CANBERRA, Australia – Australia announced Thursday it was sending police, troops and diplomats to the Solomon Islands to help after anti-government protesters defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day of violent protests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment includes a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 others to keep critical infrastructure locations safe, as well as 43 members of the armed forces, a patrol boat and at least five diplomats.
The first staff left Australia on Thursday, with busier Friday, and the deployment should last a few weeks, Morrison said.
“Our goal here is to provide stability and security,” he said.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown on Wednesday after around 1,000 people gathered in the capital, Honiara, in protest, demanding his resignation over a variety of domestic issues.
The protesters broke through the building of the national parliament and burned down the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set a police station and other buildings on fire.
“They wanted to destroy our nation and … the trust that was slowly building among our people,” the government said in a statement.
Morrison said Sogavare asked Australia for help amid the violence under a bilateral security treaty.
“It is not the intention of the Australian government to interfere in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands. They have to solve that, ”he said.
“Our presence there shows no position on internal Solomon Islands issues,” added Morrison.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, which restored peace to the country from 2003 to 2017 after bloody ethnic violence.
Sogavare ordered the lockdown of the capital from 7pm Wednesday to 7pm Friday after saying he witnessed “another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government.”
“I honestly believed that the darkest days in our country’s history were behind us,” he said. “Today’s events, however, are a painful reminder that we still have a long way to go.”
Protesters took to the streets again Thursday despite an announcement by the Solomon Islands police that they would be intensifying patrols through Honiara during the lockdown.
Local journalist Gina Kekea posted photos of a bank, shops and school on fire on Twitter.
Morrison said he decided to send help after it became clear that the Solomon Islands police were “overwhelmed”.
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the leaders of the most populous Malaita province of the Solomon Islands, when he severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and instead switched his diplomatic allegiance to China.
Local media reported that many of the demonstrators were from Malaita, whose prime minister, Daniel Suidani, disagreed with Sogavare, who he alleges was too close to Beijing.
Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara but told the Solomon Star News that he agreed to demands for Sogavare’s resignation.
“Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power for the past 20 years, the plight of the Solomon Islands has worsened, while foreigners have reaped the best resources in the country,” Suidani was quoted as saying. “People are not blind to this and no longer want to be cheated on.”
Honiara journalist Elizabeth Osifelo said the cause of the chaos was “a mixture of a lot of frustration”.
“The move from Taiwan to China was, I could say, part of it,” Osefelo told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “