On a Wednesday morning last November, a few hours before the violence broke out, several boatloads of young men from the island of Malaita, Solomon Islands’ largest province, arrived in Honiara, the South Pacific nation’s capital.
The crowd of up to a thousand people massed in front of the Solomon Islands’ national parliament. They’d come demanding an audience with Manasseh Sogavare, who they believed had been undermining Malaitan interests since assuming the prime ministership for the fourth time in April 2019.
Sogavare, a 66-year-old political stalwart, was prepared. His police had briefed the government about plans for major protest two days earlier and had readied for the worst.
The day began peacefully. Police, acting as intermediaries between Sogavare’s office and the protesters, assured those gathered that an audience would be granted.
But David Wairi, a 31-year-old Malaitan who was in the crowd, said they quickly realised that “the MPs had already fled”.
The prime minister had been quietly evacuated in a private car – his official vehicle was left in the parking lot – and had begun travelling inconspicuously on back roads through the hills south of Honiara to avoid the crowds. At times, he walked on foot between waiting vehicles, which eventually took him to the heavily fortified Rove Police Headquarters, where he would remain for most of the next 48 hours.
With Sogavare gone, crowds began to spill into the parliamentary grounds. A hut adjacent to the parliamentary building was set alight. Police responded forcefully, firing tear gas.
“We are not dogs, we are men,” one of the protesters told Peter Kenilorea jnr, an opposition MP who witnessed the events. “Why are you using this on us?”
Victims of the teargassing were ushered by remaining MPs into parliamentary bathrooms to wash their eyes. Others fled to the nearby University of South Pacific campus, where Maverick Seda, a 21-year-old student, provided water and milk to ease the burning.
The protesters soon flooded onto the streets of Honiara and by dusk the city was ablaze. Dozens of buildings, including the Kukum Police Station, were razed. Thick, black smoke blanketed the sky. A curfew was announced by Sogavare, but the rioters outnumbered the police and havoc continued, especially in the Chinatown precinct, where property was destroyed and businesses were ransacked.
Three people died – their charred remains were found days after the riots – and the damage bill is estimated to have reached almost $100 million.
Within 24 hours, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the deployment of 70 Australian peacekeepers to Honiara – the first time Australia has sent troops under a security treaty signed between Canberra and Honiara in 2017.
“The deployment was a stopgap,” says Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies focusing on the Pacific Islands at Massey University in New Zealand. “It provided critical backup to the beleaguered [police] and in doing so helped to restore public safety and confidence.”
The 2017 treaty was signed at the conclusion of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a $2.8 billion, 14-year Australian-led peacekeeping mission.
RAMSI, created in 2003, ended five years of civil unrest known as the Tensions, with sustained violence between Malaitans and other ethnic groups. But the mission was unable to heal longstanding enmities between the opposing groups, which Powles believed were merely “frozen” by the 14-year intervention.
These tensions were dramatically thawed on September 25, 2019, when the Sogavare government ended Honiara’s 36-year alliance with Taiwan, instead extending diplomatic recognition to China.
Known in Solomon Islands as the “switch”, the China decision was controversial – especially in Malaita. Some Malaitans were fearful of China. Others were personally loyal to the Taiwanese and comforted by its democratic system.
But for most Malaitans, the switch became totemic of the national government’s tendency to ignore the province’s wishes. Sensing political opportunity, Malaitan Premier Daniel Suidani responded deftly.
A former primary school teacher, Suidani was elected premier of Malaita in 2019. Recognising the extent of local anger at the China decision, the 51-year-old has since worked hard to bolster his anti-China – and anti-Sogavare – credentials. He has accrued considerable local and international popularity in the process, which has itself fuelled the animosities between the Malaitan and national governments that led to the November riots.
Within days of the switch, Suidani had become a media sensation. His ultimately unverifiable story of refusing a $1 million cash bribe to support the China decision became part of the lore surrounding the switch and positioned the premier as the moral bulwark against Chinese corruption and de facto leader of the anti-China movement in Solomon Islands.
Suidani didn’t stop there. He soon banned ethnic Chinese from operating businesses in Malaita and pledged to never let Chinese money enter his province.
As Covid-19 emerged, the premier’s surrogates began talks with the Taiwanese in Australia, kickstarting an illegal diplomatic partnership between the Malaitan capital Auki and Taipei.
Soon, consignments of Taiwanese Covid-19 aid were flowing directly to Auki, angering both Sogavare and the Chinese ambassador to Solomon Islands, whose vitriol further enhanced Suidani’s popularity.
Suidani, a rumpled, uncharismatic leader, hardly looks like the man standing in the way of China’s grand plans for Pacific domination. But his struggle is often framed in such a light.
Sky News Australia hosts Sharri Markson and Paul Murray are among those who have amplified the premier.
In a segment titled “Wake up Australia: China is empire building”, Murray lauded Suidani’s courage, saying he “was apparently offered the best part of $1 million ... in exchange for a changing of allegiances from Taiwan to China. Thankfully, this bloke said no.”
Suidani has been further buoyed by Canadian academic Cleo Paskal, who lionises the premier in public appearances, YouTube interviews with popular right-wing news channels, and a regular column in a fringe Indian newspaper.
After Suidani defeated a motion of no confidence in October, Paskal claimed without evidence that the whole affair was the direct result of Chinese interference.
“Once the PRC has fully eaten the Solomons,” Paskal wrote, “it will use it as a jumping off point for its next meal.”
The argument circulated through influential social media channels in Solomon Islands. It reflected a growing feedback loop between Suidani, his international fans, and the on-the-ground reality in Solomon Islands, where foreign content favourably framing Suidani circulates widely via Facebook – a platform Sogavare tried unsuccessfully to ban in 2020.
As Suidani has become a hero to those seeking champions in a global struggle against China, he and his supporters have leveraged the resulting gravitas to pursue the dream of Malaitan independence, inspired by the independence struggles in neighbouring Bougainville and West Papua.
Malaita for Democracy, or M4D, a Suidani-aligned separatist group that emerged in the days after the switch, is organising the circulation of a “Malaita People’s Survey for a Self-Autonomous State” to ascertain the level of public support for independence.
M4D’s leader, Knoxly Atu, who is fighting criminal charges associated with his alleged role in the November riots, told The Saturday Paper that M4D is calling on the Sogavare government to “allow for a referendum” on Malaitan independence.
M4D’s founder left the organisation in early 2020 to become a senior adviser to premier Suidani, who has since begun personally pushing for independence.
As calm returned to Solomon Islands through December, the Sogavare government announced the arrival of six Chinese “police liaison” officers – legitimising the fears of those who have expressed concern about China’s involvement in the country, and reigniting much of the anger that led to the November 24 riots.
MP Kenilorea jnr, who opposed the switch, views the China engagement with “great concern”.
“I suspected this all along … that there was going to be a shift in security [partnerships] from our trusted and true friends, Australia, towards our new friend, China,” he told The Saturday Paper.
Powles believes the timing of the Chinese deployment – coming after order was restored – showed Beijing was only willing to “piggyback off the security efforts of others”.
She warned that “the deployment of the Chinese security advisers will add fuel to the Malaita government’s pro-Taiwan stance, in opposition to the Sogavare government’s recognition of China”.
Knoxly Atu said the Chinese advisers “will not be allowed on Malaita in any form”.
He said, “We will defend our island with our hearts.”
This piece was modified on January 24, 2021, to correct Cleo Paskal’s nationality.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 15, 2022 as "China switch".
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