Over recent years Papua New Guinea has transformed itself into a major energy exporter to Asia, with the latest in natural gas extraction technology materialising in remote primeval jungles. What's more, traditional landowners have found themselves in charge of millions of kina in royalties – almost overnight. In 2015, PNG celebrated 40 years of independence, and while governance has taken many a strange twist and turn during that period, parliamentary democracy endures.
A Chaotic Political Atmosphere
Politics is a topsy-turvy affair in Papua New Guinea, with a parliament often mired in dysfunction. This is perhaps not surprising, given the nation’s bewildering political complexities – where 111 MPs representing 820 languages regularly cross the floor to vote with the opposition, often showing little or no allegiance to their political party or coalition. As a consequence, since 1975 (when PNG became independent) only one prime minister has served a full five-year term without being brought down in a no-confidence vote. Survival, not policy, tends to be the focus of PNG politics.
The chaotic political scene sometimes takes a turn for the absurd, as happened in late 2011, when two men each claimed to be the legitimate prime minister.
A New Path
Peter O’Neill, who replaced Michael Somare as prime minister during the latter’s absence on medical grounds, cemented his grip on power in the 2012 elections. But even these elections had to be postponed when the ghosts of PNG’s mysterial past took on a ghastly modern form. A bizarre cult sprang up near Madang that allegedly killed and ate witch-doctors accused of abusing the local community. The gang leaders were arrested and soon the election was back on track.
On a brighter note, the newly elected O’Neill promised a new era in PNG government: better education and health care, major investment in infrastructure and a more inclusive environment for women. He also aimed to clean up corrupt government practices.
In 2014 the anti-corruption team, Taskforce Sweep, began to show interest in the prime minster himself, to the point of serving an arrest warrant over allegations of fraud. O’Neill denied the allegations and shut down the watchdog.
On 8th June 2016, ongoing anticorruption protests erupted into violence when police opened fire on a group of students who were calling for O’Neill to step down. Several were seriously injured.
PNG has suffered natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis over the years, but more recent misfortunes have been of the human-made variety.
In February 2012 the Rabaul Queen sunk in heavy seas on its voyage from Kimbe to Lae, taking the lives of more than 100 passengers. Allegations of poor maintenance and overcrowding added to the distress of the victims’ families. In a widely applauded nation-building gesture in 2014, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and a prominent PNG business family replaced the Rabaul Queen with the MV Chebu.
Meanwhile, the Australian Immigration Detention Centre on Manus Island lurched back into the headlines with the death of a 23-year-old detainee in 2014. The centre is part of Australia’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’ for asylum seekers who have been intercepted by authorities on their way to Australia. In early 2016, the PNG Supreme Court declared the centre illegal, and the Australian and PNG governments were negotiating a resettlement plan.
On the economic front, the letters on everyone’s lips are LNG. The US$19 billion resource-extraction project – run by the US company Exxon Mobil – is PNG’s biggest commercial endeavour ever. Centring on the Hides, Angore and Juha gas fields in Hela and Southern Highlands Provinces, and including pipelines in the Gulf Province, the project is expected to contribute at least US$1 billion every year to PNG’s revenue for up to 30 years. The first shipment to Asia left PNG in 2014, ahead of schedule. Whether this massive extraction project ends up benefiting the masses or the few is the multibillion-dollar question.
It's tough being a woman (meri in Tok Pisin) in PNG. Statistics provided by organisations such as Human Rights Watch make grim reading. More than two-thirds of women have suffered domestic violence and, on the other side of the story, over 80% of men have admitted perpetrating family or partner violence. Tradition plays a part, with women regarded as a man's property, and with accusations of sorcery used to justify abuse.
Yet there is also progress to report, with increased funding for campaigns to prevent violence, and for support services for victims, as well as new laws introduced to protect women. PNG's women are also finding their own voice across the media, including empowering women's magazines, Stella and Lily.