Solomon Islands leader blames foreign powers for unrest

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) —

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

But critics also blamed the unrest on complaints about a lack of government services and accountability, corruption and foreign workers taking jobs from locals.

Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the leaders of the Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived late Thursday in Honiara, where they will help local police restore order after a second day of violent anti-government protests, Defense Secretary Peter Dutton said.

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

External pressure was a “very big … influence. I won’t name names. We’ll leave it at that,” Sogavare said.

“I am not going to bow to anyone. We are intact, the government is intact and we are going to defend democracy,” he added.

Australian Foreign Secretary Marise Payne disagreed that other countries had fueled the unrest.

“We didn’t state that at all,” Payne says.

“We have been very clear. Our view is that we don’t want to see violence. We very much hope for a return to stability,” she added.

Local journalist Gina Kekea said the transition of foreign policy to Beijing with little public consultation was one of the many issues leading to the protests. There were also complaints that foreign companies were not providing local jobs.

“Chinese companies and (other) Asian companies … seem to have the most work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which people value highly,” Kekea told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Protesters had been replaced by looters and scavengers in Honiara’s hard-hit Chinatown on Friday, Kekea said.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 guess there isn’t much left for them to loot and spoil.”

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

Australia would not help protect the national parliament and executive buildings, a sign that Australia did not choose a political party.

Some observers argue that Australia acted quickly to prevent Chinese security forces from stepping in to restore order.

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

“The Solomon Islands contacted us first…as a family because they trust us and we’ve worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.

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

Sogavare requested help from Australia under a bilateral security treaty 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 Solomon Islands, which restored peace to the country from 2003 to 2017 after bloody ethnic violence.

China, meanwhile, expressed serious concern about recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without providing details.

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

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

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

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

Up to 50 additional police and 43 military personnel with a Navy patrol boat were scheduled for Friday.

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

“It is certainly a dangerous situation on the ground. We’ve seen the riots that have taken place, the arson and the general disorder that’s going on right now,” Dutton said.

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

Sogavare declared a lockdown on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered to protest in Honiara and demanded his resignation over a host of domestic problems.

The protesters broke through 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 the capital to be locked from 7pm Wednesday to 7pm Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government”.

Despite an announcement by the Solomon Islands police that they would conduct more patrols through Honiara during 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, is at odds with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.

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

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Rising reported from Bangkok.

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