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17 people in Malaita stand in way of China’s takeover of the Solomons

Editor's Choice17 people in Malaita stand in way of China’s takeover of the Solomons

WASHINGTON, D.C.: ‘Many of us have received phone calls from [the opposing camp] telling them if they join the camp they will be given projects for their wards and $300,000 [around US$35,000] each’, says former Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani.

The elections in Solomon Islands aren’t over. In an exclusive interview, former Malaita Premier Daniel Suidani tells The Sunday Guardian about the pitched political battle still raging in his province over who will be the next Premier, and why China is involved. But first, a summary of events so far.

SOLOMONS AND CHINA

Under the previous administration of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Solomons switched from Taiwan to China in 2019. Since then, China has turbo-charged its influence operations in the strategically located country, including signing a security agreement that allows for the deployment of Chinese security forces (including People’s Liberation Army) to protect Chinese citizens and business interests, as well as to put down civil unrest.

Beijing has invested large amounts of money, intelligence and effort into embedding in Solomons, and it had a compliant government in place. But, given the unpopularity of that government, it could all be derailed by an election that brought in a new government less friendly to China.

Also inconvenient for China, some of the mechanisms of state are still healthy in Solomons.

HOW SOLOMONS ELECTIONS WORK

Two elections were held at the same time on 17 April—national and provincial. Once the results are announced, the power shifts to the respective legislatures where the newly elected members select the Prime Minister (at the national level) and Premiers (provincial level) from among their numbers.

Given the loose political party system and large number of independents that means there is a protracted period in which the members negotiate amongst themselves until one group has the majority and can form a government with their leader as Prime Minister/Premier.

HOW CHINA WON AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL

China doesn’t like elections (it can’t control). In Solomons, it bought itself more time to gain control by helping Sogavare delay elections by a year. A Chinese slush fund was used to give payments to 39 of the 50 Members of Parliament, most of whom then voted to postpone the elections that were scheduled for 2023.

When election day finally did come, there were international observers and security personnel, including from Australia and New Zealand, on the ground—as well as international media. Election day shenanigans would have been noticed. So, the vote itself was largely fair and peaceful.

Then, once the observers had checked the “ok-ish” box, and most of the media went home, the competing political groupings, known as “camps”, started to coalesce around various hotels in the capital, Honiara.

Rumours of large amounts of money changing hands only involved one side—Sogavare’s pro-PRC grouping. That group started to bring on board the numbers it needed to form a national government.

The problem was, Sogavare’s group—strongly identified with the man himself—was deeply unpopular and had lost around half its seats in the election. So, Sogavare stepped aside as PM candidate in favour of his more polished Foreign Minister, Jeremiah Manele. Manele had been the point man for many of the key China deals. Sogavare could always come in the cabinet.

Manele won the Prime Ministership and Australian media announced a “A new era for Solomon Islands”.

Solomon Islanders knew better. They had overwhelmingly voted for change, but ended up with a new Prime Minister who is from the same group they thought they voted out of power.

And China, who always keeps its stable full of horses, ended up with an even better ride—someone reliable and seemingly was acceptable to Australia. One Australian expert told Australian Broadcasting: “[Manele] will definitely lower the temperature and maybe even open the possibility for Australia and China working together a little bit more in the Pacific region.”

ONGOING PROVINCIAL BATTLE

With the national results decided, the battle shifted to the provinces—where the newly elected members now knew what sort of government would be sitting in the capital.

In one province in particular, the outcome is very important for China.

The Malaita Province Government (MPG), under the leadership of then Premier Daniel Suidani, had held off Chinese Communist Party (CCP) expansion after the switch in 2019. It issued the “Auki Communiqué” explaining why they didn’t want the CCP operating in the province, including the MPG “acknowledges the freedom of religion as a fundamental right and further observes the entrenched Christian faith and belief in God by Malaitan… peoples and therefore rejects the Chinese Communist Party—CCP and its formal systems based on atheist ideology.”

Also “MPG specifically observed the need to be free from unwarranted interference of persons and therefore reject any notion of a police state.”

The Communiqué reads the MPG “welcome partners around the world that share or recognise values the people of Malaita”.

Few partners came. Meanwhile, China flooded Suidani’s opponents with support and targeted his government with political warfare. After several attempts, the PRC and its proxies finally managed to get rid of Suidani and his government in a motion of no confidence.

One of the first acts of the new PRC-backed government in Malaita was to “axe” the Auki Communiqué, making it hard to deny that getting rid of Daniel Suidani and his government wasn’t about opening up new territory for China.

To drive home the point, the national government then disqualified Suidani from his elected seat for not recognizing China’s definition of the One China Policy.

His ouster had immediate effect. Suidani had blocked the installation of Huawei towers that were going up elsewhere in Solomons. Soon after his ousting, Huawei survey crews arrived in Malaita, and the new Premier headed off to China.

In the April elections, Suidani was elected in a landslide, and the pro-PRC premier who replaced him lost his seat.

Daniel Suidani

Q&A WITH DANIEL SUIDANI

At this very moment, Suidani and his group are at their camp in the provincial capital of Auki waiting for the provincial Speaker and Premier vote to be called.

The problem is, there are 33 seats in the legislature so, to form the next government, they need 17 people. There are 16 in the camp. Three others have said they will support the Suidani camp, but they are now in the national capital of Honiara, where the opposing camp is located.

In this exclusive interview, Daniel Suidani describes the ground situation.

Q: What were the results of the provincial elections?

DS: [The Pro-PRC] government lost almost all their seats. Only five came back. And those who replaced them, almost all are with us now. So that is how we think about this election—the people want a change of government and they want [us] to continue with work we have left undone last time.

Q: What happened with the installation of the Huawei towers?

DS: At the moment I think one [is built] in south Malaita—there are supposed to be 24 built.

Q: What has happened since the Prime Minister was decided?

DS: Many of us have received phone calls from [the opposing camp] telling them if they join the camp they will be given projects for their wards and also they will be receiving $300,000 [around US$35,000] each member—it’s getting to the next level.

[The offers] come from the provincial group in Honiara, but what is happening is the team in Honiara is backed up by [the Prime Minister’s party]. There are phone calls one after the other coming to my group telling the same story about the same amount of money, like they’ve been organizing the messaging to us.

The Malaita provincial premier’s seat is quite critical for the national government. It’s a very big province [and we are] targeted because of our stand for democracy. So we will be facing quite a really huge pressure from the other camp and the national government. That is what’s really concerning at the moment.

You know, when money gets involved in things so many people do not really stand strong for their rights [or] really stand firm for what the people voted them in to do—the power that they get from the people will be paid out from the other camp.

Q: What is the security situation?

DS: Security is quite tight, giving people fear. They are maybe [some security personnel] from Australia—I’ve seen some white people in uniform here.

Q: What is the reaction to all the security forces?

DS: [People] always say the government treats us like we are criminals. People say every time when these things happen, they treat Malaitans like we are not people with culture, respect—more like we are treated like a province where more criminals come from.

Q: What happens if the people think the government that’s formed isn’t the one they voted for?

DS: The people are not going to be happy about the outcome if they use money to get the Speaker and Premier seat. But now that we have these security pacts [it] will keep the population of Malaita quiet because of the past experience [of heavy police presence].

IT’S NOT OVER

Right now, 17 people in Malaita stand in the way of China having a clear path through the Solomons.

China will not willingly walk away from its investments. Almost as insurance in case things don’t go its way, there have been a series of stories in Solomons media about the potential for violence, which could trigger the security pact (leaving the Australian forces to decide if they are going to suppress Solomon Islanders on behalf of a PRC-friendly government).

It will take several days before the outcome of the Malaita Premier election is known. But, unless those international observers, media and police start to look where the action is really happening, and a serious cost is imposed for taking Chinese money, the provincial results may go the way of the national ones and the people of Solomons won’t get the change they voted for. And China will have another successful case study to learn from—and replicate.

Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and columnist with The Sunday Guardian.

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