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. The tragedies of mid-2001 brought to a vicious climax some enduring difficulties of the country. We might sum these up as an unreliable and sometimes violent army; a police force incapable of keeping order and all too capable of provoking anarchy; a parliamentary system that is completely unstable; constant change among cabinet ministers and the resulting instability in the senior ranks of the government; a bureaucracy that cannot deliver basic services either to the countryside or reliably to the towns; and a formal economy that remains in debt to aid donors after a generation of independence and two decades of mineral exploitation. Every element of this cumulative crisis was discussed during the transition from dependency to sovereignty in the 1970s. None was then addressed, and most have become even more intractable with the passage of time. Only the patience and skill that all parties brought to the successful peace negotiations with Bougainville offer hope that Papua New Guinea's leaders and managers will find a way to fulfilling its exceptional potential. At the root of Papua New Guinea's recurrent problems, therefore, lurks the misfit between its national parliamentary and bureaucratic institutions and the values of the small-scale, land-owning societies that continue to claim the allegiance of most of the people. It will take time and imagination and energy to modify those institutions to meet the needs of the people they are intended to serve.
|Published - 2002