Rioters defy curfew in Solomon Islands as PM faces calls to quit

Unrest rocks capital for a second day with rioters apparently targeting Chinatown businesses amid escalating inter-island tensions.

Rioting broke out for a second day in the Solomon Islands’s capital Honiara on Thursday, with protesters setting fire to buildings in the city’s Chinatown amid an outpouring of anger in the Pacific island nation.

Protesters defied a 36-hour curfew imposed after unrest in the capital on Wednesday, when demonstrators tried to storm parliament and force Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare from power.

Images shared on social media showed smoke billowing from buildings in Honiara, less than halfway into the lockdown, as rioters regrouped and again targeted Honiara’s Chinatown area.

They also ransacked a police station, a local resident told the AFP news agency.

The man, who did not want to be named, said police had erected roadblocks but the unrest showed no sign of abating.

Shops, offices and businesses were set ablaze during unrest on Wednesday [Stewart K via Reuters]

“There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” the resident said, as local media reported looting and police using tear gas.

Most of the protesters in the city are reportedly from the neighbouring island of Malaita, where people have long complained of neglect by the central government.

The island’s local government also strongly opposed the Solomon government’s decision to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019. The move was engineered by Sogavare, who critics say is too close to Beijing, and led to an independence referendum last year, which the national government has dismissed as illegitimate.

‘Pent-up anger’

The lockdown in Honiara is scheduled to remain in force until 7am on Friday.

Speaking on Wednesday night, Sogavare said it would “allow our law enforcement agencies to fully investigate the perpetrators of today’s events and to prevent further lawless destruction”.

The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) urged people in and around Honiara to stay at home.

Opposition leader Matthew Wale called on the prime minister to resign, saying frustration at controversial decisions made during his tenure had led to the violence.

“Regrettably, frustrations and pent up anger of the people against the prime minister are spilling uncontrollably over onto the streets, where opportunists have taken advantage of the already serious and deteriorating situation,” Wale said in a statement.

Similar inter-island rivalries led to the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping force in the Solomons between 2003 and 2017, and the unfolding situation is likely to be closely monitored in Canberra and Wellington.

There was rioting following general elections in 2006, with much of Honiara’s Chinatown razed amid rumours that businesses with links to Beijing had rigged the vote.

Sogavare said those involved in the latest unrest had been “led astray” by unscrupulous people.

“I had honestly thought that we had gone past the darkest days in the history of our country, however … [these] events are a painful reminder that we have a long way to go,” he said.

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