Australian peacekeepers arrived in riot-torn Honiara overnight, securing critical infrastructure amid a “very volatile” situation after days of anti-government protests situation left the Solomon Islands’ capital, officials in Canberra said Friday.
The vanguard of Australia’s snap deployment arrived in the Pacific island nation less than a day after Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare appealed for help quelling violent unrest that threatened to topple his government.
After making the request, Sogavare said the Solomons had been “brought to its knees” by the rioting, which saw much of Honiara’s Chinatown district torched as demonstrators demanded his resignation.
Canberra’s Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the Australian mission, comprised of about 100 police and military personnel, was intended to restore law and order.
“Twenty-three Australian Federal Police were deployed immediately yesterday, they are already on the ground in Honiara, more will be deployed today, about another 50,” she told Sky News.
“The situation is very volatile there. At the moment we know that the rioting has escalated over the last couple of days,” she added.
The archipelago nation of around 700,000 people has for decades been beset by ethnic and political tensions.
The latest bout of unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, setting fire to an outbuilding and calling for Sogavare’s ouster.
Since then the demonstrations have descended into a violent free-for-all, with gangs of stick-wielding youths rampaging through the capital, stripping stores of goods and clashing with police.
“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident told AFP, asking not to be named.
By late Thursday thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders, running through the streets carrying boxes, crates and bulging sacks of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city.
Images published on social media showed buildings engulfed in flames, shopfronts smouldering and corrugated roofs twisted and collapsed in the capital.
Debris, including trash and tree branches, was strewn across the streets.
Banks, schools, police stations, offices and Chinese-owned businesses were among the buildings reportedly torched.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organisations”.
– Slow burn –
The unrest has been sparked by pandemic-fuelled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government.
In the late 1990s Guadalcanal militants launched attacks on settlers, particularly targeting those from Malaita, and for five years unrest plagued the country.
The so-called “Tensions” only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission — named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the latest Australian deployment was expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s previous peacekeeping mission, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost about US$2.2 billion.
“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 said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security.”
Malaita residents continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government.
Since 2019 the feud has been turbocharged by a row over Sogavare’s decision to abruptly break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognise Beijing.
Malaita authorities opposed the move and defiantly maintained contact with the Taiwan authorities. As a result the province continues to receive outsized aid from Taipei and Washington.
The province’s premier Daniel Suidani has accused Sogavare of being in Beijing’s pocket, alleging he had “elevated the interest of foreigners above those of Solomon Islanders”.
“People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore,” he said.
Experts say geopolitical rivalry is now fuelling the crisis.
“Political competition doesn’t trigger a riot in Honiara,” said Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific at Australia’s Lowy Institute.
“But the actions of these great powers — while they curry favour with individual political actors — have a destabilising effect on what is already a fragile and vulnerable country.”
“Then of course the contemporary context is one of extended economic hardship due to Covid restrictions, a Covid state of emergency,” he told AFP.
“The health and economic impacts of Covid have only added to the pressures that any developing country was facing before the pandemic hit.”