Papua New Guinea: New Hope for Peace?

Article excerpt

PAPUA New Guinea (PNG) was once hailed as one of the success stories of decolonization. But now it is mentioned mainly in the context of how a developing country can squander its opportunities. Indeed, PNG's social indicators show a country in decline, such as a high rate of infant mortality. This article, after giving some background to the problems of PNG, looks at the five main features which have determined PNG's troubled history since independence in 1975: geography, national identity, political instability, economic stagnation, and crime. It ends with a study of the Bougainville rebellion, which began ten years ago and which may now be on its way to a peaceful resolution as a result of a New Zealand-brokered peace agreement in May 1998.

PNG is the eastern half of the world's second largest island (after Greenland). The western half was annexed by the Netherlands in 1848, which simply proclaimed the area west of 141 degrees east to be Dutch territory, and it is now part of the troubled country of Indonesia (the province of Irian Jaya/West Papua). The border was artificial in that it suited the needs of the imperial map-makers (who had to draw lines somewhere to represent the eastern end of the Dutch empire) rather than fitting the ethnic characteristics of the people or geographical land marks (such as a river) in that part of the island.

The area to the east remained in a state of imperial limbo (not that the indigenous peoples would have noticed or cared). The vacuum was later filled by the freshly united Germany which was, as the late-comer to the race for empire, looking for land not yet claimed by Europeans. As imperial powers went, Germany was not that bad. Germany lost its Pacific empire after World War I and the League of Nations mandate countries all probably did a worse job (from the point of view of the indigenous peoples) than did Germany. Australia got German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the German Solomons (which included Bougainville), Japan got German Micronesia islands north of the Equator, New Zealand got German Samoa and Nauru went to the `British Empire' (effectively Australia, New Zealand and Britain).

Germany's interest in the 1880s in the north-eastern part of the giant island resulted in Australia's insistence that Britain colonize the south-east part (British New Guinea, later called the Australian Territory of Papua), while Germany claimed the north-east part (German New Guinea). One of Australia's first actions in World War I was to take over German New Guinea. As already noted, Australia administered this as a League of Nations Mandate after World War I (and as UN Trust Territory after 1945). Australia's anxiety about the island as a springboard for an invasion of Australia was justified in World War II, when Japanese soldiers landed on the island and at one point were 32 miles from Port Moresby. Australians repelled them in one of the bloodiest campaigns -- the `Kokoda Track' -- in the Pacific (1,700 Australians and 13,000 Japanese were killed).

Papua New Guinea (PNG) became independent of Australia on 16 September 1975, with Michael (later Sir Michael) Somare as the first prime minister and the Government situated at Port Moresby. PNG's independence came later than most of the European colonies and Australia justified this by claiming that PNG would be able to learn from the errors of other decolonization processes and so be a stable and successful country.

PNG's score card since 1975 has been mixed: PNG has not performed as well as could have been hoped but it has not failed as badly as could have been feared (or as have many British ex-colonies).

First, PNG's geography is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, PNG's potential wealth is immense. For example, it has enough oil and natural gas to run the country for a 1,000 years. The troubled island of Bougainville (examined below) has one of the world's greatest copper deposits. …