Solomon Islands ‘drifting to self-destruction’ before unrest in capital

Australian police have touched down in the Solomon Islands amid calls for calm and demands for the Prime Minister to resign after protests rocked the capital of Honiara for the second day in a row, leaving fires raging and smoke billowing above the city.

About 40 Australian Defence Force personnel and a navy ship are due to join Australian Federal Police officers later today in a peace-keeping role as local authorities struggle to control unrest experts say stems from a complex web of issues.

They say much of the tension stems from long-held differences between Malaita, the most populous of the hundreds of Solomon Islands, and Guadalcanal, where the capital and Parliament sit.

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Thick smoke billows across properties in the Solomon Islands city as crowds fill the streets.

Demonstrators from Malaita had travelled to the capital in a spill over of anger about a host of domestic issues including unrealised infrastructure promises, local media reported.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown on Wednesday after about 1000 people gathered in protest in the capital Honiara demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues.

The protesters breached the national Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said.

Experts say issues range from concerns over distribution of resources, logging and representation to a 2019 switch in diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China.

The Washington Post reported that some protesters set fire to a police station and several buildings in Chinatown.

Edvard Hviding, a professor of social anthropology and founding director of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group, told 9News.com.au tensions stretched right back to the early 2000s before Australia led the RAMSI peacekeeping mission to the islands.

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People appear to flee down an alleyway as unrest intensifies in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara.

Having experienced "this kind of rioting about three or four times" while previously living in the Solomon Islands, he said he wasn't "too pessimistic" about the situation.

"There are many lines of thought about this but I think the Solomon Islanders are resilient and will sort of rise, if not from the ashes at least, but this will pass," he told 9News.com.au.

"But our hope, everyone's hope is that the national government will now speak to the rioters."

Pacific Islands expert Transform Aqorau described the unrest as "unexpected but not surprising" and called for reform to the country's political system.

Writing on the Devpolicy Blog, Dr Aqorau said a number of flashpoints had been ignored over the past few months, with little communication between the central government and the government of Malaita, where Premier Daniel Suidani is extremely popular.

But the man once tipped as the Solomon Islands' next envoy to the United Nations said even outside Malaita, frustration was growing at the outsize influence of foreign loggers, miners and other companies.

"Solomon Islands has been drifting to self-destruction," he wrote.

"It is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. Significant donor support is given to its health and education sector."

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Thick smoke billows across properties in the Solomon Islands city as crowds fill the streets.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has called for calm in the capital and rejected calls to resign, saying he will only be removed on the floor of Parliament, local media report.

Mr Suidani, Premier of Malaita province, joined calls for the Prime Minister to step down, saying the leader needed to hear the protesters' demands before calling for peace.

"The people are there with their demand, and they want response from the Prime Minister or cabinet on their demand," he said, according to the Island Sun.

The support from Australia comes via a 2017 treaty and what Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said was a call for support from Mr Sogavare.

"We are there to support them (local law enforcement) and what they are doing and to provide that backup, particularly in relation to the critical infrastructure that is there," he said.

"And it has been important for us to be quite clear with our Pacific Island nations, in particular with the Prime Minister, about the nature of our involvement."

All Australian high commission staff were accounted for, he said on Thursday.

Former US ambassador to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu Catherine Ebert-Gray said Australia's continued security assistance was "so important to the Solomon Islands and the region."

"The Solomon Islands is still a young democracy but it enjoys strong support for its independence and stability," she told 9News.com.au in an email.

Protestors gather outside the parliament building in Honiara, Solomon Islands, November 24, 2021, in this screen grab obtained by Reuters, from a social media video (CNN).

"I am not there to assess the situation since diplomatic recognition was switched from Taiwan to China but I hope any destabilising influence related to this decision can be addressed with a durable solution, and one in the best interests of Solomon Islanders.

"I am watching for stepped up dialogue or whether another neutral party might be able to offer assistance."

Dr Aqorau said it was important to address a sense of "alienation, disempowerment and neglect" that had been "building for some time".

"Yesterday's protest and riots are evidence of serious underlying currents that have been neglected," he wrote.

"There has to be reform to the political system, including making the government more inclusive.

"Those that rioted today probably don't get anything from government. This has to change, otherwise Solomon Islands could be on the pathway to implosion."

– With Associated Press

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