Local politics more than geopolitical manoeuvring are at play this week in the protests in Honiara that morphed into riots, prompting Australia to send in police and soldiers to help restore peace. But recent interactions from China, Taiwan and the US in the affairs of Solomon Islands haven’t helped.
The speed of Australia’s response – with boots on the ground in 24 hours – has already helped to reduce the severity and cost of this unrest. But the physical and political damage has been done after what started as a peaceful protest calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation turned violent.
The group of about 1000 protesters, many from the country’s most populous island of Malaita, grew agitated and were met by police using rubber bullets and tear gas to try to disperse them. From there things quickly escalated.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has been quick to blame the unrest on outside influences, highlighting the opposition of some in Malaita to his government’s decision in 2019 to end 36 years of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favour of China.
Speaking with the ABC, Mr Sogavare accused unnamed “other powers” of stoking the tensions: “These very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don’t want ties with the People’s Republic of China, and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution.”
He is most likely referring to Taiwan and the United States, given both governments’ decisions to provide financial aid to Malaita’s provincial government, whose premier has opposed the diplomatic switch to Beijing.
While geopolitics may have been a spark, the true drivers of this week’s unrest go much deeper than foreign policy. Solomon Islands is a poor nation with a GDP per capita that is less than one-twentieth of Australia’s. More than two-thirds of its population are under the age of 30, with many disaffected and desperate youths descending on Honiara searching for any kind of economic opportunity.
Weak governance and limited service delivery deepen frustration with the national government, and with Prime Minister Sogavare who has been a prominent figure in Solomon Islands politics for the past two decades.
Another driver of frustration is the inter-island ethnic tension fuelled by the perceived uneven distribution of economic development across the country. This is especially felt by Malaitans, whose province’s relative lack of development compared with Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located, is acutely felt.
These inter-island grievances were a key driver of Solomon Islands’ internal conflict from 1998 to 2003 known as “The Tensions”.
The Pacific region, led by Australia through the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), was effective in putting a lid back on the conflict and restoring law and order, rebuilding the country’s police force and helping re-establish central pillars of government. But while RAMSI was able to bring stability, it could not fix the underlying drivers that led to the conflict in the first place.
This week shows just how strong those drivers of unrest in Solomon Islands remain and are compounded further by growing youth unemployment.
The situation is not helped by foreign powers behaving badly. That Australia has needed once again to help bring stability to the archipelago is a stark reminder of just how far Solomon Islands has to go to truly find peace.