CANBERRA, Australia – Australia announced Thursday it is sending police, troops and diplomats to the Solomon Islands to help after anti-government demonstrators defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day in violent protests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment includes a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 more to provide security at critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 defense force personnel, a patrol boat and at least five diplomats.
The first personnel left Australia on Thursday with more going on Friday, and the deployment was expected to last for a few weeks, Morrison said.
“Our purpose here is to provide stability and security,” he said.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a lockdown Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in the capital, Honiara, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the outburst of protests, but tensions between the government and the leadership of the most populous island of Malaita have been simmering for some time.
The premier of Malaita has been outspokenly critical of Sogavare's 2019 decision to cut the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan, switching its diplomatic allegiance to China instead, accusing him of getting too close to Beijing.
The province has also complained it has been unfairly deprived of government investment.
The protesters on Wednesday breached the National Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set fire to a police station and other buildings.
“They were intent on destroying our nation and ... the trust that was slowly building among our people,” the government said in a statement.
Morrison said Sogavare requested assistance from Australia amid the violence under a bilateral security treaty.
“It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands. That is for them to resolve," he said.
“Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands,” Morrison added.
The Solomon Islands, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, were the scene of bloody fighting during World War II.
After it was captured by the Japanese, U.S. Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942 to open a campaign to wrest back control. They were successful, though fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued through the end of the war.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands that restored peace in the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 until 2017.
After the outbreak of the current protests, Sogavare ordered the capital locked down from 7 p.m. Wednesday through 7 p.m. Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at bringing a democratically elected government down.”
“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country,” he said. “However, today's events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go.”
Despite an announcement from the Solomon Islands police force that they would be conducting increased patrols through Honiara amid the lockdown, protesters again took to the streets Thursday.
Local journalist Gina Kekea posted photos on Twitter of a bank, shops and a school in flames.
Morrison said he decided to send help after it became clear that police in the Solomon Islands were “stretched.”
Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose premier, Daniel Suidani, has been at odds with Sogavare since his decision to cut ties with Taiwan.
China expressed serious concern about attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without providing details.
“We believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Sogavare, the Solomon Islands government can restore social order and stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing in Beijing.
He said that economic and other cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations has benefited both sides. “Any attempts to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations are futile,” he said.
Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told the Solomon Star News that he agreed with the calls for Sogavare to resign.
“Over the last 20 years Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power, the plight of Solomon Islanders has worsened whilst at the same time foreigners have reaped the best of the country’s resources," Suidani was quoted as saying. "People are not blind to this and do not want to be cheated anymore.”
Honiara journalist Elizabeth Osifelo said the cause of chaos was a “mixture of a lot of frustration.”
“The switch to China from Taiwan, that was also, I could, say part of it,” Osefelo told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It’s not probably what has triggered the situation, but that has also pretty much contributed to some of the tension we’ve been experiencing.”
Rising reported from Bangkok.