CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Solomon Islands police found three bodies in a burned-out building and arrested more than 100 people in the violence this week sparked by concerns over the Pacific nation’s growing ties with China.
Australian media reported that the bodies were recovered late Friday after the unrest and protests subsided. No further information was given.
Authorities imposed a curfew in the capital, Honiara, after a 36-hour lockdown ordered by embattled Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare ended Friday.
Sogavare blamed outside interference for fueling the protests calling for his resignation, with a thinly veiled reference to Taiwan and the United States.
Sogavare has been widely criticized by the leaders of the country’s most populous island, Malaita, for a decision in 2019 to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of mainland China. Beijing claims the self-governing island of Taiwan as part of its territory.
His administration, meanwhile, is angry about millions of US aid pledged directly to Malaita rather than through the central government on the largest island of Guadacanal, where Honiara is located. The two islands have been rivals for decades.
Andrew Yang, a professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan and a former deputy secretary of defense, said China’s efforts to gain diplomatic recognition for the Solomon Islands are part of a competition for regional supremacy with the United States and its ally, Australia.
The Solomon Islands, with a population of around 700,000, are located around 1,500 kilometers northeast of Australia. They are best known for the bloody fighting that took place there between the United States and Japan during World War II.
A peaceful protest by Malaita people in the capital led to riots and looting against Chinatown and downtown Hoinara on Wednesday. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, which set fire to the National Parliament, a police station and many other buildings.
Critics also blamed the riots on complaints of a lack of government services and accountability, corruption and Chinese companies that gave jobs to foreigners instead of locals.
Since the 2019 loyalty shift from Taiwan to China, massive infrastructure investments have been expected from Beijing – locally it’s said to be on the order of $ 500 million – but with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak shortly after the shift, none of that has yet occurred.
Malaita threatened a referendum on independence, which the Sogavare government rejected.
A plane carrying Australian police and diplomats is in Honiara to help local police restore order. At the request of Sogavare under a bilateral agreement with Australia, up to 50 other Australian police officers and 43 members of the Defense Forces were also deployed. The presence of an independent force, although small, appeared to suppress some of the violence.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres followed the protests “with concern”, said his deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
“(Guterres) calls for an end to violence and the protection of hard-won peace gains. He urges dialogue and good means to address differences, ”Haq said in a statement on Friday.