The images on our television screens last week of police firing live rounds into a crowd of students at the University of Papua New Guinea and injured students being carried into hospital were profoundly shocking. Even for seasoned observers, used to disturbing images coming out of Papua New Guinea, this was bad. Police shooting at students exercising their democratic right to protest is almost incomprehensible.
Papua New Guineans and friends of PNG often bemoan that the all too rare international reporting on the country is negative and inaccurate. The international media coverage of the violent police crackdown of student protests on 8 June was negative and also, at first, inaccurate, wrongly reporting some students were killed. But the reports served a very important purpose in revealing to the world the cracks in PNG’s democracy. Before last week, the PNG government’s questionable commitment to the rule of law had so far played out in the government avoiding court cases, sacking corruption investigators, evading motions of no confidence, castigating critics, and intimidating journalists and bloggers. But last week's actions by police showed just how far the government is prepared to go to quell dissent and, ultimately, avoid accountability. Papua New Guineans should be very worried about this development.
The ongoing protests are significant because some of these students will be PNG's future political leaders. Their protest against what they believe to be corrupt practices of Prime Minister Peter O'Neil and his government suggests they will fight corruption and conduct themselves honourably and honestly when they assume positions of influence 15 or 20 years from now. Some of them may be the force for change in politics that PNG so desperately needs. I argued in my Lowy Institute Analysis, The Future of Papua New Guinea: Old Challenges for New Leaders that the next generation of leaders would need to embrace some fundamental changes in approach if they are to turn PNG’s negative trends into positive ones. That university students have identified the problems in the government and want change now, rather than opting to wait until they are in positions of power in 20 years’ time, should be welcomed by the population at large.
The Prime Minister’s obduracy regarding the allegations of corruption against him suggests he is highly unlikely to accede to the students’ demands that he resign, so the students will inevitably be disappointed. O’Neill already advised the students in a 10 page letter on 26 May that he had no intention of stepping aside or resigning. Last week's violence has not changed his mind.
As Sean Dorney has argued, the police crackdown on the student protests was not a Tiananmen moment for Papua New Guinea. It is not the first time, as Bal Kama has pointed out, that PNG’s tertiary students have protested against injustices or that such protests have led to violence. But the events of 8 June were nevertheless momentous for the next generation of leaders in PNG, who have been traumatised by the violence of their own police force.
Whether or not the Prime Minister resigns should not be the measure of the success of the students’ current protest actions. They have already done much to raise awareness of the PNG government’s diminishing commitment to the rule of law — both among their fellow citizens and now globally — and have therefore made an important contribution.
The real measure of success, however, will be seen in how the students seek to continue to influence change in Papua New Guinea after they graduate, both collectively and as individuals. The conviction and commitment to values that comes easily to youth may weaken when it is time for these students to navigate their way through the complexity of PNG politics. Many of the leaders now tainted with corruption allegations were idealistic student activists themselves once. Just standing for election in Papua New Guinea is an expensive business; achieving power and holding onto it within the parliament quite simply requires a capacity to distribute cash or other benefits. It is an extraordinarily difficult feat for politicians to effect change in Papua New Guinea without access to large sums of cash and the pressures on members of parliament are immense. If even some of the protesting students can maintain a principled stand against corruption and work to change the business of politics they will do more for their nation than forcing Peter O’Neill to resign now.
Prime Minister O’Neill, for his part, could do much to redeem the situation without resigning or stepping down. He could wait the students out but the violence on university campuses in Lae and Goroka in the last few days suggests that is not the most effective strategy. His letter to the Presidents of the Student Representative Councils at UPNG and Unitech has also not been very effective. The Prime Minister should embrace the Ombudsman Commission’s investigations into the events of 8 June. He should also seek to meet face-to-face with student leaders. A traditional Melanesian resolution to the impasse may not be possible in the current environment but a traditional Melanesian conversation is essential if the Prime Minister is to regain some of the trust he has lost over the last week.
Photo courtesy of UPNG4PNG