CANBERRA, Australia – Australia announced Thursday it is sending police, troops and diplomats to Solomon Islands to help after anti-government protesters defied lockdown orders and took to the streets for a second day during the violent demonstrations.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the deployment includes a detachment of 23 federal police officers and up to 50 others to provide security for critical infrastructure sites, as well as 43 members of the defense force, a patroller and at least five diplomats. .
The first staff left Australia on Thursday and more on Friday, and the deployment is expected to last a few weeks, Morrison said.
“Our goal here is to ensure stability and security,” he said.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared the lockdown on Wednesday after around 1,000 people gathered to protest in the capital, Honiara, demanding his resignation over a host of domestic issues.
Protesters breached the National Parliament building and burned the thatched roof of a nearby building, the government said. They also set a police station and other buildings on fire.
“They intended to destroy our nation and … the slowly building trust among our people,” the government said in a statement.
Morrison said Sogavare had asked Australia for help amid the violence under a bilateral security treaty.
“The Australian government has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands. It’s up to them to resolve, ”he said.
“Our presence there does not indicate any position on the internal problems of the Solomon Islands,” Morrison added.
Australia led an international police and military force called the Solomon Islands Regional Assistance Mission which restored peace to the country after bloody ethnic violence from 2003 to 2017.
Sogavare ordered the lockdown of the capital from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 p.m. Friday after saying he had “witnessed another sad and unfortunate event aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government”.
“I honestly thought we were past the darkest days in our country’s history,” he said. “However, today’s events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go.”
Despite the announcement by the Solomon Islands Police Force that they would conduct increased patrols through Honiara amid the lockdown, protesters took to the streets again on Thursday.
Local journalist Gina Kekea posted photos of a burning bank, shops and school on Twitter.
Morrison said he decided to send help after it became clear that Solomon Islands police were “stretched out.”
Sogavare angered many in 2019, especially the rulers of Solomon Islands’ most populous province, Malaita, when he severed the country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan, transferring his diplomatic allegiance to China.
Local media reported that many protesters came from Malaita, whose prime minister, Daniel Suidani, disagreed 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 he agreed with calls for Sogavare’s resignation.
“Over the past 20 years Mannaseh Sogavare has been in power, the plight of the people of the Solomon Islands has worsened while at the same time foreigners have harvested the country’s best resources,” Suidani said. “People are not blind to this and do not want to be deceived any more.”
Honiara reporter Elizabeth Osifelo said the cause of the chaos was “a mixture of a lot of frustration.”
“The move to China from Taiwan was also, I might say, part of it,” Osefelo told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “That’s probably not what triggered the situation, but it also largely contributed to some of the tension that we experienced.