By DAVID RISING and ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Solomon Islands Prime Minister Solomon Manasseh Sogavare on Friday blamed foreign intervention on his government’s decision to move alliances from Taiwan to Beijing for anti-government protests, arson and looting that have ravaged the capital Honiara in recent days.
But critics also blamed unrest over complaints about government lack of services and accountability, corruption and Chinese businesses hiring foreigners instead of locals.
The Chinese city of Honiara and its downtown area have been at the center of rebels, robbers and protesters demanding that Sogavare, who has been intermittently prime minister since 2000, resign.
The National Parliament building, a police station and businesses were set on fire during two turbulent days in which police failed to control the crowd.
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the leaders of Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when it severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Malaita leaders complain that their island has been unfairly deprived of government investment since the change.
A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats arrived late Thursday in Honiara, where they will assist local police efforts to restore order, said Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton.
Sogavare said he stood by his government’s decision to embrace Beijing, which he described as “the only issue” in the violence, which “unfortunately was influenced and encouraged by other powers”.
External pressures were a “very big impact. I do not want to mention names. “We will leave him there,” said Sogavare.
“I will not bow down to anyone. “We are intact, the government is intact and we will defend democracy.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne disagreed that other countries had fueled the unrest.
“We have not shown this at all,” Payne said.
“We have been very clear. Our view is that we do not want to see violence. “We would very much hope for a return to stability,” she added.
Local journalist Gina Kekea said the shift of foreign policy to Beijing with little public consultation was one of a mix of issues that led to the protests. There have also been complaints that foreign companies do not offer jobs.
“Chinese businesses and (other) Asian businesses … seem to have the bulk of the work, especially when it comes to sourcing, which people feel strongly about,” Kekea said.
The protesters were replaced by robbers and cleaners on Friday in Chinatown, Kekea said.
“Two days have passed, two whole days of looting, protests and riots and Honiara is just a small town,” Kekea said of the 85,000-person home.
“So I think there is nothing left to plunder and destroy now,” she added.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday engaged troops, police and diplomats to help local police restore order and protect critical infrastructure.
Australia would not help protect the National Parliament and executive buildings, as a sign that Australia was not taking a political side.
Some observers argue that Australia quickly intervened to avoid the movement of Chinese security forces to restore order.
But Morrison said Sogavare had asked for help because he trusted Australia.
“The Solomon Islands first contacted us familje as a family because they trust us and we have worked hard for that trust in the Pacific,” Morrison said.
“This is our region and we are rising to secure our region with our partners, our friends, our family and our allies,” he added.
Sogavare sought help from Australia under a bilateral security treaty that has been in place since 2017, when Australian peacekeepers last left the Solomon Islands.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Regional Aid Mission to the Solomon Islands that restored peace to the country following bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.
Morrison asked if Chinese citizens and businesses were targeted. He described the riots as “a mixed story” and noted that Chinatown was the scene of riots before Australia’s 2003 intervention.
China, meanwhile, has expressed serious concern about recent attacks on some Chinese citizens and institutions, without giving 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 spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday.
He said economic and other co-operation since the establishment of diplomatic relations have benefited both sides.
“Any attempt to undermine the normal development of China-Solomon relations is in vain,” he said.
Dutton said a plane with 23 federal police officers and several diplomats flew from the Australian capital Canberra to Honiara late Thursday.
Up to 50 other police officers as well as 43 defense force personnel on a naval patrol boat were scheduled to arrive on Friday.
Australian forces will also be equipped to “provide a medical response,” Dutton said.
“It is certainly a dangerous situation on the ground. “We have seen the riots that have taken place, the arson and the general disorder that is there at the moment,” Dutton said.
“So there is a lot of work for the police to do on the ground,” he added.
Sogavare announced a blockade on Wednesday after about 1,000 people gathered in protest in Honiara, demanding his resignation over a host of internal issues.
Protesters stormed the National Assembly building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set fire to a police station and other buildings.
Sogavare ordered the closure of the capital from 19:00 on Wednesday until 19:00 on Friday, after he said he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at toppling a democratically elected government”.
Despite an announcement by Solomon Islands police forces that they would conduct increased patrols through Honiara in the midst of the blockade, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.
Local media reported that many of the protesters were from Malaita, whose prime minister, Daniel Suidani, has been at odds with Sogavare, whom he accuses of being too close to Beijing.
Suidani said he was not responsible for the violence in Honiara, but told the Solomon Star News that he agreed with calls for Sogavare to resign.
The Solomon Islands, about 1,500 miles (1,000 miles) northeast of Australia, were the scene of bloody fighting during World War II.
After being captured by the Japanese, the US Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in August 1942 to launch a campaign to regain control. They were successful, although fighting in and around the Solomon Islands continued until the end of the war.
Growth is reported from Bangkok.
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