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Violence in Solomon Islands recedes but no underlying tension

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Violence receded in the Solomon Islands capital on Friday, but the government showed no signs of resolving the underlying grievances that sparked two days of riots, including concerns over the links croissants of the country with China.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has sought to distract from domestic issues by accusing outside interference of stoking protesters, with thinly veiled reference to Taiwan and the United States.

External pressures have had a “very great … influence.” I don’t want to name names. We will stop there, ”said Sogavare.

Honiara’s Chinatown and its city center were hotbeds of rioters, looters and protesters who demanded the resignation of Sogavare, who has been intermittently prime minister since 2000.

Sogavare has been widely criticized by the leaders of the country’s most populous island, Malaita, for its decision in 2019 to abandon diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of mainland China. His government, meanwhile, was devastated by the millions of American aid pledged directly to Malaita, rather than through the central government.

These problems are just the last of decades of rivalry between Malaita and Guadalcanal, where the capital, Honiara is located, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute.

“Most of the stressors have been in the country for many decades and generations, and much of it arose out of the country’s abject poverty, limited economic development opportunities, and inter-ethnic and inter-island rivalry. between the two most populous islands, ”he said.

“So everyone is pointing fingers, but some must also point fingers at the political leadership of Solomon Islands.”

The Solomon Islands, with a population of approximately 700,000, are located approximately 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) northeast of Australia. Internationally, they are probably even better known for the bloody fighting that took place there during WWII between the United States and Japan.

Riots and looting broke out on Wednesday following a peaceful protest in Honiara, mainly by people from Malaita demonstrating for a number of grievances. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, which set the National Parliament, a police station and many other buildings on fire.

Protesters defied a lockdown declared by Sogavare on Wednesday to take to the streets again on Thursday.

Critics also blamed the unrest on complaints about a lack of government services and accountability, corruption, and Chinese companies giving jobs to foreigners rather than locals.

Since Taiwan’s change of allegiance to China in 2019, massive investment in Beijing’s infrastructure is expected – local rumors say, in the order of $ 500 million – but with the outbreak of the pandemic of COVID-19 shortly after the change, none of that materialized yet.

Malaita threatened to hold an independence referendum on the issue, but this was quashed by Sogavare’s government.

Sogavare said on Friday 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”.

“I’m not going to bow to anyone. We are intact, the government is intact and we will defend democracy, ”he said.

More than general geopolitical concerns, however, Pryke said the protests really boiled down to frustration over the lack of opportunities for a largely young population and the concentration of much of the country’s wealth in the capital. .

“I guarantee you that the vast majority of people involved in the riots and looting could not point to China or Taiwan on a map,” he said. “They were there as opportunists because they had very limited economic opportunities. It’s a very poor country with a high rate of youth unemployment, and it shows how quickly these things can get out of hand in an unstable country.

A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived in Honiara on Thursday evening to help local police restore order.

Up to 50 other Australian police officers as well as 43 members of the defense force with a navy patroller were due to arrive on Friday.

They were requested by Sogavare under a bilateral treaty with Australia, and the presence of an independent force, though small, appeared to help quell some of the violence.

Australia has a history of assisting the Solomon Islands, coming after years of bloody ethnic violence known as “tensions” in 2003. The Australian-led international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands, helped restore peace and left in 2017.

Australian staff should be available for “a few weeks”, according to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Payne told reporters on Friday she had no indication other countries had fueled the unrest.

“We didn’t say that at all,” Payne said.

Australia is failing to help protect the national parliament and executive buildings, a sign that it is not taking political sides.

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

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

“Chinese and (other) Asian companies… seem to have most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which is what people are attached to,” Kekea said.

Protesters were replaced with looters and scavengers in Chinatown on Friday, Kekea said.

“It’s been two days, two full days of looting, demonstrations and riots and Honiara is just a small town,” Kekea said. The capital has 85,000 inhabitants.

“So I think there isn’t much left for them to loot and waste now,” she said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked if Chinese citizens and businesses are being targeted. He described the unrest as “a somewhat mixed story” and noted that Chinatown was the scene of riots before Australia intervened in 2003.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday condemned the violence and underscored Beijing’s support for the Solomon Islands government. He said China is taking measures to protect the security and rights of the Chinese people and institutions in the country.

“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sogavare, Solomon’s government can restore order and stabilize the internal situation as soon as possible,” he said.

Establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing “has won the sincere support of the people” and “any attempt to undermine the normal development of Sino-Solomon Islands relations is in vain,” Zhao said.

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Increase reported from Bangkok.

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