The fight against Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill reached a new level with last week’s shooting of unarmed university students. The worldwide media attention this generated has prompted some to comment that PNG is once again making headlines for 'all the wrong reasons'. Others have reflected on the implications for those likely to be PNG's future leaders. Last month, I described the students as ‘resolute in their cause for justice'. Will this change given the shooting, and attempts to return the students to class?

The events last week were reminiscent of 2001, when three university students were killed. Fifteen years on, one would expect PNG’s democracy to be secure, its security forces less of a law unto themselves, and its leaders honourable. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. No blood was spilt when PNG became an independent, democratic nation in 1975. Yet it appears, time and again, that blood is the price PNG has to pay to preserve its democracy. Maybe these events are hallmarks of a progressing nation. But this interpretation assumes PNG society is evolving in a particular direction; one that respects the rule of law, honours the principles of democratic government, and values the rights of its citizens.

Memorably described in a ritual boast as ‘an island of gold, floating in a sea of oil, surrounded by gas’, at independence PNG not only promised its citizens economic and social prosperity, but also protection of civil liberties, including the right to peacefully express political dissent. But the actions of successive governments since have meant PNG's people are now more worried than hopeful. The accumulation of overseas loans, recurring budget deficits, and the exploitation of PNG’s natural resources has created a dwindling economy that fails to sustain basic infrastructure. And the systematic suppression of institutions necessary for justice and accountability has come close to rendering the PNG Constitution redundant.

Students’ resistance

As custodians of knowledge and information, PNG university students have long felt a sense of duty to inform the public debate and defend the Constitution. Their recent protest is no different. Citizens often view student activism as a bastion of hope. The responsibilities of the students thus exceed the confines of their classrooms. The tribes the students come from see them as light bearers; not merely ‘students’ but intellectuals that command genuine respect.

The spread of protest throughout many provincial towns was evidence of the people’s support for the student movement. These students do not need to summon the spirits of Magna Carta to assert their rights against the sovereign or seek solace in the comforting provisions of international conventions. Those who participated in a peaceful march to Parliament last week — a legitimate constitutional act — were dismissed as unlawful ‘agitators’ by Prime Minister O’Neill. However, his contempt for the students does not mean he underestimates their potency. PNG’s brief political history has shown that the shedding of blood is a point of no return for the university student movement. The students may not oust O’Neill in his constituency, but they will certainly work to influence voting in their respective villages and districts to prevent O’Neill’s political party, the People National Congress (PNC), from returning to government.

Vote of no-confidence and Commission of Inquiry

The purpose of the students' march to parliament was to support the vote of no-confidence motion against the prime minister. However, an abrupt adjournment of parliament to August meant the motion was not heard. The Constitution forbids a vote of no confidence motion 12 months prior to the next general elections which are due in July 2017. This means the motion may not be effected in the August sitting. The Opposition viewed the adjournment as unconstitutional.

In the wake of the shooting, the Prime Minister promised to initiate a Commission of Inquiry into the event. With PNG’s history of suppressing the findings of such inquiries, however, it is unlikely to be effective. Even if an ‘independent’ body is tasked with the inquiry it will (unless it is the Ombudsman Commission) report to the National Executive Council (NEC). The NEC will ultimately decide on the merits of the report, whether it is tabled in Parliament, and whether its recommendations will be enforced. The Chairman of the NEC is the prime minister so the prospect of a truly independent investigation into the shooting is very slim.

Australia’s response

O’Neill's rejection of the offer of assistance made by Australia after the shooting revealed  underlying bilateral suspicions. O'Neill said: 'These are internal matters for Papua New Guinea…Papua New Guinea can handle these matters. We've been an independent country for 40 years'.

For its part, Australia could be accused of double standards. In 2014, when serious allegations against O’Neill came to light, his reactions almost crippled the country’s institutions of justice. On that occasion, Australia remained quiet, perhaps appeasing O’Neill in order to safeguard the Manus Island asylum seeker detention centre arrangement. Australia may have reconsidered its stance now the detention centre has been declared illegal by the PNG Supreme Court. However, such contradictions undermine Australia’s goodwill in the fight against corruption in PNG.

Currently, Australia is closely working with the PNG Royal Police Constabulary in terms of training and policing programs. The sight of PNG police with semi-automatic weapons facing students last week not only suggests a police state, it also raises pressing questions about the types of training, discipline and equipment that have been made available to use in response to unarmed protestors. The AFP may consider these questions in light of its ongoing partnership with the PNG police.

What now

The Vice Chancellor of PNG University of Technology Dr Albert Schram has observed that the students cannot be ‘driven back to the classrooms at gun point or by court orders.’ As time passes, the students will mostly likely return to class. However, that will not mean their quest for justice will cease. Rather, students will seek to raise awareness in their respective tribes and villages where they are most influential. History reminds us that such awareness will seek to eject not only the Prime Minister but all current members of the People’s National Congress (PNC), and by extension, coalition MPs. For the students, this crusade for justice is ‘not over till it’s over’, and that won't be until next year's election, at the earliest.   

Photo by PNGFM News via Getty Images

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