The political and security situation in Papua New Guinea continues to remain tense amid financial crisis resulting from a decade of economic mismanagement under the previous government, witch-hunting of political rivals, the institutionalisation of corruption, tribal wars in the resource-rich highlands, and free run of organised crime groups in the urban areas. The current government under the leadership of James Marape inherited a struggling debt-ridden economy from his predecessor, Peter O’Neill — recently arrested for misappropriation of public funds on dubious deals, abuse of political office while in power, and abetting official corruption. The decade-long economic mismanagement has caused accumulation of huge debt, with the current political leadership making frantic calls to the international financial institutions for emergency loans and reaching out to its foreign partners for refinancing its national debts. The economic distress is a fallout of institutionalisation of corruption that is actively practised and promoted by the political parties, struggling to maintain a majority in the parliament, through strategic political alliances and favouring appointments into key police and government positions. The resource-rich tribal highlands continue to witness unrest from the frequent outbreak of tribal fights, which are both deadly and even stretched out to the urban centre to settle the inter-clan disputes. With the arrival of military-grade assault rifles to the tribal hinterlands, through illicit arms smuggling and sell of arms by disgruntled police personnel from their armoury, the inter-clan clashes have become lethal. Land rights and ownership remains a sensitive issue; with landowners continue to threaten mining operations in the region, if royalty delayed from the government. Furthermore, due to inadequate human resource with the police, and widespread unemployment, parts of the country remains out of police control, and organised crime groups have a free run in the urban areas.
The complex socio-political landscape of Papua New Guinea divided across the major ethnic tribes, sub-groups and their regions influence the economic and political aspirations of the country. Even though the country practices multi-party parliamentary democracy, with over forty political parties competing for power, political instability remains an issue. In the absence of necessary legislation barring party hopping, political leaders frequently shift their alliances. They use the no-confidence vote against the leader of the parliament to enforce a change of the national leadership. As a preventive strategy, the incumbent political party uses its influence, though funding opposition members and appointing favoured officials across key governmental, anti-corruption and law enforcement institutions to maintain the stability.
The lack of industrialisation, low urbanisation rate, overreliance on agriculture and vast mineral and gas deposits in the highlands, have caused the shift of the political centre of gravity from the coastal region to that of rural hinterlands. Majority of mineral extraction projects are active in the resource-rich regions of Hela, Enga and the Southern Highlands province. Both the former and current prime ministers are from the Hela and Southern Highland province. However, the resource-rich tribal hinterlands are notorious for the frequent outbreak of tribal fights among different sub-groups (clans) over trivial disputes, which are at times random and deadly. Moreover, the influx of illegal small arms from across the porous border with Indonesia’s West Papua region and via sea route, supported by local politicians and police, have caused a proliferation of semi-automatic weapons in the region making the tribal fights increasingly brutal and more lethal. The growth of communication technology and social media usage, mostly among the teen members of the tribal groups, have made it easier for them to coordinate attacks and for violence to spread to the urban centres, where law enforcement remains patchy. In addition to that, organised criminal syndicates operating around urban squatters have a free run perpetrating robberies, assaults and extortion.
In Papua New Guinea, around 97 per cent of the land is customarily owned by different clans. Before the acquisition of land for any major mining or industrial projects, the government does the clan vetting and ensures the release of royalty to the respective landowners. However, over the years there have been frequent protests, blockades and forced lockdown enforced by local armed landowners over the non-payment of their dues and have threatened to disrupt the mining operations from time to time if demands are not met. Due to the thin presence of Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) police, at times the tribal regions are left to rule under the competing clan fiefdoms and their tribal customs.
On May 24th 2020, the detectives from the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption office arrested former prime minister Peter O’Neill — on three counts involving misappropriation of public funds worth $14 million (50 million kina) over the purchase of diesel generators from Israel, abetting official corruption, and abusing prime minister’s office for personal gain. The arrest was part of the ongoing anti-corruption crusade against the political rivals launched by the current government led by James Marape. The event highlights the ugly underbelly of Papua New Guinea politics (PNG), in which a political party can do whatever it can to stay in power. In PNG, politics remain outside the rules drawn ideology, but money, influence and loose coalitions that ensure the leader of the parliament enjoy more extended period in power. Else, the position can be challenged by the political opposition through a series of court cases, and vote of no-confidence (VONC). Shifting alliances force resignation of key leaders can lead to the fall of the government anytime after eighteen months of its formation. The political viciousness and manipulation could also mean, the leader of the house will spend a substantial amount of his time appeasing political leaders, managing numbers and alliances in the parliament, ignoring already fragile and underdeveloped economy. From 2012–2019, Peter O’Neill was able to maintain his hold over the national leadership by manipulating appointments of officials to key departments including PNG police and by weakening national fraud and anti-corruption institution. However, in 2019, a series of political events involving the resignation of key leaders and loss of alliances caused the fall of Peter O’Niell’s PNG People’s National Congress party-led government, and takeover of prime ministership by James Marape led Papua and Niugini Union Pati. Since arrival, James Marape government has initiated reforms to overhaul the training and human-resource profile of RPNGC police and strengthening of the national anti-corruption institution, among others. The inheritance of national debt of over $7 billion from the previous administration, has left limited financial wherewithal for the current leadership to manoeuvre. The government have been reaching out to China, Australia and other countries, including international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to refinance its debts. Despite, large deposits of precious minerals, most of the area remain underdeveloped due to the high cost of development and falls under tribal region known for lawlessness and deadly tribal feuds.
In PNG, politics is highly localised, and the local issues layover national politics, rendering political leaders disinterested in macro-economic and security issues. As a consequence, the resource-rich region of Hela, Enga and Southern Highland province rules the national political discourse. Majority of mining and gas projects of the country including Porgera Gold Mines and Exxon Mobil’s PNG LNG integrated facility scattered across the three regions. However, these regions are also notorious for frequent outbreaks of tribal fights, that over the years have become brutal due to influx of money and illegal arms into the hands of various clans competing to maintain their rule. The presence of lethal weapons in the hinterlands can be attributed to a combination of two major factors — the local politics and the illegal arms smuggling route passing through the tribal highlands from across the porous border with Indonesia’s West Papua via to southernmost Daru island in the Arafura sea.
The three major tribes in the region are, Huli, Enga and the Angal Heneng ethnic group, among which Huli is the largest. The current prime minister James Marape is from Hela and belongs to Huli tribe. Each of these tribes consists of hundreds of individual clans with disputes over land and material possessions traced back over many generations. Traditionally, the disputes are settled within the rigid rules of engagement using traditional weapons. However, since the last decade, the tribal warfare has broken the rule of sanity. It has become bloody and brutal in which the entire clan decimated irrespective of age and gender. The 2019 Karida massacre in Hela province in which women and children were slaughtered stands testimony to it. The scorched earth policy by rival clans has descended the entire region into chaos, so much so that, the RPNGC police which maintains thin presence prefers to stay neutral.
In the recent past, the irregularities by the last government in the disbursement of royalties also caused violence including the burning of passenger planes and mining equipment in the region, perpetrated by aggrieved landowners armed with semi-automatic weapons. As a result, the government had to deploy a team of RPNGC police to provide security to the plant operators.
The tribal disputes and inter-clan rivalries are no-longer restricted to the rural highland, but spread to cities, with hyper-active tribal teenagers eager to seek revenge coordinating attacks via communication platforms. The incidents of crime, especially sexual assault, robbery, extortion, and carjacking, are prevalent in the urban squatters of Port Moresby, Lae and Mt. Hagen. There is a free run of organised crime syndicates due to inadequate presence of police personnel.
It is advisable to the business travellers to restrict their non-essential travels within urban areas, especially around Port Moresby, and to the tribal highland provinces — Hela and Enga. Inter-clan disputes can quickly evolve into a bloody fight leading to widespread destruction of property and life. The tribal fighters and local crime gangs are becoming well-armed with military-grade assault rifles. In case of essential travel at night, use cars with doors closed and windows up, and consider travelling in convoy with a security escort. Most crimes are random, and there have been incidences of forced abduction and the victim held till a ransom is paid. Avoid carrying a huge amount of cash or other valuables while travelling. Stay alert and keep following security updates from APAC Assistance to plan your movement further.