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.