Australia Two Administrations, One Nation
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth. With over 850 different indigenous groups, each with their own language and customs, it is probable that these divisions, which are kept intact by a law which fully recognises tribal rights, actually hold the country together. Recent events it seems, makes it seem as if Papua New Guinea is falling back into the two countries it is a merger of, Papua and New Guinea.
However, in 2011 a rare political happening occurred. When Sir Michael Somare, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea was taken ill, and subsequently was taken to Singapore for heart surgery, a bizarre narrative followed. After an announcement of Somare’s family that whilst still in intensive care, Sir Michael had decide to stand down from politics after fifty years of active involvement, Peter O’Neil was made the new Prime Minister of the country.
However, once out of his sick bed, it seemed that Somare never gave up his premiership, and so announced that he was the rightful leader of Papua New Guinea. The Supreme Court backed Somare, stating that what O’Neil did was unlawful. However, O’Neil has the backing of parliament, many of whose members switched their support from Somare to him. Stalemate was assured when the public institutions chose sides, each appointing own officials and police forces.
Papua’s New Government
Why should they go to such lengths to assure their position? With most of PNG’s population reliant on subsistence agriculture and the country being, for the most part, untouched by infrastructure, why didn’t the two would be leaders find an amicable solution until the general elections which were already scheduled for later this year?
Well, of course there is more at stake than pride and being at the helm of a nation which was so poorly managed, needed to ask for a hand out from the International Monetary Fund in 1999 in order to stabilise the economy and ease its budget deficit.
Papua New Guinea currently has an abundance of mineral wealth, little of which has been exploited. Until recent times, mostly gold and copper had been mined whilst much timber has been harvested. Much of this was at the expense of the native tribes of Papua New Guinea, who, through traditional land laws, own 97% of all of the nations land. These agreements saw many foreign firms come and reap the natural resources PNG has to offer, handing significant payouts to the politicians who lubricated the deals whilst leaving the landowners out in the cold.
Indeed, it was one of the accusations laid at Somare’s door, that he presided over a nation fraught with corruption, with many parliamentarians harbouring a desire to only increase their economic portfolios rather than represent their constituents.
O’Neil’s supporters have pointed at his attempts to change all this since he has ascended to the top of Papua New Guinea’s politics. He has begun to instate laws which would give the peoples living on mined land a fair crack of the whip, forcing companies to deal directly with them, therefore ensuring a portion of the proceeds go to them. Such a move, which of course proved to be popular with the locals, put O’Neil seemingly at odds with the interests of business, as this law would make it much more difficult for companies to ensure that they could mine efficiently and forces the companies to take environmental considerations into account.
He has also enacted other populist laws, such as declaring the 26th of August ‘Repentance Day’ a day in which O’Neil hopes all Papua New Guineans come together to ask the forgiveness for their sins. This takes the form of a public holiday, but, rather strangely, the holiday was created out of the blue, much to the surprise of PNG’s inhabitants.
However, O’Neil isn’t the altruistic champion of the little guy he may be trying to portray himself as. He used to be a successful business man before entering politics, and he is firmly behind the biggest resources project ever to be undertaken in Papua New Guinea. This $16 billion endeavour, run by ExxonMobil, Oil Search, Santos and the PNG government, will develop a liquefied natural gas project which just happens to be situated in O’Neil’s constituency.
Volatility in the Southern Highlands
The Papua New Guinean plot however, thickens. On the 26th of January, around 30 soldiers led by a retired colonel staged a mutiny, stating they were loyal to Somare. The Taurama Barracks and the Military head quarters in the capital were overrun and under the mutineer’s control for several days. Although there were not enough soldiers switching sides to cause a significant impact, it is perhaps an omen of the turmoil yet to come.
With both Prime Ministers appointing their own chief of police, and each with their own police force, there has recently been unrest on the streets of Papua New Guinea. The intensity of the infighting between the peoples of the Southern Highlands is likewise increasing, with such a politically unstable climate, many illegal firearms are making their way to Papua New Guinea and falling into their hands. Ancient territorial rivalries, further antagonised by the Liquid Natural Gas project are becoming further inflamed, making some areas rather dangerous.
But it seems in Papua New Guinea, that despite each of the would be Prime Ministers setting up their own administrations, that the majority of the people are not falling into either the O’Neil camp nor that of Somare. It seems that the citizens of this diverse nation are tired of the perceived pursuance of self interest which parliament is exhibiting. Instead the unrest is being directed at the political class as a whole, or, perhaps worse, against each other purely so that they get a better deal once the proposed foreign investment arrives. The general elections in Papua New Guinea can’t come too soon, hopefully it is not too naive to hope that the election will change anything greatly for the people of this great nation.
New Zealand herald