It is not wrong that the Solomon Islands are also known as the Hapy Islands.
They laugh like everyone else, “stories” with each other in hundreds of languages across a nation spread across nine diverse provinces and nearly 1,000 islands.
But, lately, the Hapy Islands have been getting a bit of a rage.
On a walk around Honiara, it’s easy to see why.
The roads have endless potholes. Trash everywhere. Many live in misery, leaving their Bedouin village to live in search of the best in the capital.
And a lot of people, especially young people, are still searching.
More than 70 percent of the population of the Solomon Islands is under the age of 35.
And while there are countless young Solomon Islanders doing incredible things for their country and communities, others are struggling.
They are bored. They chew the local tonic petlinut, drink kwassu, the local house brew, and get into trouble. They take drugs and steal.
Sometimes they riot. In November, angry mobs – mostly young men – set buildings on fire in Honiara’s Chinatown.
The causes of riots are broad and complex. Some say it was purely political, in response to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari’s deal with China after the “switch” from Taiwan, which in turn led to a secret security pact that shook Australia and the world.
Others say it is an internal political issue, which is the central government’s reaction to not being listened to.
Then there are the excessive social issues in the local. As one prominent local businessman told me:
“Youth unemployment here is horrific,” he said. “We don’t have a strong enough local economy to create jobs.
“We need this to help them see the future – this is a major cause of the riots – these young people are angry, they don’t see a future here.”
Despite all the internal problems – and another “C” word: climate change – it’s impossible not to mention China at the same time as the Solomon Islands these days.
ABC was the first international news crew to enter the country in more than two years, and the influence of the superpower there hits you right away.
Just five minutes from the airport, the new stadium complex flies off the ground with large Chinese flags and “Chinese help” banners plastered throughout.
Next to it, a new wing of Solomon Islands National University is being built – again by China. There are provinces that resist their cargo but in the capital, the train left the station well and truly.
It’s a catch 22 for the country.
On the one hand, it garners worldwide attention. But it’s mostly for the wrong reasons.
Its enigmatic leader, Sugavari, is undoubtedly enjoying the spotlight.
Of concern when it comes to transparency, the man the Solomon Islanders call “Suga” appears to be heading toward the “China way” of doing things.
He has declined repeated requests from ABC for interviews, and local media say he is becoming less and less available, surrounded by local security and police.
Last week, it was revealed that SIBC, the country’s national broadcaster that is celebrating its 70th birthday this year, will no longer be a state-owned enterprise and will instead get its money directly from the government.
And it raised fears that the broadcaster’s independence would be stripped and turned into a government spokesman.
“We didn’t think we’d see this day,” Dorothy Wickham, a veteran journalist in the Solomon Islands, told ABC Radio.
We want every citizen [to] They say what they want, participate and discuss issues important to the country.
“Journalists do not work for Sogavare, they work for SIBC – and SIBC belongs to the Solomon Islands.”
During ABC’s brief tenure in the country, the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to manipulate the media were evident, with a front-page story about the benefits of Chinese police training local mining personnel in self-defense.
Another described a meeting between the chief minister of Guadalcanal (where Honiara is seated) and representatives of the US government as an example of “falling under pressure from Western allies.” [sic] To ignore China’s timely development in the Solomon Islands.”
Interestingly, when Secretary of State Penny Wong visited last month, the Australian High Commission on the Solomon Islands paid SIBC to continue its follow-up throughout the day.
Local media say Wong stopped at the doorstep and answered every question asked by the local media.
When the Chinese foreign minister toured the country, one question was asked to the media – to its foreign minister.
And led the local media association to boycott the press conference.
Sugavari met Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Fiji on Wednesday at the Pacific Islands Forum, with the two men calling it a “constructive meeting” – Mr. Sugavari even asked for a hug.
He has repeatedly said that there will be no Chinese military base in the country and he said so again this week.
Ignoring politics for a moment, Australia’s aid program is doing much of the heavy lifting in the Solomon Islands – it is the largest aid donor in the country.
Australia provided $171 million to the Solomon Islands in 2020-2021. From 2009 to 2019, Australian aid represented nearly two-thirds of total aid to the Solomon Islands, followed by New Zealand (9 percent), Japan (6 percent) and Taiwan (5 percent).
Australia has supported country change projects such as the Tina River Hydro Scheme, which will start in the next year or two, and has paid for undersea cable.
Then there are a slew of health programs, governance training, and funding for dozens of other programs that work behind the scenes.
Granted, the aid program has fallen behind – and it has deservedly had its critics – but one of the surface issues is that Australian programs are not making the headlines. Health programs and governance training are not as exciting as martial arts training.
China’s contributions have increased in recent years and are generally much brighter – like a sparkling new stadium that anyone in the city can see (worth $66 million) or a new wing of the university (worth $33 million).
I was fortunate enough to spend a year in the Solomon Islands in 2017, working with SIBC through the Australian Volunteer Program – another Australian Government-funded aid project (hopefully restarted after COVID forced most volunteers back home).
During the ABC trip, I met a few Solomon Islands friends that I made during that time.
We drank little coconuts, ate “kaikai” (food) and “floors” about the future direction of the wonderful Hapi Islands.
But there was definitely one word we kept coming back to: China.
One of my friends said, “I’m worried.”
“I love my country, but I worry about this path. I worry about the direction we’re going.”