The Solomon Islands government has declared a nightly curfew and advised all public servants to stay at home as violent protests continued for a third day on Friday, with crowds gathering at the Prime Minister’s residence.
Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital, has been hit by civil unrest since Wednesday, with protests, looting and burning of shops and businesses. Defying a previous 36-hour curfew, thousands of demonstrators have come out onto the streets calling for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s resignation.
The new curfew will last from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, effective from Friday. “During the period, only authorized officers are allowed to move within the city,” a government statement said.
Security forces have been unable to halt protests in Honiara, which call on the government to respect the rights of self-determination of the Malaita people, to limit ties with China, and to resume development projects in Malaita province – home to the country’s most populous island.
A Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) spokesperson told CNN by phone on Friday fire trucks had been sent to Sogavare’s residence as a precaution and that protesters had moved out of the city’s Chinatown district, where the violence had previously been concentrated.
On Friday, the central government advised all public servants to stay at home due to the unrest, with the exception of essential workers, and encouraged staff to ensure they had food supplies “due to the uncertainty of the current situation.” On Thursday, a local journalist said fires were blazing in Chinatown, and the police had lost control in eastern Honiara.
Australia has dispatched police and military troops to the Pacific island nation to help quell the unrest after receiving a formal request from the government under a bilateral security agreement for assistance and to support the RSIPF.
Jone Tuiipelehaki, a development consultant in Honiara, said Chinatown had seen some of the worst of the violence.
“Even during the lockdown period, we saw people looting and breaking into shopping centers around the eastern side of Honiara, but also in Chinatown especially, (which) received the full brunt of the violent protesters because they burnt down a lot of the shops in that area,” he said.
Tuiipelehaki said it was difficult to interpret whether people were looting because they saw an opportunity or if their actions were part of a genuine protest.
“There’s a lot of young people who are involved in looting and breaking into the shops,” he said, adding that he saw young men and women breaking into a shop selling alcohol.
“Even as we’re talking right now, I can see people running out carrying bags of rice, and cans and cartons of tinned fish,” he said.
Lisa Cuatt, Solomon Islands country director for Save the Children in Honiara, said by evening local time the situation had calmed but looting and rioting had continued throughout Friday.
“It’s been a very distressing few days. People are scared for their safety. Most of the violence has targeted buildings, but targeting infrastructure means you are targeting peoples’ livelihoods. Families and children lose out in that scenario,” she said, adding that one of the major buildings destroyed was a high school in the capital, during exam week.
“There’s no money left in the ATMs, the shops have been closed, families and children are going without food because it’s difficult or unsafe to access it at this point,” Cuatt said.
Prime Minister Sogavare has refused to give in to protesters’ demands, saying in a public address posted in local media on Thursday, “If I am removed as Prime Minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament.”
Many of the demonstrators have come from neighboring Malaita province to express their discontent with the Sogavare government and its handling of a range of domestic issues, including a lack of development and unrealized infrastructure promises.
“The events illustrate the sense of exclusion of many from development in Honiara and Guadalcanal that arises from the retail, mining, logging and increasingly construction sector being dominated by companies and workers from Asia,” said Anouk Ride, a researcher on aid, development, conflict and social inclusion, writing on the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter website.
Prime Minister Sogavare, however, blamed unnamed foreign powers for encouraging the unrest, according to an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation.
Malaita province opposed the Solomons central government’s decision in 2019 to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish a formal relationship with China.
“I feel sorry for my people in Malaita because they are fed with false and deliberate lies about the switch,” Sogavare reportedly said.
“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.
China has said it is “gravely concerned” over what it said were attacks on Chinese citizens and businesses in Honiara, on Thursday. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said authorities “have asked the local government to take all measures necessary to protect the safety of Chinese nationals and institutions.”
“We are confident that under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s leadership, the government of Solomon Islands can restore social order and stability soon,” Zhao said.
The Solomon Islands was one of a handful of countries that had diplomatic relations with the democratic self-governed island of Taiwan but in 2019, the archipelago swapped allegiances for China. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that doesn’t recognize its “One China Policy.”
Zhao stressed the One China Policy “is a basic norm governing international relations” and since the Solomon Islands established diplomatic ties with China, “bilateral relations have enjoyed sound development with fruitful outcomes.”
“All attempts to disrupt the normal development of relations between China and Solomon Islands are just futile,” he said.
Additional reporting by CNN’s Pauline Lockwood and Reuters.