Understand everything about the tensions in the Solomon Islands, at the heart of rivalries in Oceania

The Solomon Islands are under tension. This State of Oceania, straddling two archipelagos, is a parliamentary monarchy of the Commonwealth, independent from the United Kingdom since 1978. The government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is facing pressure to resign, amid diplomatic issues with China and Taiwan, which have led to riots the last days.

  • The facts: fires and protests

This Thursday, November 25, several buildings were set on fire in Honiara, the capital of the country. Thousands of protesters marched through the city’s Chinatown. They demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister and marched despite a curfew, instituted the day before following riots.

“There are several processions moving, it is very tense,” a resident of Honiara told AFP who did not wish to be identified, while local media reported looting and use of tear gas by the police. This witness said that he saw the police setting up roadblocks. Without any sign of lull on the side of the rioters, more than 24 hours after the start of the disturbances in front of Parliament.

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Already on Wednesday, hundreds of people demonstrated to demand the resignation of Manasseh Sogavare. Protesters burned down a police station and looted businesses, until the police intervened with tear gas.

Australia, a big neighbor of the Solomons located 1,500 kilometers away, will deploy a peacekeeping force there, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday. “Our aim is to ensure stability and security,” he said, claiming to have received a request for assistance from the prime minister. A first contingent of a hundred soldiers and police is expected this Thursday evening.

Beijing has expressed its “great concern” for its interests to the Solomons. “We call on the government of the Solomon Islands to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals and Chinese entities,” Beijing diplomacy spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.

Prime Minister of Salomon Manasseh Sogavare, who deplored Wednesday a “sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing down a democratically elected government”, assured that he would remain in power. Opposition leader Matthew Wale urged Manasseh Sogavare to resign, assuring that the unrest would not end with a police-framed curfew. “Unfortunately, the frustrations and the anger returned by the people against the Prime Minister are spreading uncontrollably in the streets, where opportunists are taking advantage of the situation,” he said in a statement obtained by AFP.

  • Why it matters: diplomatic rivalries

The Solomon Islands are caught up in a diplomatic battle between mainland China and Taiwan. Since gaining independence in 1983, the Solomon Islands have maintained diplomatic ties with Taipei. In 2019, the government decided to break this link, and to recognize the communist power of Beijing as the legitimate representative of China.

The Asian giant, which considers Taiwan as one of its provinces although it does not control the island of 23 million inhabitants, makes it a prerequisite for establishing diplomatic relations with other countries. The decision of the government of the Solomon Islands had then provoked the resentment of a part of the population, which maintained close relations with Taipei.

This diplomatic strategy has direct consequences on the internal politics of the archipelago. The island of Malaita, one of the nine provinces forming the Solomon Islands, whose population was close to Taiwan, is now considering holding a referendum for its independence. Residents of Malaita are also suspected of having taken part in the riots. And the leader of the province of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, accused the prime minister of being the man of Beijing, saying he had “placed foreign interests above those of the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands”.

  • The context: a growing Chinese presence

The Solomon Islands had sunk into inter-ethnic violence in the early 2000s. New tensions led to the deployment between 2003 and 2013 of an Australian-led peacekeeping force. Riots broke out in the Chinese district of Honiara during the legislative elections of 2006. They followed rumors that companies close to Beijing had rigged the vote.

According to the BBC, in 2006, the Chinese community in the Solomon Islands represented a few thousand people out of a population of 500,000 people. However, these were already well-established families, some having lived in the Solomon Islands for several generations. But in the 2000s, the arrival of new Chinese immigrants, who came to the Solomon Islands to do business, caused tensions. And both China and Taiwan were then accused of having encouraged this corruption, in order to convince certain officials to serve their diplomatic interests.

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The riots of 2006 led to the swift resignation of newly elected Prime Minister Snyder Rini, accused of being influenced by Chinese businessmen. Manasseh Sogavare then succeeded him, before being pushed to the exit by a vote of the Parliament in 2007. Sogavare then returned to power from 2014 to 2017, then in April 2019. His election was controversial and caused controversy. riots in 2019.


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