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, amid disputes over the country’s leadership and diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China.
The first Australian Federal Police officers will depart for the Pacific nation on Thursday with others to follow in coming days, accompanied by a patrol boat.
Buildings burn in Honiara’s Chinatown, in the Solomon Islands on Thursday. Credit:Screenshot ZFM 99.5
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare requested Australia send help to bring the riots under control within the auspices of 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 will be sent to the Solomon Islands on Thursday and may be supported by up to another 50 officers. Forty-three ADF personnel out of Townsville will be sent to join them on Friday to provide security at critical infrastructure.
“Our deployed personnel will carry both lethal and non lethal weapons primarily, but not exclusively for force protection purposes,” Mr Morrison said.
He emphasised local police will still be responsible for providing security at the country’s parliament and Australia would not intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomons.
“Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands,” Mr Morrison 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.
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 (RAMSI) – officially ended on June 30, 2017.
Mr Morrison said that the safety of Australian staff and contractors at the high commission in the Solomon Islands 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.
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 it would be worthwhile to send a surge of AFP officers who have experience in the country.
“Many AFP officers have experience in the Solomon Islands and could help its police force,” he said.
Mr Pryke said the diplomatic switch 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 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.”
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