Riot-hit Solomons begins clean-up as more foreign troops arrive

Honiara residents clean up streets after deadly riots as Australia dispatches more police to keep the peace.

The aftermath of a looted street in Honiara's Chinatown, Solomon Islands,, November 27 [Piringi Charley/ AP]

The prime minister of the riot-hit Solomon Islands vowed on Sunday to defy pressure to resign, saying violence that swept the capital had been orchestrated by a few people with “evil intention” to topple him.

“It is very clear that the recent events were well planned and orchestrated to remove me as the prime minister for unsubstantiated reasons,” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said in an address broadcast to the Pacific island nation.

“I want to show the nation that the government is fully intent and nothing will move us. We must and will never bow down to the evil intention of a few people,” Sogavare said.

Sogavare previously blamed the three days of violence — during which rioters incinerated swathes of the capital Honiara before the unrest died down at the weekend — on an unscrupulous few leading others astray with false information.

“We must stand up to intimidation, bullying and violence. We owe this to our children and the majority of our people who cannot defend themselves,” he said.

Sogavare said the violence, centred on the capital’s Chinatown, had caused 200 million Solomon Islander dollars ($25m) in damage and destroyed 1,000 jobs in an economy already squeezed by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Environment still unknown’

Clean-up operations started in the capital as soldiers and police from Australia and Papua New Guinea helped to restore calm after several days of deadly riots.

Residents of Honiara cleared shattered glass, rubble and rubbish from the streets as heavy machinery in the hard-hit district of Chinatown moved rubble from burned-out shops.

Mounds of rubbish still lined the streets in the district, a reminder of looting and rioting that broke out following protests over poverty, hunger and Sogavare’s policies.

“The situation has calmed down and people are moving about as normal but the environment is still unknown in terms of what may happen,” Red Cross official Kennedy Waitara told the AFP news agency.

Waitara said many food shops had been burned down in the riots.

“It will not be surprising if we have to experience food shortages and a hike in prices,” he said.

“Unemployment will certainly increase in the coming weeks as people will certainly be out of jobs now and will be finding it difficult.”

The riots broke out on Wednesday after protesters attempted to storm the Pacific island nation’s parliament, prompting the police to fire tear gas. Demonstrators then set fire to buildings, including a police station and shops.

Sogavare declared a 36-hour curfew in Honiara and asked for help from his country’s neighbours. Australia and Papua New Guinea sent 150 peacekeepers on Thursday and Friday, helping to quell the unrest in the nation of 800,000 people.

Police arrested more than 100 people and on Friday reported the first deaths from the rioting. They said the charred remains of three people had been found in a burned-out shop in Chinatown and that a forensic team was working to identify the bodies.

Despite the uneasy calm, many people in the capital were too nervous to even attend church services, said Nason Ta’ake, a youth leader at the Wesley United Church in Honiara.

“There are only a few people attending church services as most are still living in fear,” Ta’ake told AFP.

After leaving church, parishioners began scouring shops for food and essential goods but very few were open, he said.

An early estimate of the cost of the rioting, released this weekend by the Central Bank of the Solomon Islands, said 56 buildings in the capital had been burned and looted, with many businesses facing a recovery of more than a year.

The loss to the economy was expected to be at least $28m, with the bank’s governor warning that the nation’s accounts – already struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic – had been further weakened by the riots.

In neighbouring Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said more Australian Federal Police would arrive in the Solomon Islands on Sunday, and added that he expected Fiji to also contribute troops.

“Although things are very unstable at this point … plans, we know, are being made, to ensure there can be calm,” he said.

The Australian leader said it was up to the Solomon Islands to resolve the crisis.

“It is not for us to be interfering in their democracy. It is not for us to be interfering in how they resolve those issues,” Morrison said, stating that Australian forces aimed only to provide a safe environment for this to happen.

Many Solomon Islanders believe their government is corrupt and beholden to Beijing and other foreign interests.

Opposition leaders on Saturday called for a vote of no confidence in Sogavare.

They may not yet have enough votes to pass the motion and remove him from office, but the move could create another flashpoint.

The pro-Beijing leader claimed foreign powers opposed to his 2019 decision to switch the Solomons’ diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China were behind the disturbances.

But others pointed to inter-island tensions and widespread joblessness among the country’s population – 40 percent of whom are under 14 years of age.

China’s government on Friday condemned the violence and vowed to “safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions”.

Source: News Agencies