Regional observers insist “some fingers need to be pointed at the political leaders of the Solomon Islands” as residents in the capital Honiara survey a town torn apart.
While the violence that saw Australian troops and police rushed to the ravaged tropical paradise, the government shows no signs of addressing the underlying grievances that sparked two days of riots.
Instead, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has sought to deflect attention from domestic issues by blaming “outside interference” for stirring up the protesters.
Sogavare, who drove the nation’s accord of understanding with Beijing, was making what observers took to be a thinly veiled reference to Taiwan and US infiltrators and agitators whipping up the two days of violence and destruction.
External pressures were a “very big … influence. I don’t want to name names. We’ll leave it there,” Sogavare insisted on Friday.
Honiara’s Chinatown and its downtown precinct were focuses of rioters, looters and protesters who demanded the resignation of Sogavare, the prime minister intermittently since 2000.
He has been widely criticised by leaders of the country’s most populous island of Malaita for a 2019 decision to drop diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China.
His government, meanwhile, has been upset over millions of dollars in US aid promised directly to Malaita, rather than through the central government.
Long-standing tensions boil over
But those issues are just the latest in decades of rivalry between Malaita and Guadalcanal, where the capital, Honiara, is located, said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute think tank’s Pacific Islands program.
“Most of the drivers of the tension have been in the country for many decades and generations, and a lot of it is borne out of the abject poverty of the country, the limited economic development opportunities and the inter-ethnic and inter-island rivalry between the two most populous islands,” Mr Pryke said.
“So everyone’s pointing fingers, but some fingers also need to be pointed at the political leaders of the Solomon Islands.”
The Solomon Islands, with a population of about 700,000, are located about 1500km northeast of Australia.
Riots and looting erupted on Wednesday out of a peaceful protest in Honiara.
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, who set fire to the National Parliament, a police station and many other buildings.
Since the 2019 shift in allegiance from Taiwan to China there has been an expectation of massive infrastructure investment from Beijing – locally rumoured to be in the range of $US500 million – but with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after the shift, none of that has yet materialised.
Standing with Beijing
Sogavare on Friday said he stood by the decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only issue” in the violence, which was “unfortunately influenced and encouraged by other powers”.
More than broad geopolitical concerns, however, Mr Pryke said the demonstrations 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 the vast majority of the people involved in the rioting and looting couldn’t point China or Taiwan out on a map,” he said.
“They were there as opportunists because they have had very limited economic opportunity.
“It’s a very poor country with high youth unemployment, and this just shows how quickly these things can spiral out of control in a country that’s volatile.”
Australian police, defence forces and diplomats have arrived in Honiara to help local police restore order.
The Australian personnel are expected to be on hand for “a matter of weeks”, according to Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
Australia is not assisting in the protection of the National Parliament and the executive buildings, in a sign that it was not taking political sides.
Protesters were replaced by looters and scavengers on Friday in Chinatown, local journalist Gina Kekea said.
“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting and protesting and rioting and Honiara is just a small city,” Kekea said. The capital has 85,000 residents.
“There’s nothing much left for them to loot and spoil now.”