Solomon Islands province announces independence vote amid China tensions

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The largest province in Solomon Islands has announced plans for an independence referendum as tensions with the country’s national government over China policy rise.

Malaita, a province of 200,000 people in the country’s east, “will soon conduct a provincial-wide referendum on the topic of independence”, a statement from premier Daniel Suidani said on Tuesday.

In a phone interview with the Guardian, Suidani confirmed the plan, saying a vote would be held as soon as this month.

The referendum plan comes after a year of tensions between Suidani’s provincial government, which is supportive of Taiwan, and Solomon Islands’ national government which has adopted a pro-Beijing stance.

The internal division over China policy falls along similar cultural, ethnic and political fault lines that led to civil unrest in Solomon Islands between 1998 and 2003, resulting in a fourteen year Australian-led peacekeeping mission which concluded in 2017.

In September last year, Solomon Islands’ national government, led by four-time prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, ended a 36-year alliance with Taiwan and instead normalised ties with Beijing.

Malaitans protested against the national government’s decision at the time, citing China’s animus towards Christians and an undemocratic political system. A deeply religious island, Malaita had enjoyed close ties with Taiwan over decades.

Sudaini said his government would resist “continued pressure from the national government for Malaita to accept [China] into Malaita province”.

“The government cannot hear the cry of the people,” he told the Guardian. “We are tired and sick of a government that doesn’t listen to the people of Malaita.”

Solomon Islands closed its international borders in March because of the global coronavirus pandemic: it has yet to record a single Covid-19 case.

However, a direct flight from Guangzhou landed on Monday, carrying Chinese aid workers as well as repatriated Solomon Islanders.

“We will be closing access to Malaita,” Suidani said, citing the inbound Chinese flight as justification.

Malaitan Philip Subu, chairman of the Malaita Youth Caucus, said he supports the independence pledge, arguing Malaitans “have a desire to run their own affairs”.

Keyon Ronia, also a Malaitan and general secretary of the opposition Solomon Islands Democratic Party, told the Guardian he supported the plan.

“It is now time that Malaita remains in full control of herself and must not be subjected to communist rule”.

“We stand with our Malaitan Chiefs and our premier in declaring that we will not allow our lands to be annexed by China,” he said.

The announcement has inflamed anti-China sentiment.

Malaita For Democracy, an independence movement supportive of Taiwan and with links to Suidani, has called for anti-China protests on the island’s capital, Auki, and for all Chinese businesses – many of the small ethnic Chinese community in Malaita are shopkeepers – to leave the province within 24 hours.

The unrest in Malaita is being followed closely by Taiwanese diplomats formerly stationed in Honiara, who were forced to leave Solomon Islands when Honiara switched to Beijing. The Pacific was once a bastion of Taiwanese support, but Taipei can now only count on four Pacific Island nations as allies, after Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched recognition to Beijing last year.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Taiwanese diplomat confirmed Taipei had been “following up on the situation” in Malaita.

Taiwan has actively courted sub-national jurisdictions to bolster diplomatic support under President Tsai Ing-Wen. In July, Taiwan formally recognised Somaliland, a breakaway province of the east African country of Somalia.

Despite the promised referendum, an independent Malaita appears unlikely.

Emeritus professor Clive Moore, from the University of Queensland, argues Malaita is too interconnected with the rest of Solomon Islands to sustain independence.

“The big problem in Malaita province is a lack of modern economic development. Most of the economy is subsistence agriculture,” he said.

“Independence would not solve this dilemma as it is Malaitans themselves who often have been uncooperative with development strategies.”

But questions of independence remain live across the Pacific, one of the last regions in the world to undergo widespread decolonisation.

New Caledonia, a French territory, will hold its second independence referendum next month, while West Papua has been agitating for independence since its annexation by Indonesia in 1963.

Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea that borders Solomon Islands, voted overwhelmingly for independence in 2019.

The ongoing Malaitan agitation has exposed how debate over China’s influence has polarised a fragile Solomon Islands, exacerbated historical tensions, and granted political activists an opportunity to leverage fear over China for domestic political aspirations.

Solomon Islands’ attorney general John Muria Jnr was unable to comment on the legal validity of Malaita’s proposed poll.

Prime Minister Sogavare’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the Guardian.