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 defence 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.
Demands for PM’s resignation
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, Malaita, have been simmering for some time. Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita.
The premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, 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.
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.”
Parliament building breached
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,” Morrison said.
“Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal issues of the Solomon Islands.”
After the outbreak of the 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.”
In the streets today
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.”
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.