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SOUTH PACIFIC: ‘Fear of Domination Sparked Anti-Chinese Riots’

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Apr 22 2006 (IPS) - This week’s looting and burning down of businesses in the Chinatown area of Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, reflects local fears of Asian economic domination of the poverty-ridden South Pacific islands.

On Tuesday, a 1,000-strong mob of angry locals marched from parliament house, soon after a new prime minister was announced, and looted and burned down about 90 percent of Honiara’s Chinese-owned business district.

The racial riots have been described as the worst of its kind since independence, 27 years ago. Local Melanesian ethnic groups, that have been fighting each other, have now united to attack Chinese businesses.

The riots were triggered by a widespread public perception that Taiwanese businesses had funded the election, by a college of parliamentarians, of the new Prime Minister Snyder Rini.

“Well, it’s common knowledge here that the election of the prime minister was not a fair and free one. It has been corrupted by Taiwanese and by business houses owned by Solomon Islanders of Chinese origin,” Labour Party leader Joses Tuhanuku told Radio Australia after the new premier was elected.

Even before the elections, Tuhanuku had been making allegations that the caretaker prime minister Allan Kamakeza was colluding with Taiwan business interests. And former prime minister, Francis Billy Hilly, claimed this week that parliamentarians were offered up to 7,000 US dollars to vote for Rini.

The president of Rini’s party, the Association of Independent Members of Parliament (AIMP), is Tommy Chan, a wealthy ethnic Chinese businessman who owns the Honiara Hotel, where the Rini group camped in the run up to the elections. The hotel was burned down by protesters later.

As finance minister in the Kamakeza government, Rini had given away millions of dollars worth of duty exemptions, most of them to ethnic Chinese businessmen who were importing retail goods and exporting logs from the Solomon Islands’ forests.

Political observers say money played a big role in the elections because of a flaw in the system, where the people do not directly elect the prime minister. Due to a weak party system, the people elect members of parliament, who then act independently to vote for a prime minister, usually after much wheeling and dealing.

Rini has denied charges of corruption or receiving support from either ethnic Chinese businessmen or the Taiwan government, which is recognised by Honiara.

The Solomon Islands did not join this month’s summit meeting between China and Pacific Island Countries held in Fiji, because Honiara has no diplomatic relations with China. But both China and Taiwan are important economic and political players in the Solomons and the source of lucrative investments, political funding and preferential loans.

In recent years, Taiwan has become a major aid donor to the cash-strapped Solomon Islands government, which has received millions of dollars in aid for rural development projects, educational scholarships and urban infrastructure development. But the Taiwanese have also been accused of operating a slush fund to influence politicians.

Taiwanese envoy to Solomon Islands Antonio Chen dismisses such accusations, describing them as “groundless”. Taiwan, he argues, is ”transparent” and ”we have nothing to hide”.

There are about 2,000 ethnic Chinese living in Honiara in a population of 50,000, but most of them are naturalised third or fourth generation Solomon Islanders descendents of workers brought in during the colonial era as labourers, cooks and laundry boys for British administrators and plantation owners. Over the years, they worked hard to build the retail stores and other businesses and today dominate both the wholesale and retail sectors.

In neighbouring Fiji, there is a parallel. Ethnic Indians, brought in by British colonials as indentured labourers, mainly to work the sugar plantations, ended up as a major influence in the economic and political life.

Commenting on the riots in an article published in the ‘Solomon Star,’ leading civil servant George Manimu, observed that people have resented their leaders giving preferential treatment to foreigners, especially Asians, in such areas as trade, logging, and fisheries making the locals foreigners in their own country. “Business areas, often referred to as reserved for nationals, have also become dominated by Asian entrepreneurs,” he said. The ‘’actions of the people (the riots), although criminal, reflects the release of bottled up frustrations and anger that they could not contain any longer”.

The Solomon Islands have been under virtual Australian military occupation since 2003, when Australia sent in a military force of about 2,000 soldiers to quell lawlessness. Australia’s immediate reaction to Tuesday’s riots was to rush an extra contingent of 110 troops and 70 police officers to help to restore law and order. Prime Minister John Howard, speaking on Australian radio, said: “Australia is far and away the biggest, the wealthiest and the strongest country in the region, and we have to be prepared to shoulder a major part of the burden”.

China, however, does not see it that way. Though the conflict focused mainly on Taiwanese, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Beijing was “extremely concerned” about the situation and has asked the Solomon Islands government to act to protect the lives and businesses of Chinese people. It also reported that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had ordered the foreign ministry to closely follow developments and help secure the safety of Chinese people in the Solomon Islands.

Sociologist at the University of South Pacific Graham Hassal argues that what has been manifest in Honiara has the potential to flare up elsewhere in the region because of a lack of dialogue between cultures, which needs to be addressed.

“Most small Pacific states have an Asian population, whether it’s from mainland China (from a)100 years ago, whether it’s from Vietnam and Indochina in the French territories,” he told IPS. “Generally, these Chinese communities are well established in the community and into their third and fourth generations and, most probably don’t have direct ties back to China. The issue therefore is the identity and status of people who came from elsewhere, but continue to look Chinese, of course, but they’re Pacific islanders of a different descent.”

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