Solomons religious leaders call for reconciliation after three days of unrest
Rioters continue to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Sogavare, also for being pro-Beijing. Casualties have been reported in the capital's Chinatown. Both public and private buildings, shops, and police stations have been set on fire. The prime minister refuses to give in to rioters.
Port Moresby (AsiaNews) – From the high ground where Honiara’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross is located, Father Mark Misiwasi has seen for the past three days smoke rise from the Chinese quarter of the capital of the Solomon Islands.
Unrest began on Wednesday when protesters from different provinces, especially Malaita, held a protest at the National Parliament demanding the immediate resignation of the prime minister and the government.
The Solomons are not new to ethnic and political unrest. In 2017 the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) pulled out after re-establishing order and reducing tensions between Malaita natives and other Solomon Islanders; especially in Honiara, where they live together.
When Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare returned to power in 2019, dissatisfaction was rekindled. Mr Sogavare has been a polarising figure, incapable of ensuring national harmony.
People on Malaita, home to a third of the country’s population, have criticised him above all for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China.
Malaita and its governor, Daniel Suidani, have close relations with Taipei, while Sogavare is more interested in business in the capital.
Other provinces are also demanding a change in government, especially Guadalcanal where Honiara is located.
Although governors are urging Islanders to calm down, along with the opposition, they do not trust the government.
Australian police have been on the streets of Honiara since this morning. Tomorrow a contingent from Papua New Guinea is set to be deployed. Almost a hundred officers from the two countries will back Solomon authorities for a few weeks.
“Young people in the western part of the capital, near the airport, joined the police trying to impose calm and reason with people,” Fr Misiwasi said.
In the east however, the situation is tragic, with the threat of a new march on the central bank.
In the morning, the prime minister's residence was partly set on fire; In the previous two days, rioters attacked private homes, large and small shops, school buildings, a branch of the South Pacific Bank, and several police stations.
There are unconfirmed reports of three deaths, a Chinese person and two locals, who died in a fire that engulfed a building in Honiara's Chinatown.
"There is no way to reason with people,” said Fr Misiwasi, deputy secretary of the country’s Catholic Bishops' Conference, which includes three dioceses.
“It is incredible how not only young people, but also seniors, women, children get caught up in group hysteria, causing destruction and looting.”
In all likelihood, not only ethnic and political factors have played a role, but so has despair resulting from youth unemployment and poverty in urban areas.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Solomon authorities closed the country to the rest of the world for the past year and a half. The strategy has been proven successful but at an inevitable cost for the economy.
What is more, many have long accused Sogavare, a four-time prime minister, of favouring foreigners over locals in 20 years of political career.
The Anglican Archbishop of Melanesia, Rev Leonard Dawea, head of the largest Christian denomination in the Solomon Islands, immediately appealed to islanders to end the violence and looting.
"Until protesters stop burning buildings, it is even dangerous to issue an appeal. There is a risk of being misunderstood and suffer heavy consequences without achieving anything," Fr Misiwasi explained.
There are no reports of unrest outside the capital, this according to Mgr Peter Houhou, the Catholic bishop of Auki on Malaita.
The Archbishop of Honiara, Italian-American Chris Cardone OFP, and the Bishop of Gizo,[*] Mgr Luciano Capelli SDB, from Italy, were moved to the King Solomon Hotel yesterday from the Pacific Hotel, which is Chinese-owned and managed.
The two were supposed to complete their mandatory quarantine period today after returning from their respective countries of origin with the first post-COVID-19 flight from Australia, a couple of weeks ago.
It is not clear how much local religious leaders, who have traditionally worked together, can help promote reconciliation in the country. In the short term, the problem remains strictly political.
In an earnest statement released yesterday, Sogavare said that he would bend only to the will of Parliament, not protesters; however, in the current situation, the latter are not only demonstrating, but are also burning and destroying causing serious harm to individuals, businesses and the government itself.
*Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands
[*] In the northwestern part of the country.