November 29, 2021 | The Diplomat

Foreign Intervention Complicates Solomon Islands Unrest

The problem was sparked by perceived CCP interference. It can’t be solved by Australia taking a similarly heavy hand.
November 29, 2021 | The Diplomat

Foreign Intervention Complicates Solomon Islands Unrest

The problem was sparked by perceived CCP interference. It can’t be solved by Australia taking a similarly heavy hand.

After days of unrest and looting in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, security personnel from Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) have now arrived, responding to a request to “secure” the country from Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare. More are scheduled to come, including from Fiji.

But even before the forces landed, there were concerns that the move was not only unnecessary but unwise, and possibly even dangerous.

To understand why, it helps to go back a couple of years (actually it helps even more to go back a few decades, but that’s for another time).

In 2019, Sogavare switched his country’s diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. He then let Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-linked proxies, agents, and companies run riot, distorting the economics and politics of the Solomons.

The Auki Communique

This was not popular and leadership on the island of Malaita – the country’s most populous province – made their concerns clear, including in the 2019 Auki Communique, named for the capital of the province.

Among other things, it states that the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business Licenses to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party.”

The reason for their position gives insight into why this is not the sort of Taiwan versus China tussle it might seem to be.

The Communique also reads: The “MPG acknowledges the freedom of religion as a fundamental right and further observes the entrenched Christian faith and belief in God by Malaitan and MOIan [Malaita Outer Islands] peoples and therefore rejects the Chinese Communist Party – CCP and its formal systems based on atheist ideology”.

This is important. As is usual, the political position of many in the Solomons is based on their sense of self. In this case, it means that, as devout Christians, their interpretation of their faith doesn’t allow them to deal with a system that they view as anti-faith. Communist China is viewed as actively persecuting people of faith and as “systemically atheist,” as per communist doctrine.

Taiwan, as a democracy, is viewed as part of a system that respects the faith of individuals, and so is fine.

That’s why a man like Malaita’s Premier Daniel Suidani is such a problem for the CCP and its proxies in the Solomons. His geopolitical position is a by-product of his deep faith. It’s not his stand on China that defines him, it’s his faith in God. And it’s because of his faith in God that he feels he has to stand up to China, no matter the personal cost. The Bible is full of parables to guide him, David and Goliath being just one.

The Illness

So, when Suidani fell sick a year ago, and needed medical care outside the country, and the central government tried to make him bow to China in order to get the funds for his care, he said no.

He effectively showed he’d rather die than take money from China. That kind of inner strength is exactly why the CCP is petrified of people of faith, and is trying to destroy Tibetan and Uyghur culture, both of which are strongly rooted in religious faith (Buddhism for Tibetans and Islam for Uyghurs).

In the end, through friends as far away as India, and the personal intervention of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on compassionate grounds, Suidani made it to Taiwan for the medical care he needed. There was no financial assistance from Australia, New Zealand, or any of the other regional powers that send streams of consultants to the region to talk about democracy and fighting corruption.

While Suidani was away, the Solomons central government worked to try to undermine his provincial government, the Chinese Embassy issued a furious press release, and there were threats to try him for treason on his return for breaching the country’s One China policy by going to Taiwan (even though Chinese citizens hop over to Taiwan for medical treatments on a regular basis).

When Suidani returned to the Solomons a couple of months ago, he was greeted with an unprecedented outpouring of support, which concerned the Sogavare clique even more. What happened next shows why the Australian intervention was such a mistake.

The Vote of No Confidence

Last month, moves were made by suspiciously well-funded colleagues of Sogavare to lodge a vote of no confidence in the provincial legislature to bring down Suidani.

This was widely viewed in Malaita as outside influences corrupting their democracy. Thousands took to the streets of the provincial capital, Auki, and women sat in front of the legislature to block the entry of those wanting to table the vote of no confidence.

The police spoke to the group who intended to lodge the motion and told them the situation was on edge and they should reconsider. They withdrew and later apologized for disrespecting their constituents’ wishes. Suidani apologized to them for the tense situation. Crisis defused.

The coming together of the island to welcome back Suidani after his parable-like health odyssey, the sincere moves toward knitting Malaita back together after the near vote of no confidence, and the threat of a common enemy in the form of the CCP and its proxies, gave momentum to an even more remarkable event in Malaita a couple of weeks ago.

Putting the Malaita Massacre to Rest

There was a community-wide reconciliation ceremony to resolve deep cultural and ethnic scars resulting from the “Malaita Massacre” of 1927.

In 1927, the Solomons was a British Protectorate and the colonial administration imposed an unpopular head tax. An Australian-born district officer, William Bell, was sent to collect taxes in Malaita. He was killed by locals. They also killed some of his protection force, made up of people from another part of Malaita.

A punitive expedition was launched by the colonial administration, including white plantation owners and some of the relatives of the Malaitans killed along with Bell. The expedition killed an even larger number, including many not involved in the revolt, and desecrated ancestral shrines and religious sites. That wound has divided Malaita for generations.

Two weeks ago, in a profoundly important ceremony, attended by cultural, ethnic, religious, and political leaders, the communities of Malaita came together to forgive each other. They also unveiled a plaque to the leaders of the Solomon Islands independence movement.

The message was clear – Malaitans put aside their differences and stood together, while honoring the independence of the Solomon Islands from foreign influence.

Had Sogavare attended, he could have knitted together not just Malaita but the country. He didn’t. Nor did any of the Malaitan MPs from Sogavare’s party, nor any Australians or Brits.

The Honiara Protests

That was in the minds of the Malaitans who took the three-and-a-half hour boat trip to get to Honiara last week. Fresh off reconciling one of the most traumatic events in their island’s history, they showed up at the first day of the new national parliamentary session to join with people from other parts of the Solomons to again try to safeguard their democracy from what they viewed as corrupt foreign influence.

They demonstrated peacefully. But then, instead of the police (or the MPs) talking to them, they fired teargas at the protesters. Two days of chaos, arson, and looting followed.

And now, Australian troops and police have arrived.

The Solomons is a parliamentary democracy, so all that’s necessary to change the prime minister is enough MPs thinking s/he is not the person for the job. That was starting to happen as MPs heard from their constituents how upset they were at the direction the country was taking. Reportedly, the police were in discussions with Sogavare about resigning.

Then Sogavare got bailed out by Canberra – he can turn to those now cowed MPs and say, “See, Australia and China both back me.”

The Australians have said they don’t want to interfere in internal politics. Too late.

One way the intervention is being justified is by saying if the Australians didn’t come in, the Chinese might have. There was a third way: the path found by Solomon Islanders, on their own, just last month. There are other options as well.

To get an idea of how the intervention has complicated things, and what it looks like to locals, imagine if the Australians had been in the country last month “ensuring the continuation of the constitutional process.” Would they have moved aside the women blocking the entrance to the legislature in Malaita so that the vote of no confidence could go ahead? If so, would the local leadership have then been able to rebuild their community?

As one Solomon Islander said, “This is the best chance for change we’ve had in twenty years, but then the Australians showed up and said ‘oh no, we need to restore this imitative law and order.’”

Of course, violence is wrong. All the local leaders have said so. But they weren’t given a chance to resolve it in a way that is culturally appropriate, and so durable. Now the current situation is seen as “peace” at the point of an (Australian) gun, held at the behest of a CCP-linked prime minister who is widely disliked, and who is determined to destroy popular leaders of deep faith.

Currently, there is another short window to let the Solomon Islanders sort it out for themselves. A vote of no confidence has been tabled against Sogavare. It will likely be voted on next week. Sogavare has already tried to dissolve parliament to delay the vote. It didn’t work, but he’ll keep trying – he’s shown before that little is off the table when it comes to saving his own political life.

Australia needs to be very careful it isn’t getting played (which is the way it looks to many of its partners around the region, including India and Japan). There are a lot of lobbies that would benefit from this turning violent.

Currently the only foreign force truly welcome by the majority of the Solomon Islanders is the Fijians, as they are seen as good at using traditional methods of resolving disputes – specifically patient, respectful talking. However well intentioned the deployment might have been, that is not how the Australians are seen.

Unless power is returned to the people of the Solomon Islands, this will not end well.

Cleo Paskal is non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an associate fellow at Chatham House. Follow her on Twitter @CleoPaskal. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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China Military and Political Power