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Of wars & warriors: the persistence of conflict in PNG


PAPUA NEW GUINEA IS A COUNTRY AT WAR.  But it is not at war with another country.  It is a war with itself.

Internecine clan warfare has been going on for thousands of years and it still persists today, albeit sometimes in a toned down and more subtle way.

In many parts of the country conflict is still the natural state of affairs.

In many of Papua New Guinean societies the cult of the warrior is still extremely pervasive. 

And I don’t mean a warrior in the romantic Homeric sense that many of them like to be portrayed.  I mean it in the dumb and brutal sense described by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes.

In the wider world it is the sort of primitive impulse that propelled Bush, Cheney, Blair and Howard into their pointless middle-eastern wars. 

These people, like the bigmen of Papua New Guinea, are the sort who can turn brutality into a virtue.  During warfare pillage, torture and rape are openly condoned as legitimate weapons to use on the enemy.

In Papua New Guinea many young men are still trained in the nuances of war, including the pragmatic aspects of killing and the magical ethos in which much of it takes place.

Violence is essential for the preservation of clan lands and clan reputations.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is inculcated into young men and perpetuated as they progress through manhood to the higher echelons of the respected elders.

To a Papua New Guinean warrior the pain and suffering that he might inflict on people outside his clan is immaterial to the greater cause of clan solidarity.

The only lull in this state of affairs came with Pax Australiana when the rule of law was introduced.  During this period the educated elite and intelligent people in the country discovered the many advantageous of a peaceful existence.

With the deterioration of law and order since independence and the return to the old warlike ways this elite and intelligentsia now find themselves like children crying in the wilderness.  They wonder how their government could have let them down so badly.

In some areas, such as the Southern Highlands and Hela, the lull in hostilities only lasted for 40-60 years and is within the living memory of some elders.  The return to clan-based anarchy and enmity has almost been natural.

In areas where clans are still engaged in simple subsistence farming its members are very much concerned to retain land.  With increasing population pressures they are also keen to expand their borders as much as possible.

In these places land is still being acquired by conquest and compensation.  Anything that impinges on this process, like a large resource development, is first and foremost considered a threat.  It is as if another clan from over the hill has come down looking for a fight and the spoils that go with it.

And in Papua New Guinea when rights and entitlements look like being threatened the natural response is aggression. 

Communities in Papua New Guinea are mostly small and insular.  Beyond the immediate community everyone is an enemy.  The sense of a larger community spirit that you might see in countries like Australia and America is hard to find in Papua New Guinea.  When you go into rural Papua New Guinea you are, to all intents and purposes, entering a war zone.

This is something that many people like resource developers don’t seem to appreciate.  When it comes to land your simple subsistence farmer is no pushover.  They can become extremely difficult people to deal with and they are prepared to trample over other people’s rights to protect their patch and get what they want.  To steal from another clan or trick them out of something that is legitimately theirs is a coup, not a crime.

This view of Papua New Guinea in a natural state of warfare is one that I’ve harboured for a long time but it is certainly not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination. 

It belongs to a lot of people, including some well-known writers and commentators on PNG Attitude who are much smarter than me and have much longer experience in Papua New Guinea.

They would maintain that it is an unpalatable truth for most thinking Papua New Guineans and is best kept to oneself and under the radar.  It is something that you might warn a friend, or someone you think needs to know, about and then deny having ever said it later on.

In the land of the unexpected some of those surprises are not nice at all.


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Nevegapa Abeya Sam

Yes you are one hundred percent right about the warfare in PNG.

As a Papua New Guinean, I want to tell you the truth. In the past our ancestors were warriors. They fought with each other over a piece of land or forest for their survival.

Those attitudes and behaviour continue to the present.

It is not a new thing. It has been passed on from generation to generation and it will continue.

Rozabelle Hota

Talking about warfare in PNG, of course it is true. The problem is that for years we have been talking and talking without doing anything about it.

If we want change, we must first create change. People don't just fight for no good reason. There is always something behind everything. Every individual have their own rights and freedom here on earth.

PNG is rich with culture and traditions. Everyone has a different way of thinking and doing things. For us to change one, it needs alot of time.

What we should be doing is, getting opinions and caring out awareness on these problems.

Neil Yamelu

PNG is said to be the land of the unexpected, with all kinds of issues arising.

It shows that we are not Christians at all. Let's change our mindsets and follow true ethical values so that we can become better.

Forget about the past and let's look forward to bringing peace and harmony.

Jeff Febi

Thank you Michael for expanding on my point!

I have a question for all: will a PNG Melanesian Jurisprudence outlaw the practice of sorcery and witchcraft; tribal fights; polygamy; and wantokism?

It'd be interesting because the PNG Melanesian Way sort of prides itself on these.

Alex Harris

Love your work Phil. Yours too Jeff. Couldn't agree more.

Michael Dom

Yes, brilliant point there Jeff. Your sensitivity to that one word is the mark of a poet and a philosopher.

We can expand your point on Phil's argument, that indeed this 'war' is the result of an underlying challenge facing the so called 'Melanesian Way' in PNG; our once limited boundaries, physical (land and resources), social (populations, language groups, urban expansion, rural-urban drift) and therefore political (tribes, clans, provinces) have extended over each other.

The outcome then is that this apparent physical warfare, which was always obvious (and almost proverbial) in the highlands provinces, is now more apparent everywhere else, especially in our metropolitan melting pots, Port Morseby and Lae.

There are other forms of this'warfare', e.g. inter-cultural clashes, land disputes between clans and tribes for resources, increased 'bad scenarios' of wantok system, misuse of customary prosess to gain advantages, 'block voting', political movement to form two new provinces and others.

People are demarcating their 'territory', people are fighting for their piece of the PNG pie.

Moreoever, in a philosophical sense, is this not the reason why some intellects call for a Melanesian Jurisprudence, to help us define the underlying precepts that guide our laws?

PNG society is still trying to define itself, maybe because for too long we have been enchanted by the surreality of being Melanesian, soaked up with the 'be-ing' without understanding the 'do-ing'; as in the arguments "To be is to do" - Socrates, and "To do is to be" - Sarte.

But that's just me and I'm with Sinatra - "Do be do be do".

Jeff Febi

Great Phil. Please send to my gmail.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Very good point Jeff.

The article is extracted from a draft document on cultural awareness intended for resource developers.

I'll flick you a copy when it's developed a bit more and you might care to comment on it.

Meanwhile I'll make the change.

Jeff Febi

I think the statement: 'Beyond the immediate community everyone is an enemy', should read 'Beyond the immediate community everyone is a potential enemy’.

But how far is the 'beyond'? Do we have to put a number in terms of the distance? I ask because, traditionally and even today individual communities/villages enemies' aren't so far off.

Individual communities / villages have alliances with other communities / villages so basically this friends are not enemies.

In squatter settlements in and around our towns and cities, a community (ies) are usually made up of people not only from the same village but from the same district or even a province or region.

And their enemies may be from another district or province or regions that live within the same squatter settlement.

So their enemies live close by.

For instance, if there is a fight in the notorious Morata squatter settlement between the Eastern Highlands and Engans, Eastern Highlanders and Engans living in another squatter settlement like Nine Mile will be reluctant to take up the fight where they live. So it is a problem for the Morata people only.

So again, I reckon we have to quantify the ‘beyond’ so that we all know not everyone beyond our individual communities or villages or province or region is an enemy.

However, in PNG we’re constantly in a state of war – a war to protect our lands, our families, our children and ourselves. And a war to make ends meet, find money to send our kids to school and receive medical treatment.

Yes we’re in a state of war and it is only natural to want to fight to survive in a place riddled with recklessly selfish predatory elites and the fruits of their works.

Nathan Gabara

Well you can say that PNG is not like USA or Australia just because of their culture. In the USA everybody speaks English and shares the same beliefs [no they don't - KJ] but in PNG their are over 800 cultures and that means 800 ways of thinking.

To change the way of warfare one needs to go down to 800 different kinds of ways with just one idea. This could take time.

So don't talk about it, start putting action into it if you really want change. If not, forget it because it's a waste of time putting it out like this with nothing being done.

Bob Cleland

Yes, Phil, you're spot on. The drive to defend one's own is in all of mankind. How it's done and how an individual or society or corporation or state or nation justifies it and how those groupings handle it socially and intellectually defines their level of sophistication.

That highlander of sixty years ago and his grandson have it. The difference between them is in the way they have handled that natural drive. It's exactly the same between me and my Scottish ancestors. Any perceived 'advantage' I might have over that highland grandson is simply that I've had a few centuries more to develop my handling of it.

It's a big ask for him and his countrymen to catch up in only a few generations.

Resource developers? Seems to me that, if they have any appreciation at all that they are entering a war-zone, handling that would be a very low priority for them. Maybe the PNG government needs to alert them to it - compulsorily read your blog-post Phil.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

The first lesson most young boys received from sages up here is about emulating some warriors in the order of the knights of the round table.

Should one think he/she will just trample them with rhetoric and plunder their land and resources will make a big mistake.

Phil, nowadays some priests and pastors buy guns to run for offices let alone bureaucrats and politicians. I am sorry but we are truly at war with each other.

Michael Dom

Thanks Phil, insightful and entertaining as ever.

Paul Oates

Thanks Phil. Your explanation of how it is may help some understand how disappointed and frustrated some of us ‘oldtimers’ felt about not being given enough time and opportunity to make Pax Australiana become accepted and evolve into Pax PNG. PNG was cheated by a few selfish and near sighted people on both sides of the Torres Strait. People we dealt with face to face in the villages kept saying ‘Don’t go!’ ‘Stay until we are ready.’

I think you’re wrong about these recent ‘little’ wars however. They were and are about influence. Look at PNG’s own message when it sent Tony Huai and his troops into Vanuatu?

As to throwing a spotlight onto PNG being in a constant state of warfare, well that’s no different to almost any other nation except for the severity of practice. As an example, can anyone deny that the ‘State of Origin’ football matches are anything else but clan warfare minus deaths? Look at the clan colours and face painting. Some families I know ‘live and breath’ football. Just look how they can’t wait for the cricket matches to end so that they can start the ‘pre season’ competition?

Most contact sports are merely organised warfare with rules that evolved to hopefully stop death and major injury. These so called sports are almost as brutal of the old Highland clan warfare but without the claymores and except that they are played out by a team of the champions of those who sit on the sidelines or glued to their televisions and cheer on their team. Having yelled themselves hoarse and received a shot or three of adrenalin and the odd beer, they then retire back to their mundane and often boring lives. The Roman mob would have instantly seen the parallels but wondered why the fights were stopped before death occurred and there was no hand out of free bread.

So perhaps we are not so superior? We just preserve a few niceties of ‘the rule of law’ and kid ourselves.

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