Australian police have landed in the Solomon Islands amid calls for calm and demands for the prime minister to resign after protests rocked the capital Honiara for the second day in a row, leaving fires raging and smoke billowing over the city.
About 40 Australian Defense Forces personnel and a navy ship are due to join Australian federal police in a peacekeeping role later today, as local authorities are struggling to control unrest, which experts say stems from a complex network of problems.
They say much of the tension stems from long-standing differences between Malaita, the most populous of the hundreds of Solomon Islands, and Guadalcanal, where the capital and parliament sit.
Protesters from Malaita had traveled to the capital in a spill over from anger over a host of domestic issues, including unrealized infrastructure promises, local media reported.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Wednesday declared a lockdown after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in the capital Honiara and demanded his resignation due to a host of domestic issues.
The protesters smashed the national parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said.
Experts say problems range from concerns over resource allocation, logging and representation to a 2019 shift in diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China.
Edvard Hviding, professor of social anthropology and founding director of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group, told 9News.com.au that tensions stretched all the way back to the early 2000s, before Australia led RAMSI’s peacekeeping mission to the islands.
After experiencing “this kind of riot about three or four times” while previously living in the Solomon Islands, he said he was not “too pessimistic” about the situation.
“There is a lot of thinking about this, but I think the Solomon Islanders are resilient and will somehow rise, if not at least from the ashes, but it will go over,” he told 9News.com.au.
“But our hope, everyone’s hope, is that the national government will now speak to the troublemakers.”
Pacific Islander expert Transform Aqorau described the unrest as “unexpected but not surprising” and called for reform of the country’s political system.
But the man once tipped as the Solomon Islands’ next envoy to the UN said that even outside of Malaita, frustration grew over the vast influence of foreign lumberjacks, miners and other companies.
“The Solomon Islands are heading for self-destruction,” he wrote.
“It is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. Significant donor support is provided to its health and education sector.”
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has called for calm in the capital, rejecting calls to resign, saying he will only be removed to the floor in parliament, local media reports.
Suidani, the prime minister of Malaita province, endorsed the calls for the prime minister to resign, saying the leader needed to hear the protesters’ demands before calling for peace.
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, especially in relation to the critical infrastructure that is there,” he said.
“And it has been important for us to be fully aware of our Pacific Island nations, especially with the Prime Minister, about the nature of our involvement.”
All Australian High Commission staff were taken into account, he said on Thursday.
Former US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu Catherine Ebert-Gray said Australia’s continued security assistance was “so important to Solomon Islands and the region.”
“Australian troops will find it challenging to create long-term peace without accompanying changes in national leadership.
“Malayan parliamentarians are numerous and should be part of any government. More women should run for office and get the support they need to take an active part in governance.”
Dr. Aqorau said it was important to address a sense of “alienation, powerlessness and neglect” that had “built up for some time”.
“Yesterday’s protest and riots are evidence of serious underlying currents that have been neglected,” he wrote.
“The political system needs to be reformed, including making the government more inclusive.
“Those who did riots today are probably not getting anything from the government. This needs to change, otherwise the Solomon Islands may be heading for implosion.”