CANBERRA, Australia – Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign interference for his government’s decision to move alliances from Taiwan to Beijing after anti-government protests, arson and looting ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days .
However, critics also blamed the riots on complaints of a lack of government services and accountability, corruption and Chinese companies that gave jobs to foreigners instead of locals.
Honiara’s Chinatown and its inner city district were hot spots for rioters, looters and protesters who called on Sogavare, who has served temporarily as prime minister since 2000, to resign.
The National Parliament building, police station and shops were set on fire on two turbulent days when police were unable to control the mob.
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially leaders of the most populous Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands, when it severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Malaita leaders complain that their island has been wrongly withheld from government investments since the change.
A plane carrying Australian police officers and diplomats arrived in Honiara late Thursday, where they will assist local police efforts to restore order, said Australian Defense Secretary Peter Dutton.
Sogavare said he stood by his government’s decision to adopt Beijing, which he called the “only issue” of violence, which was “unfortunately influenced and promoted by other powers”.
External pressure is a “very big … influence. I don’t want to mention any names. We’ll leave it at that, ”said Sogavare.
“I will not bow to anyone. We are intact, the government is intact and we will defend democracy, ”he added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne disagreed that other countries had fueled the unrest.
“We didn’t suggest that at all,” said Payne.
“We were very clear. Our view is that we don’t want to see violence. We very much hope for a return to stability, ”she added.
Local journalist Gina Kekea said the move of foreign policy to Beijing with little public consultation was one of several topics that led to the protests. There were also complaints that foreign companies were not providing local jobs.
“Chinese companies and (other) Asian companies … seem to be doing most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources that are very important to people,” said Kekea.
Protesters in Chinatown were replaced by looters and scavengers on Friday, Kekea said.
“It’s been two days, two full days of looting and protests and riots, and Honiara is just a small town,” said Kekea of the house with 85,000 people.
“So I think there is not much looting and spoiling left for them,” she added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday committed troops, police officers and diplomats to assist the local police in restoring order and protecting critical infrastructures.
Some observers argue that Australia intervened quickly to prevent Chinese security forces from invading to restore order.
But Morrison said Sogavare asked for help because he trusted Australia.
“The Solomon Islands contacted us first … as a family because they trusted us and we worked hard for that confidence in the Pacific,” said Morrison.
“This is our region and we are committed to securing our region with our partners, friends, family and allies,” he added.
Sogavare sought help from Australia under a bilateral security treaty that began in 2017, the last time Australian peacekeepers left the Solomon Islands.
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.
Morrison asked if Chinese citizens and businesses were being targeted. Describing the riots as “a somewhat mixed story,” he noted that prior to Australia’s intervention in 2003, Chinatown was the site of the riot.
China, meanwhile, expressed serious concern about the recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without providing details.
“We believe that the Solomon Islands government, led by Prime Minister Sogavare, can restore social order and stability as quickly as possible,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday.
He said that economic and other cooperation has benefited both sides since diplomatic relations were established.
“All attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations have been in vain,” he said.
The Solomon Islands, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, were the site of bloody fighting during World War II.
After it was captured by the Japanese, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal Island in August 1942 to launch a campaign to regain control. They were successful, although the fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued until the end of the war.