Papua New Guinea's Crisis: Acute or Chronic?

Article excerpt

In June 2001 several elements of the crises facing the Papua New Guinea government came together. Students of the University of Papua New Guinea opened another chapter in their thirty-year history of political protest, blockading government buildings in the capital, Port Moresby, then occupying them. (1) The demonstration was unusually well disciplined, drawing in other dissidents but avoiding violence, and after five days Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta relented and met with the protesters. When police then dispersed the crowd, however, shots were fired and three students were killed. Protesters fanned out through Port Moresby in a convulsion of looting, arson, and violence, until a dusk-to-dawn curfew brought that phase of the protest to a halt. The subsequent inquiry has yet to determine the extent of the damage and the violence, much less its dynamics.

One incitement for the protest was land, a reliable litmus test for anxiety and anger. Almost all land in Papua New Guinea outside the towns and plantations is held under "customary" title, and lawyers who had recently begun to draft a legislative proposal of some kind, said that their "objective is to mobilize customary land for development and in particular to make the land available as security for finance." The land could then be leased, but certainly not sold, by the group in whose name it was registered. (2) If the government did intend to introduce legislation (a proposition it later denied), its parameters were narrow. In ninety years of Australian administration and a generation of independence such a step has often been debated but never taken, and for good reason. Australians, like Americans, take their identity as citizens for granted and see land ownership as an option. In Papua New Guinea, however, it is land that confers social and political identity, even for urban people who may never return to the place of their birth. Merely to talk about land often provokes uncontainable passion.

Although Australian economic analysts have encouraged measures to make land a commodity, the Morauta government can shelve the land issue without significant loss of face. A different matter is the more substantial complaint of the protesters, namely, the sale of government instrumentalities such as the national airline and the development bank. On this issue the students enlisted support from the trade union movement and a wide range of urban residents, who see privatization as a form of treason, as transferring public assets to foreigners at fire-sale prices. Privatization is the new economic orthodoxy through most of the world, but the argument in favor of it is in fact culturally specific and comprehensible only to people long exposed to its rationale. To its critics in Papua New Guinea, privatization is a mendacious imposition by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Australian government, designed to filch the people's patrimony. How then did the Morauta government come to adopt a strategy that offers such a broad target to populist protest?

Essentially the government describes its mandate as finding remedies for the many grievous errors and misdemeanors of its predecessor, so as to restore the country's economy and its economic reputation. On the face of it, political stability would seem just as urgent as economics. Since Papua New Guinea achieved independence in 1975, no government has ever survived the full five years of a parliamentary term; and in 1999 the country's political class was convulsed by the disintegration of yet another government. As usual, the government was a coalition, this time headed by Bill Skate, an accountant by training and a populist by temperament. The Skate government formed after the 1997 general election, in the wake of a Defense Force demonstration against the government of Sir Julius Chan over his attempt to employ mercenaries to defeat the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. …