MELBOURNE, Australia — After days of riots in the Solomon Islands during which protesters called for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to resign, set buildings ablaze and looted stores, authorities on Saturday said they had found the bodies of three people in a burned-out building.
They are the first reported deaths following days of violent protests in Honiara, the nation’s capital. The three bodies, which were burned, had been found in the remains of one store in the Chinatown district, a police spokesman said. The police were investigating the deaths, he said.
It’s unclear if the deaths are directly linked to the protests, but they come after officials in China have urged the Solomon Islands to protect Chinese citizens and businesses. Honiara’s Chinatown was one of the areas most heavily targeted by protesters.
The decision by the Solomon Islands’ central government to switch its diplomatic relationship from Taiwan to China in 2019 was the driving force behind the protests, according to experts, with the move exacerbating social and political fault lines dividing the nation.
Many of the protesters came from Malaita, the country’s most populous island, to the island of Guadalcanal, where the capital is. The strained relationship between the two islands, over a perceived unequal distribution of economic resources and development that has left Malaita one of the poorest provinces in the nation, stretches back decades. Its provincial government has maintained a relationship with Taiwan in contravention of the central government’s decision to diplomatically align with Beijing.
On Wednesday, a planned demonstration turned violent as protesters stormed Parliament calling for Mr. Sogavare’s resignation. On the streets, they clashed with police officers, who used tear gas and fired shots. The demonstrators burned down a police station, a high school, and numerous buildings in Chinatown. They looted stores and tried to ransack Mr. Sogavare’s personal residence before being pushed back by the police.
As the protests raged, opposition parliamentarians and Daniel Suidani, the premier of Malaita, intensified calls for Mr. Sogavare to step down. But he has refused, saying, “If I am removed as prime minister, it will be on the floor of Parliament.”
The Chinese embassy called on Chinese residents in Honiara to shut their businesses and hire security guards, while a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said that China was “taking all necessary measures to safeguard the safety and lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens and institutions in Solomon Islands.”
The police said Saturday that they had arrested over 100 people in relation to the riots, and the police commissioner appealed for residents to “respect each other, as well as our visiting friends from abroad.”
On Saturday morning, the rioting had largely stopped and the streets were quiet, according to local journalists and social media, and police officers and peacekeeping troops patrolled the streets. Australia sent around 100 police officers and soldiers on Thursday and Friday to help stabilize the situation, and Papua New Guinea sent 35 police and correctional service personnel on Friday.
More than 1,500 Asian migrants have reportedly been displaced by the turmoil, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.