Australia is deploying police and defense personnel to support authorities in the Solomon Islands, as violent protests continued for a second day in the capital, Honiara on Thursday, despite a 36-hour lockdown being imposed.
Demonstrators from the country’s most populous island, Malaita, had traveled to the capital in a spillover of anger about a host of domestic issues including unrealized infrastructure promises, media reported. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
As well as anger about a lack of development, the Solomons government has faced pressure over a 2019 decision to cut ties with Taiwan and establish a formal relationship with China.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) said between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters took to the streets on Thursday, with some setting fire to buildings and looting stores in the eastern part of Honiara. Thirty six people have been arrested, they added.
Protests broke out on Wednesday evening as parliament resumed over the Prime Minister’s lack of response to a citizen petition filed in August, which included demands for the government to respect the rights of self-determination of the Malaita people, to limit ties with China and to resume development projects in Malaita.
Police had earlier deployed tear gas to break up the protests.
When calling for the lockdown in an address that was broadcast late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Sogavare said, “Our nation witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down.”
“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country, however today’s events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go,” Sogavare said.
A lockdown in Honiara, which would run until 7 a.m. on Friday, local time, “will allow our law enforcement agencies to fully investigate the perpetrators of today’s events and to prevent further lawless destruction,” he said.
As well as looting stores, demonstrators set fire to a thatched roof building on the grounds of the Parliament – as it was sitting – and a police station, said the Prime Minister.
The RSIPF urged people attending schools and businesses around Honiara to stay home to avoid being affected by unrest.
“We want to make sure that our streets, schools and businesses will reopen soon after the lockdown,” said RSIPF deputy commissioner Juanita Matanga in a statement.
“I am asking for your cooperation until the situation turns normal.”
Australia sends troops and police
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Thursday Australian Federal Police personnel have been deployed to the Solomon Islands to “provide stability and security.”
Morrison said he had received a formal request under a bilateral security agreement for assistance and to support the RSIPF. Australia agreed to send in 23 AFP personnel to support riot control and up to 50 more to support security at critical infrastructure, he said.
An additional 43 Australian Defense Force members will also be deployed.
“It’s our hope and ambition that our presence will seek to calm the situation in the Solomon Islands and to restore some peacefulness which will enable the normal peaceful ways of seeking to resolve any issues there, which Australia has no part in directly resolving and allowing the normal constitutional processes and the political processes in the Solomon Islands to take their course,” Morrison said.
What’s the China and Taiwan connection?
The Solomon Islands was one of a handful of countries that had diplomatic relations with the democratic self-governed island of Taiwan but in 2019, the archipelago swapped allegiances for China. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that doesn’t recognize its “One China Policy.”
It was reported China had promised around $500 million in financial aid to the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest countries in the Pacific.
While longtime Prime Minister Sogavare welcomed China and the economic benefits it promised, the premier of the country’s most populous province, Malaita, was outspoken in his opposition to the switch. Suidani even announced an independence referendum for Malaita.
An independence movement has simmered for decades in Malaita, due to long-standing feelings of marginalization from the central government, experts previously told CNN.
In October 2020, the United States Agency for International Development announced a $25 million grant under its Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods and Environment Program program focusing on Malaita province.
“The SCALE Program will strengthen the enabling environment to unlock economic opportunity and increase trade; improve natural resource management, including forest governance; promote agribusiness and small enterprise development; and expand critical small-scale infrastructure and essential services,” a US State Department release said.
The grant to Malaita was part of a $200 million program in new funding across the Indo-Pacific under the US’ Pacific Pledge.
According to Mihai Sora, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, the grant was “50 times what the province would normally get in a year from donors.”
Because of the provinces anti-China stance, the grant was seen by some critics “as a cynical payoff to one of the ever-dwindling number of pro-Taiwan actors in the Pacific,” Sora wrote on the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter website on Wednesday.
CNN has reached out to the US Embassy in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu for comment.
While the US has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan the two sides have drawn closer in recent years, angering Beijing. The US sells arms to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, which dictates that the US must help Taipei defend itself. Washington switched formal diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
CNN’s Brad Lendon, Hilary Whiteman and Julia Hollingsworth contributed reporting.