SYDNEY – As townspeople clear the debris from three days of rioting in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, the two biggest powers in the Pacific – the United States and China — are trying not to get the blame.
At first, the unrest that broke out on November 24 seemed to stem from a move in September 2019 by Manasseh Sogavare, prime minister of this nation of about 700,000 people, to transfer diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing.
Sogavare got a majority of parliament to support the move, and in October 2019 was feted in Beijing by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
The benefits were immediate: a Chinese state-owned corporation was to put US$825 million into re-opening a big gold mine, and China would build a 12,000-seat sports stadium ready for the South Pacific Games to be hosted in 2022.
But some politicians spoke out against dumping Taiwan, which over 36 years of diplomatic ties had kept up a program of mostly agriculture-focused aid, and getting closer to an officially atheist regime, a powerful charge in the strongly Christian island nations of the Pacific.
Daniel Suidani, premier of Malaita island province, alleged that agents for Beijing had been offering a million Solomon Islands dollars (US$123,000) to any member of parliament who voted for the switch.
Coming amid rising tensions with China among Western powers, the recognition switch by the Solomons — and around the same time by the even smaller Pacific nation of Kiribati – immediately alarmed China hawks in Washington and Canberra. US Republican senator Marco Rubio even suggested cutting the Solomons adrift from the US financial system.
Suidani, the Malaitan premier, became the focus of political contest with the prime minister, with opposition figures in the central parliament like Matthew Wale and Peter Kenilorea looking for opportunities to unseat Sogavare.
To the annoyance of Beijing, Taiwan kept sending aid directly to Malaita, such as personal protective equipment to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. In May last year, Taiwan flew Suidani to Taipei for costly medical treatment. Suidani talked of holding a referendum on whether Malaita should secede from the Solomons.
The Malaitans have long been the most restive element in a nation of some 80 languages that was artificially shaped by a British protectorate declared in 1893 and subsequent island swaps with imperial Germany.
Kidnapped or cajoled aboard recruiting schooners, they were prized as hard workers by planters in Queensland and German New Guinea before the First World War. During the Pacific War, they came across to Guadalcanal island to work on American bases and airfields.
At home, they fiercely resisted British efforts to impose taxes as a way of bringing them into the cash economy. In 1927, local people overwhelmed a government tax-collecting party on the East coast of Malaita, clubbing two British officials and several Solomons policemen to death.
The Australian cruiser HMAS Adelaide brought a punitive raiding party of British planters and Queensland volunteers, who killed about 65 villagers.
The main ringleader, an influential “ramo” or big man named Basiana surrendered to avoid further reprisals. Along with five others, he was hanged. His 14-year-old son Anifelo was brought in to watch the execution.
Some 16 years later, having seen the British administration flee the Japanese and watched black and white Americans at work, Anifelo and others on Malaita started a proto-independence movement called Maasina Rule or “Law of Brotherhood” which unified previously warring “saltwater” (coastal) and “bush” (inland) people, collected taxes, and ran customary courts.
The returning British demolished Maasina Rule villages, put some 2,000 of its followers in stockades, and arrested leaders. The aircraft carrier Theseus sailed in with an escort of five British and Australian destroyers, flying formations of its aircraft over the island. By 1953, Maasina Rule was effectively disbanded and derided, in British eyes, as a “cargo cult.”
But its heritage continued as the British belatedly started setting up political institutions and educating islanders in the 1950s, leading up to independence granted in 1978. It is a revered story inspiring figures like Suidani to this day, and a warning about the fragile national identity of the Solomons.
With about 150,000 people, making it the most populous province, Malaita sees itself getting less than its fair share of government revenues – which many critics say are far below what they should be because of over-generous terms in mining, logging, and fishing concessions.
After moving north to fight the Japanese, the Solomon Islands passed out of American consciousness except in war documentaries. But in the last two years, the US government has found itself in its political crossfire.
Just as Sogavare was recognizing Beijing, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was launching an increased aid program for the Pacific. Its main Solomon Islands component was a US$25 million five-year project on Malaita aimed at ending indiscriminate logging and assisting villagers to grow tree crops like coffee and cocoa under shade from natural forest.
The Honiara government loudly insisted all such aid had to be provided through its own channels, not directly. The US Embassy, meanwhile, insisted the Malaita project had been two years in preparation and was not a response to the diplomatic shift. However, suspicion remained in Honiara.
The contractor appointed by USAID, the US-based non-profit aid organization Winrock International, then seems to have encountered interference in setting up earlier this year, with its head of project, an experienced Australian aid executive, denied a work permit.
This October, Suidani faced a threat on his own turf: a motion of no-confidence in the provincial assembly that was widely believed to have been orchestrated by the central government. When thousands of Suidani supporters gathered in the island’s capital Auki, a small town fronting a scenic coral lagoon, the motion was voted down.
Suidani is now denying that he instigated the latest unrest in Honiara, or helped protestors find the S$250 fare on the ferry from Auki to Honiara across the famous “Iron Bottom Sound” where scores of US and Japanese ships sank in the battles of 1942-43.
In return, Sogavare blames him. This week his government accused unnamed instigators of hatching “another evil plan,” this time to totally raze Honiara, and Suidani of moving to declare Malaitan independence.
At Sogavare’s request, Australia airlifted in some 100 police officers, of the muscular riot-squad variety, with a small military support contingent. They were joined by 40 police officers from Papua New Guinea and 50 soldiers from Fiji, with New Zealand and Samoa also moving to send police contingents.
Suidani says Australia is propping up a “corrupt leadership.” The involvement of foreign troops would see Sogavare “avoid dealing with all the issues that need to be dealt with,” he said. Wale, the opposition leader, is planning a no-confidence motion against Sogavare in coming days.
Meanwhile, with a precarious calm restored, townspeople are struggling to get daily supplies. The initial political protest against Sogavare had quickly morphed into a familiar pattern of looting by the young jobless inhabitants of Honiara’s squatter settlements, with the thriving Chinese-run trading stores the main target.
Three bodies were found among the burned-out stores. The Central Bank of the Solomon Islands estimated total damage at US$28 million.
The assisting nations now find themselves in a peace-keeping mission that could be open-ended. In 1998-2003, the Solomon Islands state almost collapsed when civil war broke out on Guadalcanal between migrants from Malaita and local ethnic groups over traditional land encroachments.
The Australian government organized its Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, known as RAMSI, with participation by New Zealand and other Pacific island nations, which ended up being a state rebuilding exercise that lasted 13 years and cost Canberra A$3 billion (US$2.2 billion).
James Batley, now a research scholar at the Australian National University, was Australia’s high commissioner in Honiara as things started to unravel and later the first leader of RAMSI. The latest intervention could be a sign of things to come in the region, he said this week. “We may need to get used to this.”