Students at the University of Papua New Guinea are the latest in a long list of those in the firing line for denouncing the leadership of PNG’s seemingly impregnable Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. The students have been on strike against the government since the end of last month. Students from the University of Technology and Divine Word University are also boycotting classes. The UPNG students want O’Neill to resign from office and have demanded the police commissioner not suppress criminal investigations against the PM. The students have threatened to withdraw en masse from their studies if the Prime Minister refuses to go. But what are their chances of success? Will O’Neill give in?

Tertiary student movement in PNG has been a powerful tool for political activism on national issues since Independence.

Back in 1991, students were involved in a violent protest against the government for increasing MPs’ salary. In 1997, students joined the PNG Defence Force to protest against the use of the Sandline mercenaries in the Bougainville crisis, and demanded the resignation of the then Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan. Chan withdrew the mercenaries and resigned from office. In 2001, students protested against the privatisation of state assets and the land mobilisation program (LMP) administered by Sir Mekere Morauta’s government. Eventually, Mekere withdraw the policies, including the LMP that sought to to acquire customary land rights as surety for loans provided to the government and was part of World Bank’s structural adjustment program (SAP). However, the success of the protest came at a huge cost with three students allegedly shot dead by security forces. Apart from such tragedy, the students have generally been successful in getting their demands met.

These successes have created an expectation that PNG leaders would listen to tertiary students as a legitimate intellectual voice of the people. The PNG Constitution provides for the right to protest, to hold public assembly, and for freedom of expression. However these are qualified rights, meaning they can be restricted if it appears that a protest would cause disharmony and instability. The laws were tightened after the bloody outcome in the 2001 protest against Mekere’s government. The current protests are within university campuses because of the restrictions and the associated risks in taking to the streets. These restrictions may reduce the impact of the protests but certainly not their importance.

Will the Prime Minister give in?

The central concern is whether O’Neill will give in to their demands. He has insisted on many occasions that he does 'not have any intention to resign'. He continues to maintain that people must 'show evidence of me benefiting financially or otherwise and I will resign'. Almost all his cabinet ministers that have so far been implicated in various criminal investigations, including the Minister for Justice and Attorney-General Ano Pala, have adopted this defense. The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ syndrome is certainly contagious within the corridors of Waigani.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues have argued their stance is necessary to protect public offices from unwarranted and malicious allegations; however, it may also be argued that their steadfast resistance against legally sanctioned investigations demeans the very offices they seek to protect.

The students are not only against an uncompromising Prime Minister, but also someone who had shown little respect for their demands in the past. In 2012, the students protested against the O’Neill government for enacting the Judicial Conduct Act 2012 (now repealed). The Act gave PNG Parliament the power to regulate the conduct of judges. O’Neill dismissed the protest and blamed Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia for instigating the political impasse between the parliament and the judiciary that brought about such legislation. 

Assuming the Prime Minister refuses to resign, the students may make good their threat to withdraw from studies en masse. Generally, university students are well respected in their own communities. Any withdrawal or suspension from studies will certainly result in growing resentment against O’Neill. Frustrated students will most likely undertake a ‘crusade’ against the Prime Minister and his party, the People’s National Congress (PNC).

PNG university students have shown in the past that they can extend their protest to their villages and districts through public awareness, workshops and seminars against a ruling government, and thus influence voters’ perceptions. The experiences of 2001 against the Mekere government suggests that students may carry out anti-PNC and anti-O’Neill awareness in their respective districts leading up to elections in June 2017.

The students are making personal sacrifices and even risking suspension from studies. As of this week, armed riot police including the feared ‘mobile squad’ units have been sent to UPNG at the invitation of the University Council. The police are not allowed to enter UPNG unless invited. The Police Commissioner has argued that the police are there to ‘restore normalcy’ on the campus. But how can ‘normalcy’ be restored against a peaceful legitimate protest?

Undoubtedly, the parents of the students are also concerned about their actions. But the students appear resolute in their cause for justice. They join many individuals and state agencies that have taken a similar stand against the Prime Minister since 2014 when serious allegations of corruption against him came to public. This is not an ‘Arab Spring’ for the students but a solemn realisation that, as a student leader puts it: 'If we do not [protest], nobody will…' Their impregnable Prime Minister may dismiss the students, but this could come at a cost, not only to his remaining credibility, but also to his chances of returning his political party to government in the 2017 election.