The escalating riots — fueled by domestic grievances over development priorities and the country’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China — led Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to call on neighboring Australia for help. His Australian counterpart pledged to send about 120 soldiers and police officers to keep the peace.
“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security to enable the normal constitutional processes in the Solomon Islands,” Scott Morrison said in a news conference Thursday. “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.”
Morrison said two dozen Australian police officers were on their way to Honiara, where they would soon be joined by more than 40 soldiers and 50 additional police. He expected the deployment to last “a matter of weeks.”
“We have always been there to help our Pacific family when they have needed us, and this is such a time,” Morrison said.
Mihai Sora, a former Australian diplomat who was posted to Honiara from 2012 to 2014, said the quick request for help and Australia’s rapid response were hopeful signs that the Solomon Islands could avoid a repeat of past bloodshed.
“How rapidly the situation escalated came as a surprise to many,” Sora said. “If Australia hesitated, if they took days or weeks to consider a response, the situation may have deteriorated to such a low point where recovery would have been difficult.”
In a national address late Wednesday, Sogavare called the riots a “sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down” and announced a 36-hour lockdown in Honiara.
“Hundreds of citizens took the law into their own hands,” he said, claiming they had been “led astray by a few unscrupulous people” whom he did not name but said would “face the full brunt of the law.”
Many of the protesters came to Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, from Malaita, the most populous island in the archipelagic nation in the South Pacific, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia.
Tensions have simmered between the two islands since the national government switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, a move opposed by Malaita’s premier, Daniel Suidani, who claimed he had been offered a bribe to support the switch. Sogavare denied the accusation.
Suidani pledged Malaita would never engage with Beijing and terminated licenses of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese, drawing a rebuke from the national government. Tensions grew in May when Suidani sought medical treatment in Taiwan, a trip the government said was “unauthorized.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that China paid great attention to the developments in the Solomons and supported the government’s efforts to halt violence. Any attempt to disrupt relations between China and the Solomon Islands would be futile, he said. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory, has been picking off Taipei’s remaining diplomatic partners since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president in 2016.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Taipei was aware of the situation but had no comment on the Solomon Islands’ domestic politics.
On Tuesday, members of Parliament from Malaita issued a statement expressing fear over planned protests in Honiara and calling on Suidani to “recall our people, our brothers and sons from carrying out such a potentially dangerous and violent actions.”
Suidani said the protests, which he did not attend, were the result of the government ignoring the people’s concerns over issues such as the diplomatic switch and infrastructure projects.
“Whatever the government wants the people to know, they must stand and tell them,” he told the Guardian on Wednesday. “They cannot run away from problems. It will not solve anything.”
Hundreds of protesters began to gather in front of the national Parliament building on Wednesday morning, shouting for Sogavare to step down, according to videos posted online by local journalists.
By midday, smoke could be seen coming from a grass hut next to Parliament where lawmakers sometimes gather. Soon, the hut was engulfed in flames. Then a police station and several buildings in Chinatown — including at least one Chinese-owned store — were set on fire.
Salote Mataitini, a Fijian pilot, said she was flying from Kiribati to the Solomon Islands when she and her co-pilot landed in the midst of the unrest on Wednesday. The route to their quarantine hotel was blocked because of the disorder, with police in riot gear using shipping containers to close access to the port. When the pilots arrived at another hotel, they found police officers clashing with protesters.
“I got a shock when I first heard the rubber bullets and tear gas because I thought I heard shootings,” she told The Washington Post in a social media message. “As we entered the room . . . we were told to stay away from the windows.”
Thursday morning was quiet, she said, but the violence resumed in the afternoon, with rioters again targeting Chinatown. Mataitini watched from her hotel balcony as black smoke began pouring from buildings nearby. Staff told her to pack a small bag with important documents in case the hotel had to evacuate.
As the arson and looting continued, the political situation also kept deteriorating, with national opposition leader Matthew Wale calling for Sogavare to resign.
The Solomon Islands, known for World War II battles between U.S. and Japanese forces, are in a volatile region where Beijing has been expanding its influence.
Sora, who is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said recent tensions between China and Australia added significance to Morrison’s decision to send troops but would not have been the deciding factor.
“Even without the notion of a geopolitical competitor in the region, Australia would have looked to be the first responder” in the Solomon Islands, he said, citing historical ties between the two countries.
Sogavare, who is serving his fourth stint as prime minister, first came to power in the aftermath of a 2000 coup fueled by tensions between ethnic groups. The conflict, which began in 1998, claimed around 200 lives and lasted until 2003, when an Australian-led force restored law and order.
The prime minister alluded to the history of violence in his address.
“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country,” Sogavare said. However, he added, the events were “a painful reminder that we have a long way to go.”
Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.