Government imposes lockdown . . .
More than 100 Australian soldiers and police officers are heading to the Solomon Islands amidst violent unrest in the capital city Honiara following a request by the Solomon Islands’ government under a 2017 security agreement between the two countries. Initially peaceful, demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare devolved into violence over the past two days. Protesters – most reportedly from the island of Malaita –stormed Parliament and set fire to large sections of the capital. A 36-hour lockdown on the capital has not stopped the unrest from overwhelming local police. Meanwhile, Sogavare has rejected calls for his resignation amidst the reported resignation of two members of his government, saying that only Parliament could remove him from office. This is the second major incident of violent unrest in Honiara during the past three years.
The geopolitics of discontent . . .
Part of the backstory to the current unrest is the national government’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. The fallout from this decision, which drew criticism for lack of consultation, led to the resignations of several ministers and outspoken opposition from Malaita’s premier, who continued a relationship with Taiwan in defiance of the switch and attempted to call an independence referendum last year. Meanwhile, experts note that competition between China, Taiwan, and the United Statesthrough targeted investment, aid, and alleged bribery in Malaita and the rest of the country has further destabilized the country’s political landscape. Lingering anger at the diplomatic switch and Chinese influence in the country is likely driving the targeting of Chinatown in Honiara for looting and arson. The Chinese foreign ministry has appealed to the country’s government to protect Chinese nationals amidst the violence.
Anger with corruption and breakdown of dialogue . . .
But the unrest is not solely a product of geopolitics, as there are numerous domestic drivers. Malaita – historically one of the Solomon Island’s least developed provinces – and Malaitans in Honiara were central to the inter-ethnic conflict that gripped the country at the turn of the millennium, colloquially termed ‘The Tensions.’ Recently, Malaita’s premier and the federal opposition leader have singled out a breakdown in communications and a lack of consultation between the national government and Malaita in their calls for Sogavare to resign. And Solomon Islanders, including those beyond Malaita, have also voiced frustration over delayed infrastructure projects, worsening economic outcomes, and widespread government corruption – which many blame on politicians being more in the pockets of foreign donors than local voters.