Tell me something deep

The meaning of nationalism in post-colonial Papua New Guinea


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

WHAT does nationalism mean to the people of Papua New Guinea? In 1975, as PNG was about to attain its independence, there was excitement, anxiety and even confusion.

As Michael Somare was pushing for independence, many people opposed him in urban and rural areas alike.

As my father told once said, “We only heard from our teacher that a big celebration was going on in Port Moresby. I witnessed some of those experiences in my village and the surrounding communities.”

The word independence was new, unfamiliar and problematic for the people, and the experience was similar in many rural parts of PNG.

Independence was a foreign and unfamiliar word that came into our vocabulary quite late, and even the pronunciation was a bit awkward.

As for its meaning, at village level ‘independence’ connoted the departure of Australian administrators and the localisation of their jobs. And as the independence date drew closer, it was also associated with PNG having its own government and its own political process.

But today, as a member of the educated elite, I see that independence is broader and not limited exclusively to political, social and cultural processes but also directly associated with economic activities.

While the independent government of PNG was promoting economic development through extraction of natural resources in the 1980s, the landholders' independence was being compromised.

There were increasingly militant protests against national economic development initiatives and demands that the state (and foreign investors) pay compensation for the resources they were exploiting.

This suggested major problems with the government's approach to economic development. While the state was trying to promote economic independence through projects that exploited the nation's abundant natural resources, the resource owners at village level showed little understanding of the government's objectives.

Many observers commented that such protests and resistance by resource owners hindered development and worked against the principle of national self-reliance.

Policymakers argued that PNG had an array of natural resources that could generate substantial revenue for the country. This could in turn reduce dependence on foreign aid and promote national development.

However, violent protests and other forms of resistance increasingly hindered the state's ability to raise these revenues. Why were these people protesting against economic development? Why did they resist efforts intended to foster greater self-reliance?

If they viewed economic activities on their land as a threat to their livelihood, did it mean that they had enjoyed a greater degree of freedom before PNG gained its independence?

PNG nationalism has multiple and fragmented meanings. People and leaders have not yet conceived it in depth. They see and practice ‘nationalism’ according to their culture, tribe and clan obligations.

And today, in our political and social construct, we have the “who you know nationalism”. There is not yet a national nationalism, we have the fragmented ‘nationalism’ of tribe, clan and wantok system.

Given that many Papua New Guineans have died resisting government initiatives since independence, the subject has great contemporary relevance. For example, during the Bougainville crisis, as many as 20,000 lives were lost and in July 2001 four students at the University of PNG were shot dead by police for protesting against the state.

If the people of Bougainville were ingrained in the true spirit of nationalism they would know that the government is using resources for the good of all.

On the flip side of the coin, if the government had a spirit of nationalism, it would protect the people from foreign exploitation, ensuring that the interests of its people were safeguarded.

Our land is under a curse because we promise to stand together in collectively in our diversity, yet we disdain one another, reject our oath of being together and cling to our own cultures.

There is no PNG nationalism. We are tribe, clans and wantoks - a fragmented society.


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Felix Baraka

Thanks Mr Roth. PNG has the capacity to double the progressive development of Singapore if it put itself in Singapore's position.

When it reached the development stage as Singapore, it could develop its natural resources.

Robin Lillicrapp

I guess sustainable development is appropriate where measured against overtly degrading practices depleting precious resources but it spells otherwise in the assertive push by planners and developers of the modern era.

A recent quote by one commentator puts it this way:
Signed in 1992 by multiple nations, including the United States, the United Nations Agenda 21 Sustainable Development program is an urban planning “action plan” which calls for government to eventually take control of all land use without leaving any decision making in the hands of private property owners.

There is more but that alone should alarm us as to the double speak often employed in the promotion of so called good ideas.

Samuel Roth

Great piece, Felix. Our diversity should be positively embraced for the betterment.

Development trends are in millions. We can have our own ways or a combination of million others.

We do not need to be like everyone else in the world but we can enjoy every luxury in our own sustainable ways. That is why we need to broaden the understanding of Sustainable Development which should encompass every spectrum of life; from globalization to nuclear warfare as well as our various secular beliefs, among others.

Yes, where there is a will, there is a way!

Keep writing, my Sandaun leader!

Elvis Dennis

Thanks Bernard and Felix. I am also thinking how can we contribute technically and effectively to the priority development needs of our country (PNG) with tangible results.

Since, the independence in 1975 till now we are upholding a kind of development seen as the “peripheral version of the western capitalist features”. Given that we have heterogeneous cultures with more than 800 languages that define society’s norms, values, believe systems and so forth, then all these factors constantly contribute to our attitudes, personality, emotional IQ and Intelligence IQ etc.

So development strongly may also have its root within a society’s cultures and belief system as well, and in some cases some of “our cultures and attitudes” are in conflict with the “development principles and ethics” so these effect the progress of development.

In PNG if the state asks for the land for economic purposes, then how does the state convince the landowners? Nowadays, I think some or most landowners are aware of the multinational companies who lobby and levy the PNG government with all the corrupt leaders by offering their “economic might” in a sense that they will play an essential role, for strengthening the country’s economy and developing or improving the country’s industries, but yet our people are poor.

This practice has been prevalent for a while in PNG during recent decades. (An example, is “NBPOL-where people are working and as living a subsistence farmers all their life till they died” , while the company itself is diversifying its economical base by grabbing most all the people’s land for oil palm mono-culture farming and so forth).

It’s happening right under our eyes in our own land. Indeed, we have all the resources we can name it but what are we doing with those natural resources?

Natural resources are known to be an important factor that will improve the economic status of our country but not the least is the “human resources capacity” which we have to bolster and strengthen because “better human resources” will immensely contribute in running the country’s economy by utilizing our natural resources and therefore giving the country an advantage to attain the development position for the interest of the people.

Felix Baraka

Here is a way - let you and me be like Marx. We try to paint ideas with words.

King David was a strong warrior king but Solomon was wiser than him.

Marx developed communism, but did not implement it. Lenin did that.

Let's try to prepare the ceremonial ground for someone to make a ground-breaking ceremony - a PNG literature base.

Bernard Yegiora

Wonderful piece.

That is why I am trying to discover ways in which we can unify the nation in order to help it develop.

But with what you have written, I am now questioning myself do the majority want to develop to the stage where Western countries are at?

Are they willing to sacrifice their land for development purposes? How does change and adapting the Western style of thinking affect their cultural ways?

A challenge to thinkers and key decision makers to consult the majority and know what kind of development they want.

Developing a sense of nationalism will take more time. Look at today's newspaper, the Helas and Southern Highlanders are behind the PM opposing the Simbus and other ethnic groups. A potential ethnic clash in the making.

Leonard Roka

With you Felix Baraka, the thinker from Sandaun Province.

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