Australia’s early intervention could help the Solomon Islands, but the roots of the conflict run deep | Mihai Sora

Unresolved tensions and geopolitical pressures are a volatile mix in the Solomon Islands.

What started as a peaceful protest on Wednesday calling for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s resignation quickly turned into unrest when the crowd of about 1,000 people, many from neighboring Malaita province, became agitated and opened a leaf shelter in the city. put out fire. the parliamentary complex of capital Honiara.

As police blocked protesters’ attempts to enter parliament, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, reports and images of looting and burning buildings emerged from Honiara. The unrest appeared to easing Wednesday night but started again when crowds attacked Honiara’s Chinatown district on Thursday, setting fire to ethnic Chinese small businesses and renewing their demand for Sogavare to step down.

The civil war quickly escalated beyond the ability of the local authorities to control, and the Prime Minister made a formal request for help to the Australian government.

Within 24 hours, a deployment of Australian troops and federal police arrived in the country to provide immediate security assistance and restore order. Early indications are that Honiara woke up Friday morning to a calmer scene, but tension remains in the air as suppressing the violence has not resolved the root causes.

Prime Minister Sogavare blames the protests on ‘foreign powers’.

The geopolitical dimension of this latest wave of unrest is that the decision by the Solomon Islands to transfer their diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China in 2019 — accompanied by a $500 million incentive and the severing of 36 years of ties with Taiwan — has been met with vehement responses were received. criticism at the time by opposition MPs in Honiara and by Malaitan Prime Minister Daniel Suidani, who has remained an outspoken critic of the changeover ever since.

Suidani has maintained Malaita’s ties to Taiwan, against the instructions of the national government, and has since cultivated strong support for his position among Malaitans in the province. Taiwan’s reciprocity and a US $25 million contribution in 2020 in development assistance delivered directly to Malaitan provincial authorities have been found to contribute to the gap between the province and the national government.

Suidani was not present at the protests this week, but noted from Malaita that the unrest stemmed from the national government’s failure to listen to people about the provision of infrastructure to the province and about the China-Taiwan switch. .

The convergence of the protests and accompanying violence with the 2019 switchover resonates with Suidani’s political support in Malaita and also draws international attention to the impact of regional geopolitical competition in the Solomon Islands.

China’s interest in the Pacific stems from its ambition to establish itself as the regional hegemon and its longstanding goal of eliminating diplomatic support for Taiwan in the region. With the move from Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019, Taiwan still has four diplomatic partners in the Pacific — the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu — out of 15 globally. This would be very worrying for Taiwan and the US.

Australian Federal Police and Defense prepare for their flight to the Solomon Islands. Photo: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

But while geopolitical pressures have undoubtedly contributed structurally to the current divisions, there is a long history of tensions between Malaita and the central government. The wider context of unequal distribution of economic development across the country, and in particular Malaita’s relative lack of development compared to Guadalcanal, where the capital is located, has been a pain point for decades and is widely regarded as the root cause of development. of the Solomon Islands. internal conflict from 1998 to 2003 known as “tensions”.

This protracted structural conflict was visible in how the protests started. Early reports on Wednesday indicated that the protesters were mainly from Malaita and their demands were voiced along ethnopolitical lines. But as the violence escalated, a cascade of other local frustrations came into play and there was no longer a singularly recognizable complaint.

Other parts of the community of Honiara joined in: Guales plundered along with the Malaitans. The protests quickly turned from a provincial-national feud into a violent outburst of pent-up fear over daily hardships, exacerbated by the global health and economic fallout from Covid. These hardships are acutely felt in vulnerable developing countries such as the Solomon Islands, with the repeated imposition of a state of emergency, perpetual resentment over alleged corruption and brutal deception among MPs, and a predominantly young population frustrated by a lack of education and job opportunities.

This mix of current frustrations exists independently of the Taiwan/China switchover. This also applies to the tensions between Malaita and the central government. But in a community already prone to outside interference, perceptions of manipulation quickly gain traction and are easily incorporated into existing grievances.

Canberra would have been well aware of the symbolism of Australian troops and federal police arriving in Honiara amid chaotic scenes. But the urgency of the security situation and the risk of further decay into violence called for an immediate response. The stakes have been carefully calibrated to minimize disturbing echoes of the past while being substantial enough to restore order to the city.

Early intervention significantly reduces the lasting damage to stability and the long-term costs of the unrest. However, the roots of the conflict can only be addressed when all parties in the Solomon Islands begin discussing a political settlement that recognizes past grievances while charting a way forward.

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