The politics of South Pacific riots

A riot in a South Pacific city is a political act as well as a spree of violence and looting.

The urban riot is an extreme expression of political and economic failure in the islands. Riots are unusual but happen often enough that they’re not unprecedented. A riot is a dark and recurring element of regional life.

A South Pacific riot mixes excitement, grievances and unemployed young people. Stir in the lure of loot and fuel it with alcohol.

A riot can sadden even as it shocks.

Sadness was the emotion that framed the shock in 2006 when I stood amid the burnt-out aftermath of Chinatown in Honiara: Solomon Islands had done this to itself.

Sadness mixed with shock was what I felt in 2000 when stepping through the smashed glass and trashed equipment of the Fiji One television station. A mob of 200 Fijians had just attacked the station because earlier that night it had broadcast a program criticising the coup leaders occupying Fiji’s parliament. In that violent Suva night, a policeman was shot and murdered. This was riot as politics written in blood.

In understanding the South Pacific, urban riots are on the outer edges of policy maps for economics, politics, community, security and policing. In the way of topics that are dramatic and difficult, riots find the gaps between the policies.

Kudos to the Australia Pacific Security College for an important mapping effort with its first discussion paper, Riots in the Pacific: control and change. The author, Anouk Ride, observes: ‘Riots are not just events to “control” but conflicts that need “change” in order to prevent its patterns being painted on the streets of Pacific urban areas again and again.’

Ride catalogues 13 riots from January 2006 to December 2021, in Papua New Guinea (8), Solomon Islands (3), Vanuatu (1) and Tonga (1).

Rioters express ‘deprivations and economic exclusion,’ Ride notes, by attacking their own government or foreign-owned businesses. ‘Despite the intersection between grievances over governance and foreign influence,’ she finds, ‘government buildings are targeted far less than foreign owned businesses.’

The ‘perceived wealth of foreign migrants versus Indigenous peoples,’ she says, ‘has been a feature of mass violence in Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands.’

In listing ‘grievances’ that caused riots, one of Ride’s main categories is defined as ‘foreigners and economic benefits’. And when the riot comes, she notes, key targets are ‘Asian shops’ and ‘Asian businesses’. The ‘foreigner’ grievance and the ‘Asian shops’ targeting are applied to five of the PNG riots, all three of the Solomon Islands riots (2006, 2019 and 2021) and the one in Tonga in 2006.

In the islands, the ‘foreigners’ are usually Chinese and the Asian shops are Chinese.

To express the reality in blunter language than Ride uses, a South Pacific riot is often racist. The Chinese are targeted because they’re rich. But riches or race, it’s still an anti-Chinese riot.

Ride says the November 2021 Honiara riot ‘dramatised the security ramifications of geopolitics’, with protests directed at the ‘national government’s increasingly close ties with China and a perception of government favouritism towards Chinese businesses’.

Raiding and robbing Chinese shops ‘is a common feature among riots across the Pacific’, she writes, ‘with Asian businesses being targeted in 69 per cent of all riot events. In Tonga, Solomon Islands, and PNG rioters targeted Asian businesses, burning and looting them, often following protests over corruption and unpopular government decisions.’

The anti-Chinese message of the rioters is well understood by the rest of island communities, even as the racism and violence are abhorred.

For recent academic work dealing with this topic, see Denghua Zhang’s survey of ‘China’s influence and local perceptions’ in PNG, Fiji and Tonga. China’s ‘influence on Pacific civil society is weak’, Zhang writes, because of ‘concerns about Chinese small businesses’ and ‘lack of job opportunities for locals and dumping of Chinese goods’. The Australian National University last year published The China alternative: changing regional order in the Pacific islands, including chapters titled ‘On-the-ground tensions with Chinese traders in PNG’ and ‘The shifting fate of China’s Pacific diaspora’.

As Richard Herr argues in his 2019 ASPI report, Chinese influence in the Pacific islands: the yin and yang of soft power, China’s soft-power reach ‘lacks breadth and depth’.

China can demand much of island governments, while on the streets Chinese citizens have much to fear.

In the Beijing–Canberra contest, China makes ambitious offers to South Pacific states. Australia’s great counteroffer can be to South Pacific people. The people dimension must define Australia’s effort for the islands.

A South Pacific riot, however, is a clash between the people and their own state.

Ride describes the dilemma confronting Australia if it steps up to help restore order:

Grievances behind riots generally have widespread support amongst populations where they occur. For those who lose out in riots, notably foreign businesses, and government offices, and for those who felt under personal threat, notably political leaders, foreign forces will be welcomed. But for those who want governments to respond to grievances, such as pro-democracy and anti-corruption campaigners as well as the politically and economically marginalised, foreign forces can be seen as supporting the current political regime.

The recipe she offers Canberra is the need for clear communication about the purpose, duration and conduct of any Australian operation. What I’d call Ride’s ‘tough love’ option is for Australia to ponder ‘whether interventions are needed at all’. And will intervention actually help ‘the underlying conflict conditions’?

Applying tough love would require a hard heart to go with the diplomatic toughness. When Honiara was burning in November last year, Australia acted rapidly and had forces on the ground within days. The immediate response was right.

Canberra ran two lines of argument: it was acting to ‘provide stability and security’ in Honiara, but it wasn’t trying ‘to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands’.

Personal security is now an issue for the capital city elites of the South Pacific; it’s no longer just a Port Moresby syndrome. That’s a fact of life for those who run government, the professionals and those who do business. They must worry about the safety of their homes and stores and the security of their families.

The Pacific still has strong societies and weak states, but the small middle class can no longer be as confident in the social and religious conservatism that has underpinned island stability.

History says the riots will come again. The South Pacific knows the shock of the destruction and the deaths.

Ride concludes that the security or ‘control’ response is only part of the answer. Act before the riot, she says, to deal with the grievances and resolve the conflicts.

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