Protests Rock Solomon Islands: Here’s What’s Behind the Unrest

Protesters tried to storm the prime minister’s residence, and he blamed the central government’s 2019 decision to switch allegiances to Beijing from Taipei for the violence.

Protesters in the Solomon Islands tried to storm the personal residence of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday, setting a building nearby on fire. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds as riots rocked the nation’s capital for the third straight day.

The police also fired shots elsewhere in the capital, Honiara, to scatter protesters, according to local reporters, as antigovernment demonstrators called for Mr. Sogavare’s resignation. The police said they had arrested two people, and sought to quell speculation that officers had killed the arrestees.

On Friday afternoon, the authorities announced that a 6 a.m.-to-7 p.m. curfew in Honiara would continue indefinitely. Papua New Guinea also committed to sending peacekeeping troops to the Solomon Islands, according to local news media, after police officers from Australia arrived in the capital on Thursday night. Mr. Sogavare had requested security assistance, Australia’s prime minister said.

Here’s what we know about the unrest.

Who and what are behind the protests?

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.

How did the Solomon Islands become the focus of world powers?

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.

How did the switch in allegiances affect the country?

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.”

What has been the fallout from the protests?

By Friday, many buildings had been burned and shops destroyed. The state of the prime minister’s residence in Lunga, on the outskirts of the capital, was unclear. Residents contended with food shortages on top of the ongoing protests, as the few shops that remained open had imposed strict buying limits.

On Wednesday, protesters stormed the national Parliament in Honiara and set a police station and buildings in Chinatown on fire, according to the authorities and local news reports. The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. On Thursday, protesters set more buildings ablaze and looted stores.

Mr. Suidani and opposition parliamentarians reiterated their call for Mr. Sogavare to step down.

“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,” Mr. Suidani told a local news outlet on Thursday. “People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore.”

Mr. Sogavare has resisted the calls to resign, saying, “If I am removed as prime minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament.”

He accused the protesters of being politically motivated, and vowed that the authorities would find the protests’ organizers and bring them to justice.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Sogavare also blamed “other powers” for encouraging the protests and said the sole source of the conflict was the diplomatic switch to Beijing, dismissing other concerns about his government.

The Chinese Embassy in Honiara, meanwhile, advised in a statement posted on social media Wednesday that Chinese residents in “high-risk areas” should shut their businesses and hire security guards.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said on Thursday that China was “gravely concerned over the attacks on Chinese citizens and enterprises, and have asked the local government to take all measures necessary to protect the safety of Chinese nationals and institutions.”

He said that in the past two years the relationship between the two countries had “enjoyed sound development with fruitful outcomes.” He added, “All attempts to disrupt the normal development of relations between China and Solomon Islands are just futile.”

How could this end?

Inter-island tensions spurred civil conflict between militias on the two main islands from 1998 to 2003, during a period known as “the tensions.” That led to the deployment of an Australia- and New Zealand-led peacekeeping force from 2003 to 2017.

On Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia announced that his country would send more than 100 police officers and military forces to the Solomon Islands to “provide stability and security.” Twenty-three police officers would arrive immediately (up to 50 more may make the trip), and 43 military personnel would follow.

By then, more than a dozen buildings were on fire or had been burned down in Chinatown, as well as 10 more in a nearby industrial zone, according to Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He cross-referenced on-the-ground videos and photos with maps of the area to estimate the number.

Videos posted to social media showed large crowds gathering in Chinatown as plumes of smoke billow from buildings.

Other individuals and groups had latched on to the protests for various reasons, Dr. Dinnen said. Machinations by the political opposition to unseat the government, and opportunistic rioters, had contributed to the size of the crowds, he said.

Elizabeth Osifelo contributed reporting from Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Yan Zhuang is a reporter in The New York Times's Australia bureau, based in Melbourne. @yanzhuang25


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