnel, a patrol boat and at least five diplomats.
The first personnel left Australia on Thursday with more to leave on Friday. The deployment is expected to last for a few weeks, Morrison said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security,” he said.
What triggered the protest?
It is not clear yet what triggered the protests, but according to news agency AP, tensions between the government and the leadership of the most populous island of Malaita have been simmering for some time. The primary reason: Sogavare’s 2019 decision to cut the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan, switching its allegiance to China instead. The premier of Malaita has been outspokenly critical of the decision, accusing the PM of getting too close to Beijing. Malaita’s leaders still maintain contact with Taiwan and receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington.
The province has also complained it has been unfairly deprived of government investment. Apart from these issues, there is youth unemployment and anger over anti-coronavirus controls.
Malaita premier Suidani, however, said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, even as AP quoted him telling the Solomon Star News that he agreed with the calls for Sogavare’s resignation.
“Over the last 20 years Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power, the plight of Solomon Islanders has worsened whilst at the same time foreigners have reaped the best of the country’s resources,” Suidani was quoted as saying. “People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore.”
Australia’s interest in the Pacific nation
Australia has a bilateral security treaty, under which Sogavare requested assistance, Morrison said.
“It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands. That is for them to resolve,“ he clarified.
Australia also led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands that restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.
China concerned
China on Thursday expressed serious concerns about the attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions in the Chinatown district, without providing 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 at a daily briefing in Beijing.
He said that economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations has benefited both sides. “Any attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations are futile,” he said.
Bloody history
The Solomon Islands comprise six main islands and more than 950 smaller ones over an area of around 27,500 square kilometres (10,600 square miles). The islands are often hit by massive earthquakes, triggering tsunamis as happened in 2013, 2007 and 1977, leaving dozens dead. The population of 753,000 is overwhelmingly Christian and ethnic Melanesian.
The former British protectorate, from whose rainforests vast bulk of wood is exported to China, has long been beset by political and ethnic unrest.
During World War II, the Solomon Islands, about 1,500 km (1,000 miles) northeast of Australia, were the scene of bloody fighting. It was captured by the Japanese, after which the US Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942. They were successful in wresting back control, though fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued through the end of the war.
It got independence from Britain in 1978, but have been struggling with unrest and political violence since.
Rivalry between the most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government has repeatedly led to clashes, with the former complaining that it has been neglected.
The late 1990s saw Guadalcanal militant attacks, particularly on those from Malaita, and for five years, the country was brought to its knees.
“The Tensions” as it was called only eased with the deployment of an Australia-led peacekeeping mission in 2003.
Riots again erupted in April 2006 after Snyder Rini was elected prime minister by legislators. Dozens of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese were looted and burned in the capital as local resentment had been building against the dominance of foreign business figures — mostly ethnic Chinese from Taiwan, China, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Chinese businesses were targeted partly because of allegations they and Taiwan — which at the time had diplomatic relations with Honiara — helped finance Rini to bribe legislators for supporting him.
Australia, along with New Zealand, sent in peacekeeping troops then as well.
A major event happened in 2019 when the historical rivalry between Guadalcanal and Malaita converged with international geopolitics after veteran politician Sogavare was elected the Prime Minister, sparking another round of violent protests. Within five months, he switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, one of Sogavare’s campaign planks. Observers say this week’s violence is just a continuation of all of these.
(With agency inputs)

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