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Nick Sas in Auki, Solomon Islands with photography by Luke Bowden 

Solomon Islands' pact with China made international headlines, but one island — led by one man — is saying no

Solomon Islands made international headlines after signing a secretive security pact with China, but one island in the country is saying no. 

There's an old bridge just outside the town of Auki in Solomon Islands.

It’s a one-lane rickety old-thing, well past its used by date, but it's critical infrastructure — the only thing connecting north and south.

There have long been plans for an upgrade and last year a company won a tender process to modernise it, with a proposal to expand it to two lanes.  

But for Daniel Suidani, the leader of the region where the bridge sits, there's a problem — a big one.

"The company was Chinese," he says. "We don't allow Chinese companies here."

Mr Suidani is a controversial figure in Solomon Islands.

He's the leader of Malaita, the most populous province in the country; a long, unique and mysterious island about 100 kilometres north of the country's capital, Honiara.

A former school teacher, Mr Suidani is new to politics, only being elected to his post in 2019.

In Solomon Islands politics, the premiers of its nine provinces, such as Mr Suidani, are generally stunted by the central government in Honiara, which is led by Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare and holds almost autonomous power.

But Mr Suidani is pushing back in what one expert described as "an extreme example" of a grab for more self-determination.

For most Malaitans, he's a hero — a man standing up to China in a country that recently opened its arms to the Asian superpower.

Yet, in the capital, the government considers him a troublemaker; a man stifling much-needed development and stoking long-held tensions in a country that's been simmering.

When asked to describe the reasons for his anti-China stance, Mr Suidani tries to stop himself from smiling. He has a long list.

The first one is 'The Switch'.

In 2019, the Solomon Islands government changed its allegiance from Taiwan to China. So Mr Suidani created "the Auki Communique", banning Chinese-backed investment in the province.

He supports and recognises Taiwan.

And there's more.

He says infrastructure built by the Chinese "doesn't last". They use the "cheap stuff" — he'd prefer Japanese, Australian or New Zealand companies.

In 2019, Lowy Institute analysis found "evidence suggests that, if left alone, Chinese state firms will cut corners and inflate prices. If managed properly, they can deliver good quality infrastructure."

Further, as a "Christian province" Mr Suidani says the "atheism" in China means they can’t "walk together".

And, once the Chinese come into a place, he says, Pacific countries don't have "the power" or "safeguards" to "look after ourselves". Then the Chinese "change the system". 

But perhaps more potently, he says he's simply standing up for his people -- the proud people of Malaita.

"We are a democracy in Malaita, we believe in the principles of democracy," Mr Suidani says.

"They are a communist nation. We are very mindful of involving the Communist Party here.

"They must not come, in any way."

Walkabout old Chinatown

Chinese influence in Solomon Islands isn't new.

Chinese run and owned retail shops have been in the country for decades. There are even a few in Malaita — a fact Mr Suidani says is fine as they established themselves "before my time".

Chinese immigration into Solomon Islands goes back to before World War II and some of the most prominent Solomon Islanders have Chinese heritage.

There's even a famous song in Solomon Islands culture, Walkabout Long Chinatown — the country's equivalent of Waltzing Matilda.

But since 'The Switch', tensions over Chinese influence in Solomon Islands have elevated.

Experts say it does not have broad public support and many, including Mr Suidani, accused the Chinese of bribery.

In November, angry mobs — many from Malaita — demanded Mr Sogavare resign.

He refused, and parts of the city's Chinatown were burnt to the ground, with buildings flying Taiwan flags spared. 

Although some of the rioters were simply using the unrest as an opportunity to steal or make trouble, Mr Sogavare saw it as direct violent uprising to depose him. 

Additional Australian forces were sent in to help keep the peace, and later Chinese forces arrived. 

Last week Mr Sogavare announced the Chinese presence would be "permanent".   

Mr Suidani has been accused of stoking the fire and even having a direct role in the riots — a fact he denies.

"Governments should respond to people," he says. 

"If you continue to ignore the wants of the people, then you should expect something to happen."

In the months leading up to the riots he was in Taiwan getting medical treatment — another issue that has infuriated both the Chinese and the Solomon Islands governments. 

He has continued diplomatic ties with Taiwan in spite of 'The Switch', and controversially accepted Taiwanese aid during the COVID pandemic.  

Others are concerned Mr Suidani's stance, which also includes a push for independence, will stoke long-held conflict in the country. 

In 1998, Solomon Islands descended into civil war known as 'The Tensions' — an ethnic conflict between Malaitans and the Guadalcanal people, the island where Honiara sits.

Australia sent in a security force known as RAMSI to quell the violence, with 7,200 soldiers and 1,700 Australian Federal Police officers doing time in the country over 14 years.

Although the flashpoint of the conflict this time around is different, Australian National University affiliate researcher Anouk Ride says her "greatest fear" is that violent conflict will once again hit the country.      

Ms Ride, a Solomon Islands-based expert in conflict studies, says many citizens feel powerless about the decisions made in Honiara. 

On China, she says the "real issue" concerns the national government pushing through 'The Switch' without any real consultation.

The last election was held in April 2019, before the switch to China. The Sogavare government is attempting to push the next national election back a year to after the 2023 Pacific Games — a move experts say has China's fingerprints all over it.

"So there's been no chance for the general population to weigh in and say if the government is going in the right direction," Ms Ride says. 

"This is allowing the conflict to simmer." 

Speaking on Mr Suidani, Ms Ride says he had detractors, particularly in the government, but as far as she's aware the Prime Minster has never mentioned Mr Suidani's name in public.

She says the Malaitan premier has "strong support" from his people, and even in other parts of Solomon Islands.  

"I travel around many provinces, and leaders say 'oh Suidani, he's a good man'," Ms Ride says.

"So they know him, and the ideas he represents [have] popular support.

"[As a Premier], that's quite remarkable for Solomon Islands."

The push for independence 

On the outskirts of Auki, there's a little village called Kilusakwalo.

It's a typical Solomon Islands' village, with straw huts, a chapel, coconut trees and a grassed common area.   

Mr Suidani is on the way in for one of his twice-monthly "village tours" across the remote and vast island — a concept he introduced to "speak to the people". 

The ABC joined him on the road outside. In typical Pacific fashion, there's a wait, a long one, then out of nowhere a truck appears. 

On the tray top, a band of traditional pan pipers start playing their music as the villagers stream out of no where to say hello to their premier. 

Mr Suidani is unmoved, according to his advisors this type of reception is par for the course across the vast, 180km-long island of Malaita.

In the village square, a huge crowd assembles to hear their premier speak.

But first, there are the formalities.  

"Please stand for the national, oh I mean, the Malaitan provincial anthem," the MC says, correcting himself.   

After the anthem Mr Suidani rises to the podium.

His calm demeanour one-on-one is in direct contrast to his on-stage persona. His oration is powerful and animated, speaking to the people and answering questions for three hours.

The themes focus on China, 'The Switch', the Malaitan push for independence and the "problems" with the Sogavare government.  

"God bless Malaita, and god bless everyone," he says, finishing his speech. 

Kilo Sa Qualo is a stone's throw from the Fiu bridge — the one Mr Suidani blocked the Chinese from building.     

The road on the way to the village is littered with potholes, a familiar site across the island.

But even though the area is in dire need of infrastructure upgrades, village chief Nemuel Malesu strongly supports Mr Suidani and his stance.

"He speaks for the people of Malaita, we don't support 'The Switch'," Mr Malesu says.

"With China, we don't trust them. They've got money, but we're scared they will put us into debt. 

"We want a new government, one that will tell China to go back home." 

Mr Suidani has suffered some blowback in the area, with a small number of Malaitans last year protesting his stance to knock back the Chinese development of the Fiu bridge. 

And there is some support for China in Solomon Islands, with the superpower building the massive 2023 Pacific Games stadium and complex in Honiara and a new wing of the national university.

Other major projects are planned.

But in Malaita, those supporting China appear to be a small minority.

The ABC spoke to dozens, and support for Mr Suidani's stance was almost universal. He says he has 80 per cent support across the island, but with its 200,000 inhabitants spread across some of the the most remote terrain in the world, that number is impossible to verify.  

And its not just the older generation throwing their weight behind the Premier.

Malaita Youth Council president Phillip Subu, an aspiring politician himself, said Malaitans had a history of "resisting foreign infiltration".

He said China's trade relationship with the country was welcome and integral, but he said the country's political system "wasn't ready" for 'The Switch'.

"One of the main concerns is we don't have very strong laws to protect our people's interests," Mr Subu says.  

"Even now, [they are] exploiting our economic system, exploiting our resources. 

"When you come to Malaita you will see that we are quite peaceful people, we are loving people. 

"But if one someone trespasses or steps over our land, we become very aggressive. And we shouldn't do something that spoils my land for future generations."

'Freedom', 'democracy' and China

It's almost impossible to sleep in on July 7 in the capital Honiara. 

It's Independence Day, and at about 7:00am a convoy of cars plastered with Solomon Islands' flags stream down the pothole-littered main road, beeping incessantly.  

Standing on the back of trucks, or poking their heads out of windows, the people scream "happy Independence Day" — and thousands lining the streets do the same. 

The convoy is headed towards the country's main hall to hear a "15-minute reflection" by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, a yearly tradition. 

The ABC has tried multiple avenues to interview Mr Sogavare, but all have been ignored.  

This is our only opportunity to hear him speak and ask questions.

The speech is typical of Mr Sogavare. It's a sprawling 33-minute opus; emotional and stirring — he's one of the most talented orators in the Pacific, if not the world.

In it, he singles out the country's "new addition" China for special thanks, saying it has demonstrated a "genuine intention" to be a "worthy partner" in the country's development.

The Chinese ambassador, sitting next to the Australian High Commissioner, is watching on.  

He talks about "evil forces" in the country, and noted the November riots, but at the same time calls for unity, telling the crowd to "look inwards". 

"We have no external enemies, we are our own enemies," he said. 

"All the major threats to destabilise this country have all been domestically driven.

"God is watching us, and can read our motives like open books."

Mr Sogavare's minders promised the ABC an interview after the speech, but he was protected by police, and quickly whisked into a waiting car.

In Auki, and much of Malaita, Independence Day is a muted celebration. 

Mr Suidani, wearing a green Solomon Islands shirt during our interview, says he still believes in "one Solomon Islands" — but his belief in "democracy" and "freedom" is just as strong. 

"We've been waiting a long time for development in Malaita," he says.  

"And we want leaders who can address these things, who can build up our nation.

"But if the trend of how the government is addressing issues continues, [not] listening to the will of the people, I think this issue of self-determination [in places like Malaita] will continue. 

"No one wants to live under a government that doesn't care for people."  

The bridge is still out for tender.


Reporting, digital production and additional photography: Nick Sas

Photography and videography: Luke Bowden

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