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Police and ADF deployed to the Solomon Islands amid unrest

Major buildings are burning in the country’s capital, Honiara, amid tension over its political leadership and diplomatic shift from Taiwan to China.
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More than 100 Australian soldiers and police officers will be sent to the Solomon Islands after protesters defied a government-imposed lockdown to set fire to buildings in the capital, Honiara.

The unrest has been triggered by disputes over the country’s leadership and diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China.

A building burns next to the Parliament building in Honiara on Solomon Islands on Wednesday.

A building burns next to the Parliament building in Honiara on Solomon Islands on Wednesday.Credit:AFP/Charley Piringi

The first Australian Federal Police officers departed for the Pacific nation on Thursday afternoon with others to follow in coming days, accompanied by a patrol boat.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare requested Australia send help to bring the riots under control, invoking a 2017 security arrangement, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison accepted.

“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security to enable the normal constitutional processes in the Solomon Islands to deal with the various issues that have arisen and for that to be done in an environment of peace and security,” Mr Morrison said.

Twenty-three AFP officers were sent to the Solomon Islands on Thursday and may be supported by up to another 50 officers. Forty-three ADF personnel out of three brigades in Townsville will be sent to join them on Friday to provide security at critical infrastructure including the airport.

The soldiers and police officers will carry firearms with Mr Morrison confirming they will have “both lethal and non-lethal weapons primarily, but not exclusively, for force protection purposes”.

Mr Morrison emphasised local police will still be responsible for providing security at the country’s parliament and said Australia would not intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomons.

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“Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands,” he said.

Honiara was put into lockdown after protesters demanding the prime minister’s resignation set fire to parts of parliament, one police station, a bank, and a number of Chinese-owned shops on Wednesday.

Fresh rioting broke out in Honiara as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called for an end to the inter-island tensions that have plunged the Pacific nation into crisis.

Fresh rioting broke out in Honiara as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called for an end to the inter-island tensions that have plunged the Pacific nation into crisis. Credit:AFP/CHARLEY PIRINGI

In a national address, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called the riots a “sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down”, saying the protesters had been “led astray by a few unscrupulous people”.

The ADF and AFP have extensive experience in the Solomon Islands after Australia sent hundreds of officers to the country from 2003 after a number of riots and ethnic violence. The operation – known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands – officially ended on June 30, 2017.

The RAMSI mission was much larger than the current deployment, with about 300 police officers from Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific nations sent in July 2003 backed up by 1800 military personnel. A paper from the Lowy Institute found it cost at least $2.6 billion in real terms over the next decade, a substantial sum relative to the country’s population of 686,000.

The decision to support Mr Sogavare is an awkward one for the Morrison government considering he has been one of the biggest critics of Australia in recent years among Pacific island nations. The Australian government was pleased the Solomon Islands came to Canberra first, rather than Beijing, given their diplomatic arrangements.

“We have a treaty with the Solomon Islands because of the significant work that has been done by Australians to restore peace to the Solomon Islands through the RAMSI initiative,” Mr Morrison said. “On this occasion, they turn to their family, and that’s how I would describe our role in the Pacific – we’re family.”

Mr Morrison said the safety of Australian staff and contractors at the high commission in the country had been confirmed while Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne urged Australians in Honiara to avoid crowds, be careful, and stay where they are if it is safe.

The country’s 2019 switch to recognising China is believed to be a significant cause of the unrest.

In August 2019, a group of politicians published an open letter condemning the shift in allegiance.

“We believe the long-term interests of our country – in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, rule of law, human dignity, and mutual respect – lie with Taiwan, not the [People’s Republic of China],” it read.

“We are aware of important lessons from many countries – including in our region – who are locked in a serious debt trap as a result of their giving in to China’s lures.”

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program, said the move to Beijing was very public and controversial for many months in 2019.

“Malaita, the most populous island, particularly seized on this as a point of difference from the national government,” he said.

“There’s still ethnic tension – tension about sharing of finite government resources in the country. There’s a belief that too many resources stay in the capital and not enough go to Malaita. So it’s really a case of geopolitics being merged with this inter-island pressure.

“The Chinese are always a vulnerable community but because geopolitics mixed in with this, you’re seeing a real target for Chinese businesses and the Chinese embassy.

“Taiwan did invest a lot into people-to-people, culture connections and political connections.”

Mr Pryke said it would be worthwhile to send a surge of AFP officers who have experience in the country.

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Anthony Galloway is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.Connect via Twitter or email.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.Connect via Twitter or email.
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