April 21, 2006

Chinese fear for their lives in troubled Solomons

By Michelle Nichols

HONIARA (Reuters) - Stifling humid heat chokes the air in
the small Honiara police club where more than 500 Chinese have
taken refuge after rioters in the Solomon Islands forced them
to flee their burning homes and businesses.

"It's very horrible," said 27-year-old Winnie Mae, whose
shop was burned down. "All my family came here so we would be
safe. More than half of the people here want to go back to
China, they are scared this will keep happening."

Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have committed 360 extra
troops and police to the Solomons to prevent further violence
after looters on Tuesday ransacked the capital Honiara in
protest against the election of Prime Minister Snyder Rini.

Rioters said Rini's new government would be influenced by
local Chinese businessmen and the Taiwan government, which the
Solomons recognizes diplomatically.

Honiara's Chinatown was destroyed in the rioting and
looting, with buildings burned to the ground, forcing some
Chinese to jump from windows and flee across a nearby river.

Beijing asked the Solomons to protect its nationals and has
warned Chinese tourists not to visit the nation, a chain of 992
islands covering 1.35 million sq km (520,000 sq miles) of

"Our sympathies go out to the Chinese community who have
bore the brunt of the problem," Rini said on Friday at his
first news conference since being elected. "I want to assure
you that my government will do its upmost best to help out."

Chinese businesses play a major role in the economies of
several South Pacific island countries, as they do in Southeast
Asian nations, and have been hit by violent protests over the
years by islanders angry at economic disparity.

The Chinese number just a few thousand in the Solomons'
550,000-strong population.


Heavily armed foreign troops and a night curfew have
brought calm to Honiara, but many Chinese remain homeless and

The makeshift Red Cross shelter inside Honiara's police
compound has been inundated with Chinese families, many of whom
have lived in the Solomons for more than a decade. They feared
for their lives when rioters turned on them.

"There is nowhere else for them to go and some of them are
just running in with that they're wearing," said Solomon
Islands Red Cross Deputy Secretary General Nancy Jolo.

Parents hold sleeping children in their arms, waving pieces
of cardboard to keep them cool. Outside a group of Chinese
children play football with local children who squeezed through
a gap in the high fence surrounding the police compound.

One Chinese man, who has lived in the Solomons for more
than 20 years, said two Chinese officials were expected in
Honiara from neighboring Papua New Guinea. To greet them, some
Chinese painted a red banner reading "welcome our heroes to
save us."

China and Taiwan have long battled for diplomatic
recognition from South Pacific nations. A recent Australian
Senate report on China said the diplomatic competition could
hurt political stability and economic development in the South

It described the rivalry between Beijing and Taipei as a
"Pacific Cold War," with both using "check book diplomacy."

Johnson Honimae, a Solomon Islands government
communications adviser, said some locals feared the Chinese --
who had opened many businesses in Honiara -- were taking over
their country.

"It is something that has been contained for a long time,
but all it needed was someone to pull the trigger and boom," he