Friday, August 25, 2006

Papua New Guinea careens towards chaos

Sid Astbury:

Australia is gearing up for what many see as the impending collapse of Papua New Guinea, the colony it gave independence to 31 years ago and the troubled South Pacifics biggest country. Prime Minister John Howard, announcing that two new battalions would be raised to take the army's strength to 30,000, named PNG as the region's next big security problem.

"Papua New Guinea is a country with a fair degree of instability," Howard said. "I think it's been bad for some time and I think in some respects it's got worse."

It has indeed.

In a report published this month, leading Australian charity World Vision described a country going backwards on almost every measure. Rating PNG against 22 other countries in the region, it had the highest proportion of the population with the HIV/AIDS virus and the lowest proportion, 39 per cent, with access to clean water.

"Unlike virtually every other country in the region, the rate of primary school completion has declined, and at under 60 per cent is the lowest," the report said.

The country is failing so badly that the United Nations is mulling a downgrading from "developing country" to a "least developed country" status.

The World Bank, in a report released last year, noted that a greater proportion, 70 per cent, of PNGs 5 million population lives in poverty now than 10 years ago.

It's been an amazing fall from grace.

At independence in 1975 PNG had a competent Australian-trained bureaucracy, was free from debt, had no external security threats and looked set to bring prosperity to its 1 million people from a marvelous array of natural resources that included gold, copper, silver, oil, gas, timber and abundant fisheries.

Despite around 10 billion Australian dollars (7.5 billion US dollars) of Australian aid since independence, PNG is now heavily in debt and unable to protect, let alone develop, its natural resources.

At the root of the problem is corruption on a mind-boggling scale.

Said Allan Patience, professor of political science at the University of Papua New Guinea: "Since independence, most politicians have regarded the national parliament as a means to amass personal fortunes. Most play the system for what they can get out of it personally. A few have been prosecuted. Even fewer have been imprisoned."

Straight-out thieving by elected officials is commonplace. Last year retiring head of state Sir Salas Atopare freely admitted that he stripped the bedrooms and kitchen of Government House at the end of his six-year term, taking away with him curtains, cookers, computers and even his official vehicles.

Sheer wanton venality was again on show at the July by-election in Port Moresby, the capital. Even though the winner would have been in the parliament less than a year, candidates spent millions in the hope of winning the seat.

The biggest-spending candidate, William Skate, the son of a former prime minister, was accepted as a candidate despite being under the eligible age of 25. He gave a false birth date on his application.

The crunch may come next year when the whole country goes to the polls. Sir Michael Somare, 70, is running for re-election..

Mike Manning, the head of anti-corruption lobby group Privacy International in Port Moresby, predicted that the coming general election would replicate on a massive scale the corruption apparent at the by-election in Port Moresby in July.

"How on earth are we going to run an election in the whole of the country when we can't run a successful election (in Port Moresby)?" Manning asked.

There are some who would welcome Australian intervention. Police Minister Bire Kimisopa warned that "we face the prospects of sliding into anarchy if we choose deliberately to ignore our problems and furthermore refuse assistance that only serves to enhance our independence".

But Somare is antagonistic to Australia and last year rejected a plan to have Australian police officers help restore law and order in his country. Somare insisted he could deal with problems on his own, pointing to the state of emergency he had declared in Southern Highlands province where gangs armed and financed by Governor Hami Yawari had taken charge and turned all roads into toll roads to amass personal fortunes to match their boss's.

Yawari is still governor of the province and still sits in parliament despite being accused of rampant corruption that has closed schools and hospitals because staff have not been paid. Professor Patience warned that the banditry in Southern Highlands might soon be replicated around the country.

"Nothing short of a major international intervention can save PNG," he said. "That PNG is a vast administrative and political mess is patently obvious. It will soon be a major social disaster."

Australian magazine warns of possible conflict on PNG/Papua border


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