Daniel Suidani, the former premier of the Solomon Islands’ Malaita Province, became a hero among China watchers after he challenged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence operations in the region, refused a bribe, and barred CCP-linked companies from operating in his province.
The punishment came swiftly. He was ousted from his position, and when he fell ill and needed brain surgery, he was denied access to care—until Taiwan finally came to his rescue.
I had the rare opportunity of sitting down with Suidani and his adviser Celsus Talifilu when they were on a trip to the United States.
The story of Suidani and the Solomon Islands is a window into the Chinese regime’s tactics across the Pacific, and even here in North America, as it expands its influence, bribes the powerful, and co-opts strategic resources.
In 2019, the Solomon Islands, which had long recognized Taiwan as the true seat of the Chinese government, switched this formal recognition to the People’s Republic of China.
Recently, Parliament voted to delay elections to accommodate a big event funded by China, the Pacific Games. There’s evidence that suggests the Parliament members who supported the change received about 200,000 SBD per person (about US$24,000), from a CCP-linked slush fund.
Jan Jekielek: Premier Daniel Suidani, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Premier Daniel Suidani: Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.
Mr. Jekielek: Welcome to America. I was very happy to hear you yesterday testifying at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China about the Chinese Communist Party influence in the Solomon Islands, and the big changes that have happened there. I want to go back to 2019. You wrote the Auki Communique which said, number one, you don’t want the province to be working with Chinese Communist Party-affiliated companies. Number two, you highlighted that the Chinese Communist Party is an atheist enterprise, whereas Malaita Province, of all the Solomon Islands, is a Christian enterprise, and to watch out for that. Please tell me about this and what happened.
Premier Suidani: We came up with a communique, a set of principles that we believe can guide the people in future development. We have seen the destructive and dishonest ways of these Chinese companies involved in the provinces, particularly in Malaita, that are exploitative. They have been getting resources. They don’t care whether it damages the environment, as long as they get what they want from the people. That’s all they want.
The Malaita provincial people are Christian people, and they believe in God. The CCP, commonly known as the communists, don’t believe in the same principles and values and truth that we believe in. We have faith. It would be very difficult for us to work together with these two different beliefs, these different values and faith.
The second element of the communique is that the provincial government will not allow any company that is linked with the CCP. We must make sure that any company operating in Malaita must not be related to a CCP-connected company.
Mr. Jekielek: China provided a loan, something to the tune of $66 million, for 27 Huawei cell towers to be developed in the area, and you blocked that. It was from that moment that things started to change for you. Can you tell me about that change? What happened?
Premier Suidani: They forced the non-executive government motions of no confidence against our government. I believe I am the only premier to face three motions of no confidence. The latest one when I was ousted is likely one of the reasons for them to put the motion against me.
Mr. Jekielek: Beforehand, you were a very popular premier, a popular member of parliament. Of course, you were elected premier, and that means you must have been popular. How could you lose a vote of non-confidence? How did that happen? Actually, there were three of them.
Premier Suidani: Because the whole aim of the government is to get the Chinese companies into Malaita. They would like me to be out of the premier’s office so that they can come in and do their developments in whatever way they want to do them. I believe they are behind the motions, in order to open the way for Chinese companies to come.
Mr. Jekielek: Those parliament members that voted in these non-confidence motions, why would they vote against you?
Premier Suidani: With the non-executive members, they were members of the provincial assembly, and they were there because I believe they were handpicked. Some of these non-executive members attended some programs with the government. They were given money to withdraw from my government and to join the non-executive in order to oust me as premier. They paid $10,000 to each non-executive member. They joined the other side of the house to vote me out.
Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me about Malaita province and why you decided to go into politics in the first place.
Premier Suidani: Malaita Province is a province that believes in a more communal and tribal working together, and they believe in resource-sharing as a tribe. What I’ve seen in the past, before I became a premier and a member, what I’ve seen before me is that people just come in and get salaries for their own benefit. But they haven’t produced or introduced any ordinances at all to safeguard the resources and the people of the province, or even the involvement of other businesses, so that there will be something that indigenous people can be involved in and build their own future.
Then, I came in. We are the first province to introduce the logging ordinance that will safeguard our resources. The way these contractors or the Chinese people do logging, they don’t care about anything. They don’t care about the environment. They move their machinery into the streams that people use for drinking water, and they’re not giving water tanks or other necessary things to the people.
This is something that is very sad. They don’t care about the damages caused to local indigenous people and their livelihoods. We need to see that for any genuine company to come and do development, it has to have some set of rules, and abide by them so that they can do things that are not destructive, with development that doesn’t cause disunity, and where people can reserve the resources for future generations.
Another thing is retailing, which should be for indigenous Solomon Islanders. That’s a reserve business that should be given to only Solomon Islanders. But we have seen Chinese people more involved in these businesses. They push away the Solomon Islanders, and the Malaitans in particular, in Malaita province, with no space for them to be involved in such a business. The way I see it, if we are not careful or we don’t talk about these things, we will end up having all Chinese people running the businesses in the Solomon Islands.
Mr. Jekielek: How big is the investment from China?
Premier Suidani: I cannot tell you exactly how big. But in the whole town of Honiara, we haven’t seen any local Solomon Islanders with bigger buildings or investments in Honiara city, and in the provinces as well. These Chinese people can pay off properties in the headquarters like in Auki. They are the ones building huge buildings in the capital at the moment. It’s huge with the investment they’ve had in the country.
Mr. Jekielek: You needed some pretty serious medical care and normally that would be funded by the government, but this was denied to you. Can you explain that?
Premier Suidani: I got a doctor’s report when I was sick, and that report by the doctor said that I must go to get my medical treatment in an overseas country like Australia. The doctor wrote the letter and we gave the letter to the ministry of provincial government hoping that they will finance my trip to Mater Hospital in Sydney. But they decided not to support my medical treatment. I was talking to a member of parliament and they said, “If you can go and shake hands with Manasseh Sogavare, you will be funded to go overseas for your medical treatment.” I said, “I can die here without shaking his hand, and that’s okay with me. I stand for the rights of my people.”
Mr. Jekielek: But in the end, it was Taiwan that offered to support your medical treatment.
Premier Suidani: Yes, they did.
Mr. Jekielek: After you went to Taiwan for your treatment, there were articles written by the editor of the biggest Solomon Islands media, who is also one of the leaders of the Solomon Islands China Friendship Association, alleging that you had gone to Taiwan to organize a hit squad to take out the prime minister that you mentioned earlier.
Premier Suidani: Yes, that was the article published in the Solomon Star at that time and that’s what they said, that my coming to Taiwan was not for medical treatment. It was to collude with the Taiwanese government or the U.S. to assassinate the prime minister. It was all false. I was in Taiwan for medical treatment.
They did say that in the media and they wrote so many things about me that were all false. They don’t have the facts on the things that they talked about. That’s how they are doing the front page news articles all the time about me colluding with the Taiwanese government to assassinate the prime minister.
Mr. Jekielek: Why did they do that?
Premier Suidani: This is so that the government can arrest me for doing some illegal activities like the one they mentioned in the Star.
Mr. Jekielek: What would you say is your biggest fear for the future?
Premier Suidani: My biggest fear is that if we are not careful about the way we deal with the CCP, we’ll end up like other countries in the Pacific and in the world that have been overruled by the CCP. The government at the moment depends entirely on the influence of the CCP.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you feel like your life is in danger?
Premier Suidani: Yes. In the first place, they have been trying to find things so that they can arrest me for it. I’m very fearful of the things that are happening right now, but I’m going to stand for what I believe in, even if it’s hard on me and my family. It’s what we stand for. Yes, I’ve been very fearful, and for my children too.
Mr. Jekielek: Where do you find the strength for this?
Premier Suidani: The strength I have is from my people. They are with me, and we are fighting together for this. Because if we don’t fight, if we don’t talk about these things, in the future, it will be very dangerous for us. I am encouraged and I’m having the strength from my people that this is the right thing to do.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re sitting here in front of the U.S. Capitol, but you actually had some trouble getting your visa approved.
Premier Suidani: Getting approved to come to the U.S. for me was quite difficult. We followed the procedures, we applied for a visa, and we answered the questions. But then, when I first got an interview, it was denied and there was no reason. They gave me a paper saying that you haven’t provided evidence to prove that you are coming back to the Solomon Islands.
They gave the denial document and my passport back without saying anything. But we have the help from the Congressmen and the woman helping me out. Behind what is happening with the first interview, that is something that I don’t understand.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of people may not understand how rare it is to take the stand that you did with the Auki Communique. Why does only Malaita have this type of communique?
Premier Suidani: Being a leader, you need to listen to people. I listened to people who have the same thinking. They shared with me this is how the government should lead our people. I have a team that can advise me on good things, as well as the people of the province. We created this principled stand, because I am listening to the people that I am representing.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re here with your advisor Celsus Talifilu. Please tell me about him.
Premier Suidani: Celsus used to work for the central government, and used to work in parliament for quite some time. A province like Malaita needs such people like him. We work together from 2019 to this day. Even if I’m ousted from the government, he is still advising us on things that are happening in the province and in the nation.
Mr. Jekielek: Celsus Talifilu, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Celsus Talifilu: It’s a great pleasure to be on the show.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re an advisor to former Premier Daniel Suidani. Before that, you were an advisor to the prime minister of the Solomon Islands. Please tell me about how that change happened.
Mr. Talifilu: Before I went to Malaita, I was the coordinator of the policy that we put together under the current government. I went back to join the premier’s government because of the diplomatic switch that has happened. If one knows about the history of Solomon Islands, we have had an ethnic crisis from 1998 onwards. During that time, one of the only countries that have helped, apart from Australia and New Zealand, is Taiwan. They provided a loan to pay for the lost property of those who have lost their property during that crisis.
One could say during one of the darkest times in our history, Taiwan was there. When the diplomatic switch happened, it was not very respectful. In fact, the prime minister sent our foreign affairs minister to Taipei a week before the diplomatic switch happened. After that, Taipei sent their foreign affairs minister to Honiara, who was not received in any official way at all. In my view, the whole scheme was very disrespectful. Government can be government, but human beings are more than the government.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think China is so interested in the Solomon Islands?
Mr. Talifilu: One reason could be for resources, there’s no doubt about that. With the logging industry in the Solomons, 80 to 90 percent of the logs ended up in the Chinese market. In terms of resources, that’s big for them. In terms of our imports too, it’s like 80 to 90 percent of imports from the Solomon Islands are from China. We export one product like logs primarily to the Chinese market and we import from them. Their companies also operate in the mining industry. They have very interesting trade with the resources that we have in the Solomons.
You can look at fisheries. Solomon Islands are among a number of countries in the Pacific that have good fishing grounds for tuna. There is no doubt that they are looking for a strategy to dominate the region. Their ambition is to be a superpower bigger than America. It could mean that dominating the Pacific could allow them to posture themselves as a world power that can face off with America.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve had a number of China experts on this show who have talked about the strategic importance to America of many of the Pacific Islands, including the Solomon Islands, and what will happen if the CCP gains influence and establishes a military presence. How big has the change been since the diplomatic switch in 2019? How big or quick has this change been in terms of CCP influence since that time?
Mr. Talifilu: Since the diplomatic switch, the amount of information that has played out in the media in the Solomons is huge, to the extent that’s the only thing they talk about—that China is there to help. It’s been promoted so much beyond anything else. The Pacific Games, they are the ones who will build the stadiums. Of course they are. It’s promoted by the government that the Chinese will bring a lot of investment into the country.
So far in terms of infrastructure, these Chinese companies are operating in the Solomons, but not with Chinese money. They are using the opportunities under World Bank projects and even Solomon Island-funded projects. Their companies are actually willing to bid to develop these places. The only two big investments so far in terms of direct involvement with the government of China are these stadiums and the building of dormitories for the local university. Those have always been referenced in the support that China gives directly.
Otherwise, there are companies believed to have connections with China that are operating in one of the provinces, for example, in Rennell and Bellona, where they’re involved in bauxite mining. Some local companies registered locally, but they have connections to the Chinese that are interested in nickel mining in other two or three provinces of the Solomon Islands.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a lot of Chinese activity, but a lot of that is funded through World Bank and other development loans.
Mr. Talifilu: That’s right. Before the diplomatic switch happened, companies like CCECC [China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation] and China Harbour Engineering Company were already in the Solomons. They were there working with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Some are Solomon Islanders, but mostly World Bank. They were already there winning bids for bridge-building, and road-building.
After the diplomatic switch took place, there was another company called the Sam Group that was interested in developing Tulagi into what they call an economic zone; building structures, wharves, and other things. At the time, there was a lot of speculation that this company was actually related to the PLA.
Mr. Jekielek: People’s Liberation Army.
Mr. Talifilu: Yes. There was some concern by ordinary people that what is published in the papers seems to suggest that this is really not an ordinary company. They have deeper connections that might not be good for us. That’s one of the reasons why the whole thing in Tulagi ended up being put on hold, because of the publicity of the company being related to the military.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a situation with the federal government postponing the current elections by modifying the constitution with a vote of 39 out of 50. Please tell me about that.
Mr. Talifilu: I remember when I was still in the prime minister’s office, the conversation about the extension of parliament was discussed, but had not taken any prominence. But after the diplomatic switch, when the Chinese were building the stadiums, somehow the discussion suddenly popped up again for the amendment of the Constitution to allow for the parliament to have an extra seven months before dissolution in December. The reason behind that was it would be very difficult for the Solomon government to host two big events in a year. That’s the general election and the Pacific Games.
That’s the reasoning that they say. But one would see that if you calculate correctly the current life of Parliament, it should be dissolving somewhere around May. Then, the new Parliament should come about somewhere around after September, even before the Pacific Games. The argument that they say that there has to be a government during the games has no grounds. When you look at the actual timing there would be a new government before the event happened. Therefore, what’s the reason for extending parliament?
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think’s going on?
Mr. Talifilu: I have had connections with the police. They hear from the politicians that the reason was China was quite afraid. Otherwise, if the elections happened before the games, the new government might make a decision to oust them. It might mean, because of what is happening outside of the government, there are people who are complaining a lot in the local social media about China, the government. It is likely that there might be a new government that might not be friendly to China.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you concerned that they might be extended even further?
Mr. Talifilu: Of course. I am really concerned with the fact that the government can amend the constitution for a sporting event. What is stopping them from doing it for another reason? They now have 39 members. That’s two-thirds. The requirement under the constitution for an amendment of the provision to extend the life of parliament is two-thirds.
They have the numbers, they have done it already. There’s every chance that they can do it for another reason. If the current government has a reason enough to say that they might lose in the coming election, they might find other reasons to prolong parliament, until they feel confident that they can win the election back again.
Mr. Jekielek: My understanding is that there’s some evidence that the CCP has provided funding to these 39 members.
Mr. Talifilu: Yes. They were well-published lists of members of parliament that are supporting the amendment, most of them from the government side, that were given money from the Chinese slush fund. It’s to the tune of 200,000 per member. That payment was made before the motion, so the amendment was made.
It’s rewarding those who have participated in amending the constitution. Because one of the backbenchers of the government who refused to support the amendment has not received anything. He was on the original list for the payment. But when the payment was done, he was not, because he didn’t support the amendment.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying that only the people who supported this amendment got such money?
Mr. Talifilu: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: And anyone who didn’t support it, didn’t get it.
Mr. Talifilu: They have not gotten anything.
Mr. Jekielek: When you decided to come work for Daniel Suidani, what was the effect on your professional life and your personal life? He was already not so popular among some of the powers that be.
Mr. Talifilu: Yes. When things started to happen, I felt that it was time to stand up and be real about what you believe in, that government is an elected government. The purpose of a government is to save the people, not to save itself. It is not to make decisions that they feel are popular within the government, but not within the country. I felt that it was time to save the country, especially the province that we come from.
As an indigenous people, that’s our land, and that’s our ancestral place. What if we make bad decisions like what we saw in Honiara, where the land used to be customary land belonging to the people? But with bad decisions, most of the land in Honiara has now been bought off by Chinese people, because they are the ones who have money, especially for the prime sites. In terms of Malaita, there should be a good scheme of arrangements where if you bought land, you bought it correctly, and did it properly.
Mr. Jekielek: If you were speaking to the Americans or the Canadians watching this show, what would you say is the number one importance of the story of the Solomons?
Mr. Talifilu: Although things have looked quite bleak in terms of democracy, we still believe in democracy as a system that allows even indigenous communities, with their values and what they have, to still flourish under the democratic system. Whereas, that would be difficult under a communist system. That’s the opportunity for the Western world, especially America and Canada, to continue to work on this opportunity that is still existing.
While China comes with money, I still believe that in as far as the systems are concerned, our people are looking for a system that would support what they have, rather than destroy what they have. We have not seen communism popularized around the world. It’s not a system that people, especially indigenous people, would love to have, because it will destroy them.
Premier Suidani: The freedom here in America is from the Founding Fathers. It is the way that people live free. Even if we are a small society, we need the same freedom that Americans have. If there is any possible way that Americans see fit to help out, that would be something great for the Solomon Islands as a country.
Mr. Jekielek: What would be a good way to help?
Premier Suidani: Getting the people of Solomon engaged, and then having them visible in the country, is something great in terms of economic development. The other thing would be to remind the people that Americans are still here. We need to have them seeing Americans bring development that can attach to the lives of the people, so that they can recall America and see Americans as people who can help out in these situations.
Mr. Jekielek: If there were some Solomon Islanders that are watching our interview, what is your message to them?
Premier Suidani: My message to families and brothers from the Solomon Islands is that we need to have a clear understanding on the issues of democracy and the issues with the CCP. We must not stay blind. I call on the people who understand democracy and the CCP to advocate strongly for what is good for the country.
Mr. Jekielek: Premier Daniel Suidani, such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Premier Suidani: Thank you very much.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Daniel Suidani and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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