A charter flight from China to the Solomon Islands has fueled growing tensions over China’s policies in the Pacific nation, and launched an announcement of plans for a referendum on independence by its largest province.
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The chartered plane landed on Wednesday night with stranded Solomon Islands residents, new Chinese ambassador Li Ming, and Chinese officials and workers who are to build new sports facilities for one of the region’s biggest events, the 2023 Pacific Games.
Mr. Ming will head the new Chinese embassy after the Solomon Islands cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan last year and established official ties with China.
Tensions have escalated between the Malaita county in the east of the country and the national government since then.
The Malaita provincial government remains supportive of Taiwan and was reprimanded by the national government earlier this year when it accepted COVID-19 donations from the government in Taipei.
A statement this week by the Prime Minister of Malaita, Daniel Sweidani, said that “with continued pressure from the national government on Malaita to accept the People’s Republic of China [People’s Republic of China] … it is time for the Malay people to see if they are ready to be part of a country whose leadership has become a dictatorship. “
Sweidani told ABC that his administration would press ahead with a referendum to make Malaita an independent country.
But the call for self-determination in the region has been simmering for decades.
Peter Kenneloria Junior, a member of the National Parliament from Malaita County, said that while his county’s views must be respected, any process looking for independence will be long and complicated.
“It is a very political issue,” he said. “The right of any person to self-determination to be recognized under international law, is something in which the national government must participate as well.”
“This feeling of independence has been simmering for some time but in my opinion, recent events may have made the prime minister looking to move towards this now.”
“Is this a way to take care of our people?”
Recent events alluded to by Mr. Keniloria Junior include this week’s trip from Guangzhou, China, which was leased by the Solomon Islands government and paid for by the Chinese government.
Churches, civil society groups and politicians have expressed concern about the trip as Solomon Islands have no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Mr. Al-Suwaidani was one of the most vocal opponents of the decision to allow the flight to land.
“You talk a lot about taking care of our borders and taking care of health,” he said.
But Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manase Sogafari said the trip was a national priority, as the country needs the economic growth that will come with the construction of a new stadium and facilities.
“I am fully aware that some decisions may not succeed with some of our citizens, let me assure you all, that all decisions are taken after careful evaluation and analysis based on evidence,” he said.
“We, your leaders, have been commissioned by the people to serve the interest of our nation and its citizens.”
China brought the outbreak under control and reported only 169 cases last week, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Evacuation protest against Chinese citizens
However, the trip caused unease in the Malaita provincial capital, Aoki, as an unhappy group of the community issued notifications to Chinese-owned stores in the city to close them and leave the city.
“As part of our stance against Chinese dealing inside this country, we are organizing a protest against the evacuation of all Chinese citizens who currently reside and operate businesses in OK,” the statement said.
Shops in Oki were temporarily closed on Wednesday, but the situation eased after police mediation.
Solomon Islands Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangao said they would continue the investigation and it was not clear if charges would be brought.
He said, “This does not look good, it is not our legal procedures to threaten someone with legal status to be here … When you use such documents that have no legal basis, you are breaking the law.”
The incident stirred memories of 2006, when Chinese companies in the capital, Honiara, were targeted and burned in riots in Chinatown, forcing hundreds of Chinese citizens to flee the country.
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