HONIARA (ABC)—Solomon Islands police have published pictures of their officers brandishing replica assault rifles donated by the Chinese government as they try to quell public anxiety about the “fake guns” saga.
Speculation has been swirling on social media in Solomon Islands ever since local media reported that a large cache of weapons had been smuggled into the country on a logging ship.
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) has denied that outright, and said the shipment held replica guns donated by China for a new police training program run by Chinese police.
But the national opposition has its doubts.
Its parliamentary leader, Matthew Wale, took to social media on the weekend to declare that “like St Thomas” — a reference to the biblical Doubting Thomas who was sceptical of Christ’s resurrection — he needed to “see [the guns] to believe the RSIPF”.
Solomon Islands police released a lengthy public statement on the shipment late yesterday, along with several pictures of officers toting the fake guns during a training exercise.
Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau said police had “nothing to conceal or hide regarding these replica guns”.
“These things do not in any way threaten the security of this country so far, except they are as good as helping RSIPF in building its tactical knowledge and capabilities,” he said.
The opposition has also demanded to know why the “fake guns” were brought in secretly on a logging vessel and unloaded at a private wharf instead of at a public facility.
The commissioner said “many logging vessels” had brought cargo into Solomon Islands during the pandemic and they were “just like any other shipping company.”
And he dismissed the questions about why the guns were not included on the ship’s manifest, suggesting there might have been error, but it wasn’t relevant “as long as these firearms are replicas”.
But political debate over the shipment is likely to flare up when Solomon Islands’ parliament sits next week.
Opposition MP Peter Kenilorea Jr told the ABC that he still had questions about whether the shipment was legal, and whether the Chinese Embassy misused diplomatic privilege to bring in the replica guns.
He also said the Chinese police training course was meant to focus solely on crowd control during riots, and it was difficult to see why the fake assault rifles were needed for the program.
“I’m just asking for more transparency. This should not be secret… in any democratic country we should have transparency if there is a policy shift.”
Dr Anna Powles, from Massey University, also said the move to bring in replica arms clearly suggested the police force was planning to bring in real weapons from China in the future.
“The purpose of training with replica weapons is to develop the skills necessary to safely operate the real versions — in this case, the QBZ-95 assault rifle — which suggests that the RSIPF is seeking these capabilities to strengthen its public order capabilities,” she said.
Australia already offers some firearms training to Solomon Islands police, but Dr Powles said it was “unclear” how the new weapons would align with that existing programme.
The Police Commissioner’s statement suggested that Solomon Islands police wanted the weapons to help bolster training for officers being sent on UN peacekeeping missions overseas.
“Such commitments by our partners would also help us in contributing strategically to fortify our regional and international commitments such as the UN Peacekeeping Missions,” he said.
“I would very much welcome any other bilateral partners who wish to come forward to modernise the RSIPF to do so.”
Dr Powles said it was possible that RSIPF did want to expand its contribution to UN missions, perhaps by developing “a formed police unit which deploys with long arms.”
More broadly, the controversy has fuelled speculation and anger on social media in Solomon Islands, which is still grappling with the fallout of mass riots late last year.
Australia sent in troops and police to restore order in Honiara in November when anti-government protests exploded into widespread looting and rioting.
A smaller Australian contingent remains in the capital, along with police officers sent more recently from Papua New Guinea.
Many of the November protesters came from the populous province of Malaita, where local politicians have renewed a push for independence in the wake of Solomon Islands’ decision to break with Taiwan and recognise China.
The ABC has seen several social media posts showing people from Malaita speculating — without evidence — that the Solomon Islands government had imported real weapons from China in order to hunt down pro-independence leaders in the province.
Violence exploded in Malaita last week when police raided a village in a failed attempt to arrest the Malaita for Democracy President Knoxly Atu, who they allege incited last year’s riots.
Villagers said the police lobbed stun grenades into the community during the raid, accusing officers of injuring women and children.
But Commissioner Mangau says police only used the stun grenades after the villagers “attacked them with dangerous weapons such as slings, spears, bows and arrows on their arrival”.
Dr Powles said whatever the purpose of the replica weapons, the secrecy around the shipment had been very damaging in the charged political climate……PACNEWS