By DAVID RISING and ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign interference on his government’s decision to move alliances from Taiwan to Beijing over the anti-government protests, arson and looting that ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days.
But critics also blamed the unrest on complaints about a lack of government services and accountability, corruption, and Chinese companies giving jobs to foreigners rather than locals.
Honiara’s Chinatown and its city center have been home to rioters, looters and protesters who have called on Sogavare, who has intermittently been prime minister since 2000, to step down.
The building of the National Parliament, a police station and businesses were set on fire during two tumultuous days during which the police failed to control the crowd.
Political cartoons about world leaders
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the leaders of Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
The rulers of Malaita complain that their island has been unfairly deprived of government investment since the change.
A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived in Honiara on Thursday evening, where they will help local police restore order, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said.
Sogavare said he supported his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as the “only problem” in the violence, which was “unfortunately influenced and encouraged by other powers”.
External pressures have had a “very great … influence.” I don’t want to name names. We will stop there, ”said Sogavare.
“I’m not going to bow to anyone. We are intact, the government is intact and we will defend democracy, ”he added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not acknowledge that other countries had stoked the unrest.
“We didn’t say that at all,” Payne said.
“We have been very clear. Our point of 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 shift in foreign policy towards Beijing with little public consultation was one of the many issues that led to the protests. There were also complaints that foreign companies were not providing local jobs.
“Chinese and (other) Asian companies (…) seem to have most of the work, especially when it comes to extracting resources, which is what people are attached to,” Kekea said.
Protesters were replaced with looters and scavengers in Chinatown on Friday, Kekea said.
“It’s been two days, two whole days of looting, demonstrations and riots and Honiara is just a small town,” Kekea said of the home of 85,000 people.
“So I don’t think there is much left for them to loot and waste now,” she added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday hired troops, police and diplomats to help local police restore order and protect critical infrastructure.
Australia would not help protect the national parliament and executive buildings, a sign that Australia was not taking political sides.
Some observers argue that Australia acted quickly to prevent Chinese security forces from intervening to restore order.
But Morrison said Sogavare asked for help because he trusted Australia.
“Solomon Islands first contacted us… as a family because they trust us and we have worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.
“This is our region and we are mobilizing to secure our region with our partners, our friends, our family and our allies,” he added.
Sogavare requested Australia’s help under a bilateral security treaty that has existed since 2017, when Australian peacekeepers last left the Solomon Islands.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission which restored peace to the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.
Morrison asked if Chinese citizens and businesses were being targeted. He described the unrest as “a somewhat mixed story” and noted that Chinatown was the scene of riots before Australia intervened in 2003.
China, meanwhile, expressed serious concern over recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without providing details.
“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sogavare, the government of Solomon Islands can restore social order and stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday.
He said economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations has benefited both sides.
“Any attempt to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon Islands relations is futile,” he said.
Dutton said a plane carrying 23 federal police officers and several diplomats flew from Australia’s capital Canberra to Honiara on Thursday evening.
Up to 50 other police officers as well as 43 members of the defense force with a navy patroller were due to arrive on Friday.
The Australian force would also be equipped to “provide a medical response,” Dutton said.
“It’s definitely a dangerous situation on the pitch. We have seen the riots that have taken place, the arson and the general disorder that is going on right now as well, ”said Dutton.
“So there is a lot of work for the police on the ground,” he added.
Sogavare declared the lockdown on Wednesday after around 1,000 people gathered to protest in Honiara, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues.
Protesters breached the National Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set a police station and other buildings on fire.
Sogavare ordered the lockdown of the capital from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 p.m. Friday after saying he had “witnessed yet another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government”.
Despite the announcement by the Solomon Islands Police Force that they would carry out increased patrols through Honiara amid the lockdown, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.
Local media reported that many protesters came from Malaita, whose prime minister, Daniel Suidani, disagreed with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.
Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told the Solomon Star News he agreed with calls for Sogavare’s resignation.
The Solomon Islands, about 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) northeast of Australia, was the scene of bloody fighting during World War II.
After its capture by the Japanese, the US Marines landed on Guadalcanal Island in August 1942 to launch a campaign to regain control. They were successful, although fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued until the end of the war.
Increase reported from Bangkok.
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