On Wednesday, 27 October, a Vote of No Confidence is likely to be tabled in the Malaita provincial assembly against Premier Suidani by those working with the central government.The situation is very tense.

 

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Given the current dangerous tensions in the Solomon Islands—linked to Chinese activity in the country—in this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with the highly respected Solomon Islands leader, Hon. Peter Kenilorea Jr.

Hon. Kenilorea is the son of the first Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands and was elected to the national parliament of the Solomon Islands in 2019. He is also the President of the Organization of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States Parliamentary Assembly and the Co-President of the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly.

Previously, after earning a Masters in Law, Hon. Kenilorea served in the United Nations for close to two decades, before becoming Permanent Secretary in the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade.

 

BACKGROUND TO THE TENSION

Currently, Hon. Kenilorea is deeply concerned about the destabilizing effects of the “switch” from diplomatic relations with Taiwan to the PRC made by central government of the Solomons in 2019.

Since that time, PRC-linked companies and workers have poured into the Solomons, spreading cash where needed, buying influence, distorting local economies and bringing in a more authoritarian approach.

Those who have resisted have been targeted for buying or bullying, or worse. The current flashpoint is the most populous province in the Solomons, Malaita.

The Malaita Premier, Daniel Suidani, is a widely respected and popular supporter of democratic principles, which has made him a threat to the CCP and its allies in the country.

When Premier Suidani needed medical care outside the country, the central government refused aid. And when Taiwan stepped in to supply the needed care, the Chinese Embassy in the Solomons was publicly furious, calling on the central government to punish him.

When Premier Suidani returned to the Solomons after the successful treatment, he was greeted by an unprecedented public welcome, demonstrating his popularity, and making him an even bigger threat to the central government and the PRC.

On Wednesday, 27 October, a Vote of No Confidence is likely to be tabled in the Malaita provincial assembly by those working with the central government. The central government has deployed riot police and armed troops to the province. The situation is very tense.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Q: What is going on in the Solomon Islands?

A: The analogy that I think is most apt is that we in the Pacific Islands say we are on the frontline of climate change—here in the Solomons, we are also on the frontline of the aggression from the Chinese Communist Party.

The political warfare is on. The geopolitical frontline is in our tiny nation of the Solomon Islands, and even within the provinces within the Solomons.

We have one province [Malaita] that has been targeted and harassed—this is a real everyday occurrence. Leaders that are willing to take a stand against what they feel is undue interference from a foreign power are getting motions of no confidence, efforts to besmirch them, those kinds of efforts are ongoing now.

Q: What has been the reaction of some of your bigger neighbours (i.e. Australia and New Zealand)?

A: In terms of our big neighbours, I would have thought they would have been more on to it than they are. They don’t seem to be taking it seriously enough. I don’t think they are reading the signals, or else they are acting as if it isn’t happening.

For me, personally, it is quite frustrating. I keep repeating myself to certain high commissioners but I’m told “we don’t want to upset the apple cart,” as it were. Also that they want to work with the government of the day. But the government of the day doesn’t have the people’s best interests at heart—they are serving another master.

I am in opposition, but that’s not why I’m speaking up—this is very much happening. I used to be Permanent Secretary in Foreign Affairs and it’s sad to seeyour ministry so blatantly picking sides. I feel our Foreign Affairs is pretty much overrun by the PRC.

Our neighbours are frustratingly not seeing it as we are. I don’t know if it’s reflective of their respective capitals.

Things don’t build up very clearly in the Solomon Islands—things explode suddenly. You need to be more nuanced to read these things.They have been with us for a while now, but they are still not picking up clues about what is happening on the ground.

Q: What is happening on the ground, especially in Malaita?

A: The message is that it’s on.

In Malaita it’s blatant what the central government is doing to try to dismantle the [provincial] government in general, and Premier Suidani in particular.

The notice of a Vote of No Confidence is causing a lot of angst and tension in Malaita, and also here in [the national capital] Honiara. It’s very clear the central government is behind this motion and providing certain logistical support for the supporters of the motion.

Malaitans are everywhere in the Solomon Islands so you can’t really remove these things from the Solomons as a whole—it’s not in a vacuum.

It’s really quite clear. The vast majority of Malaitans are behind Premier Suidani and their government. People are approaching members of the provincial assembly and asking “why are you supporting this? You are supposed to be our voice in the assembly.”

And yet promises have been made to [the members supporting the vote of No Confidence] personally, it is obvious that money has been used, and they think they can do this in the face of such overwhelming support.

Q: What is the mood like in the rest of the country?

A: The pushback against CCP interference from the people is clear. Malaita is only representing the voices of many people across the country.

I’ve been around the country as a Member of Bill and Legislation Committee. The people overwhelmingly want to keep out CCP programs like Malaita has done, but they don’t have a leader like Premier Suidani.

It is eye opening to see people around the country openly supporting Malaita. Malaita is really representing what people feel generally about the switch [from Taiwan to the PRC].

People in rural areas are picking up on this faster than more “educated” ones in urban areas. People in rural areas can have a sense and a feel of how things have changed over the past two years—and the pressure they feel.

For those of us who see this every day, it is as clear as day that is what is happening now. It’s very interesting dynamics in Malaita and it could easily fall into violence and that is my big concern. Feelings are so high that it could spark. I’m just hoping that wisdom comes in and the leaders see they can’t keep flogging a dead horse on this one.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.