Arson and looting have been blamed on the Solomon Islands’ decision to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Beijing, where demonstrators are demanding the prime minister’s resignation.
While attempting to stay out of the internal political issue, Australian police, military, and diplomats are assisting local police in restoring peace and order.
Here are some of the factors that have contributed to the upheaval:
The Solomon Islands are well-known as a World War II battleground, with the critical Battle of Guadalcanal being named after the country’s main island, Honiara.
Before 1978, it was known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, and later as the Solomon Islands. The South Pacific nation of 700,000 people — predominantly Melanesian but also Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese, and European — is a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state, as does neighboring Australia and New Zealand.
The movement of settlers from Malaita, the country’s second largest island and most populated province, to the economic prospects on Guadalcanal and Honiara exacerbated ethnic tensions and eventually conflict.
Guales, or native Guadalcanal islanders, initiated a campaign of violence and intimidation in the late 1990s to force the Malaitans off the island. In 1999, the Malaita Eagle Force militia was founded to protect them during a dispute that resulted in the government declaring a four-month state of emergency.
The government’s appeal for assistance was turned down by Australia and New Zealand. On Guadalcanal, law and order crumbled because the police force was ethnically split.
The Malaita Eagle Force abducted Malaitan Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu in 2000 because he was not doing enough for the Malaitans’ cause.
In exchange for his release, Ulufa’alu resigned, and current Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare began the first of his four terms as the nation’s leader.
China has created another another schism in the society, with the government siding with Beijing and the Malay leaders siding with Taiwan.
After a civil war in 1949, the self-governing island of Taiwan broke from mainland China, but Beijing claims it as part of its territory and has convinced all but 15 African and Latin American nations to transfer recognition to the mainland.
Inter-island and ethnic conflicts, a perceived lack of resource sharing between Guadalcanal and Malaita, widespread poverty, and significant young unemployment are among the underlying reasons of instability in the Solomon Islands, according to analysts.
“Geopolitical concerns were a catalyst, but not the primary driver,” said Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
“I’m sure there is some sympathy for Taiwan in Malaita,” he said, “but it’s also another way for Malaitans to vent their anger with the national administration.”
Pryke said it was too early to say whether the Solomon Islands will profit financially from their transition to Beijing in 2019.
While Beijing’s financial incentives to reduce relations with Taiwan have yet to bear effect, the Solomon Islands closed their borders during the epidemic, limiting Chinese involvement.
On the Solomon Islands, there has long been animosity toward Chinese businesspeople, which resulted in the burning of much of Honiara’s Chinatown in 2006 and again this week.
“The Chinese community in the Solomon Islands are vulnerable because they lack a traditional support structure,” Pryke added. “They lack the tribes and families that would provide them with an extra layer of cultural isolation from such upheaval.”
In 2017, Australia and the Solomon Islands inked their first bilateral security agreement. In the case of a serious security threat, it offers a legal foundation for the fast deployment of Australian police, military, and citizens.
Within hours after Sogavare invoking the treaty on Thursday, Australian police were in the air on a military cargo jet.
From 2003 until 2017, Australia led a team of Pacific Island police and military known as the Regional Assurance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI. The Solomons’ administration had welcomed 2,300 police and military from 17 countries. The deployment was effective in ending the fighting, which resulted in the deaths of 200 people.
The Solomon Islands were on the verge of becoming a failed state during the five years of ethnic and civil upheaval that preceded RAMSI’s arrival.
The bilateral agreement recognizes that the fundamental reasons of the turmoil continued, posing development obstacles.
The Australian government stated in 2017 that “the Solomon Islands would require continued support to maintain the achievements gained under RAMSI and to assist in the development of long-term stability and durable growth.”