Friends of the Solomon Islands have watched with heavy hearts but perhaps without surprise as protests in Honiara degenerated into the worst violence in 15 years. At the time of writing many buildings have been burned and looted and the livelihoods of ordinary Honiara residents destroyed. Prime Minister Sogavare has activated his country’s security treaty with Australia and we have responded by sending police and military assistance.
This news has, with some exceptions, been reported in stories that lead with the line that ‘rioting in the Solomon Islands was triggered by anger about the government’s switch from recognising Taiwan to China in 2019.’ Most reports go on to canvas some of the deeper reasons for the narrative (outlined nowhere better than here, by Dr Transform Aqorau), but it is China that grabs the headlines.
This is a problem for three reasons. First, it makes the story conform to Australia’s prevailing security narrative about Chinese incursion into the Pacific. It makes the story about us and our fears, rather than those of the Solomon Islanders themselves. Second, it allows the country’s leaders blame ‘foreign powers’ for stirring up trouble (As a friend of China Mr Sogavare blames Taiwan and the USA. Meanwhile China hawks blame Beijing.). And third, it gets in the way of an honest conversation about the real drivers of the conflict. It is this last point that is the most consequential for the majority of Solomon Islanders.
To be clear: unhappiness about the China switch is real, particularly among Malaitans. It’s stated as a grievance in a petition presented to the government last July. But as Mihai Sora writes in the Lowy Interpreter “Geostrategic competition …does not trigger rioting in Honiara.” The China issue has fanned the flames of unrest – but the flames were already there, in a fire that has been smouldering for decades.
Before looking closer into that fire, it is useful to consider what has been targeted in these riots. They started as peaceful protests at the base of the parliament hill with a demand for the Prime Minister to resign over his failure to respond to their grievances. This escalated quickly as a shed in the parliamentary compound was set alight. Dr Anouk Ride writes that the initial protesters went home, but the next development was almost traditional for Honiara as the unrest moved east to Chinatown, as has happened at least twice in the last two decades. Both Chinese and locally owned businesses have been burned, as was a police station and most tragically, a local high school. Extensive looting has followed and still more arson. Taiwanese owned shops are reported to be unscathed – but so too is the new Chinese Embassy. The Prime Minister’s residence is just now reported to have been targeted. The rioters appear for the most part to have been young men.
It’s hard to read this as a focused reaction to the switch. Chinese businesses have long been scapegoats and Chinatown is the default target of violence in Honiara; so conclusions cannot easily be drawn about this week’s events. But the attacks on the school, police and PM’s residence suggest that different resentments may be at work. It was symbols of the state that have burned, not those of a foreign power.
Looking from a peacebuilder’s perspective past the heat of this week’s blazes to that long smouldering fire suggests that the Solomon Islands is experiencing the latest iteration of a cycle of conflict that goes back at least to the mid-1990s (Tess Newton-Cain has an excellent history here). Disputes over land and access to development and livelihoods opportunities and more drove the Tensions and these have flared up more than once. As the July petition states, Malaitans believe that they have not been given the autonomy promised to them two decades ago and that they have been passed over for development since that time. Add to this the shock of the switch and the pressures of nearly two years of COVID-driven economic hardship and it is perhaps inevitable that the smouldering fire has erupted again. And once again it is underemployed, frustrated youth who carry the torch and the blame.
That is as far as this blog will go in speculating on the causes of this week’s violence (read Anouk Ride’s article for a thorough and excellent initial analysis). My intent is to make it clear that while we may have a general idea of what has led to this situation, it is going to take sustained mediation and dialogue to reach a shared understanding and, more importantly, find a way forward.
(Last paragraph is updated, 1 Dec 2021)
The Solomon Islands government, and Prime Minister Sogavare in particular, needs to take the first step and accept that the grievances of the past have not yet been dealt with. He needs to listen to and acknowledge the grievances of the people of Malaita, and others. He should consider all options - including stepping down - as a way to defuse the current tension. Daniel Suidani, Malaita's Premier, also needs to carefully consider how he us using his power. Dialogue, and genuine investment in the futures of all Solomon Islanders is essential if we want to break the cycle of conflict, and, finally put out the fire.