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How can we address the ethnic tensions in our nation?

New-guinea-warfareBUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO

PAPUA New Guinea is well known for its tribal fights that have left a trail of blood and destruction through its hinterland over many years.

It was not until the missionaries penetrated the highlands 90 to 100 years ago that the number of tribal fights significantly subsided.

In some parts of the highlands such as Enga and Tari in the new Hela Province, tribal fights are still common. In fact right now the districts of Komo Magarima and Tari Pori in the Hela Province are in the middle of major warfare involving several tribes.

Already lives have been lost while many more people are reported wounded. By the time the fighting comes to an end, the scale of destruction could be enormous.

The government has been asked to intervene and it looks certain that it will have to explore the option of declaring a state of emergency in the conflicting zones. Already these two districts have been declared war zones.

In the face of overwhelming odds and with the Hela police unable to control the violence, the government has called out the military to contain the situation.

Failure to curb the fighting could pose problems to the multi-billion kina PNG LNG Project, which the government will want to avoid at all costs.

The project has been instrumental in stimulating the growth of the PNG economy and much of PNG’s future depends on its effective operations. Furthermore, failure to de-escalate the situation in Hela could destabilise the governance structure of the new province and plunge it into a state of anarchy.

When Sir Michael Somare with his fellow members of the Bully Beef Club successfully gained independence from Australia in 1975, national unity was still a work in progress.

In the midst of this diversity and volatility, groups like Papua Besena burst onto the scene advocating for separation – in its case, Papua from New Guinea. At the same, groups in East New Britain and Bougainville were seeking autonomy.

That said, although PNG’s cohesion has been tested time and again since independence, it has maintained itself as a united nation. Its 40th year of independence next September will be a significant milestone that will no doubt draw admiration from other countries.

So far the Bougainville civil war is the only dark spot in an otherwise stable history. Yet lack of service delivery and unequal distribution of the wealth mainly are now forcing provinces such as New Ireland and East New Britain to seek greater autonomy from the national government.

The Bougainville crisis is a vivid reminder of the extent to which people will go if they are unhappy and frustrated with their situation.

Hela Province has been for many years a hotspot for conflict and it is imperative that the government address this problem.

Perhaps the current review of the Organic Law on Provincial & Local Level Government will propose some way forward. There are also proposals by the national government to empower second and third tier governments and in the process address the poor service delivery.

Perhaps the most devastating form of ethnic tensions emerges around general elections. Election related fighting between rival factions of opposing candidates often lead to death and destruction.

Over the years these fights have become more sophisticated with frequent usage of modern weaponry like high powered guns which have replaced traditional weapons such as axes and bows and arrows.

In addition, mobile phone communications are now allowing warring tribes to track and ambush their opponents. As reported in PNG Attitude by Fr Nicholas Yambu, a Catholic parish priest in Tari, this is precisely the case in the ongoing conflict in Hela.

Over the years, ethnic tensions in PNG’s major towns and cities have cost so much in lives and money that it is time for the government to introduce tougher measures to tackle the problem.

Even in universities student fights have been linked to regional affiliation. During my own university days I witnessed couple of confrontations relating to ethnicity.

In a society where the wantok system is a social norm such attitudes can lead to confrontation at the organisational and political level where provincial and regional politics take precedence over the national interest.

Over the years successive PNG prime ministers have been accused of practicing the wantok system by appointing their own tribespeople and cronies to top jobs in government. Critics suggest the current incumbent, Peter O’Neill, is no different.

Tribal fights can easily become a threat to national security when they spill over into urban areas. Cities such as Port Moresby have witnessed fights involving warring tribes from outer provinces, especially the highlands.

These have been inflicted at the expense of the law abiding and peace loving citizens of the city. Sometimes innocent people are killed which fuels further tensions with other groups. Often people who belong to warring ethnic groups don’t go to work or school for fear of their lives.

In Port Moresby the lack of respect shown to traditional landowners of the city by settlers is breeding antagonism among Port Moresby’s local inhabitants. Landowners are uneasy over incidents involving settlers taking over their unused land without permission or payment. These settlements become breeding grounds for criminality and ethnic tension.

Lawlessness in places such as Gordon Market which caught the ire of the public and is said to be the doing of one or two ethnic groups has led to a growing call for the government to implement the Vagrancy Act. But at what cost?

The betel nut ban in force in Port Moresby has also led to clashes between various ethnic groups. Last week it was reported that a clash between people from Wabag and Goilala over betel nut smuggling across the Laloki River had led to several deaths.

One of my work colleagues who rents a house in Morata belonging to someone from Wabag told me how he and his family endured a horrendous night after it was reported that five Goilalas were killed as a result of retaliation from Wabags.

PNG’s key to solidifying its nationhood depends on the government unifying diverse groups of people. Development and state revenues should be fairly distributed while promotion of provincial identity should not be at the expense of national unity.

There are already concerns that provincial flags, which are produced en masse to commemorate PNG’s independence, may incite strong regional feelings. During the recent independence celebrations in Port Moresby, more people were draped in their provincial colours compared to the national colours.

Our people must understand that 16 September 1975 was a time when PNG was brought together as one people under its own government, flag and constitution. The creation of provinces with their provincial capitals was a result of our independence.

Ethnic tensions are a result of conflicting ideologies and affiliations. Although they may not be as visible as warring tribes hurling spears at each other, they infiltrate job promotions, resource allocation and other aspects of national life.

PNG’s political landscape is characterised by stronger feelings of regionalism than party ideology. For instance, during the Paragate saga, landowners from Hela and parts of Southern Highlands came out strongly in the media warning that Peter O’Neill’s downfall could result in the shutdown of the PNG LNG Project.

Was this a case of a group of people attempting to blackmail the rest of Papua New Guinea?

During the political impasse between O’Neill and Somare, one of our nation’s founding fathers, the late Sir Matiabe Yuwi, called on MPs in Southern Highlands and Hela to support their “brother MP (O’Neill)” to form a government.

A key reason was that O’Neill, “a son of Southern Highlands and Hela”, would be at the helm to reap the rewards of the PNG LNG Project.

Regardless of our past and current situation, Papua New Guineans should always look to the future to strengthen our unity. There is an increasing number of kids who are products of inter-marriage between provinces. We are becoming a more integrated society. There is more that unites us than divides us.

It is a joyous occasions that puts a smile on our face when we stumble upon a mixed relationship involving a relatives of ours from elsewhere. My personal journey to trace my family’s mixed relationships has yielded some surprising results. Perhaps your will too.

Maybe, for the Helas and Wabags, it should start right at their doorstep where enemy tribes inter-marry. Maybe that is what our tension-filled countrymen need for peace to dawn upon their land. 


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Busa Jeremiah Wenogo

It is clear from the comments posted thus far that there is a growing number of Papua New Guineans and her friends that see the integration of PNG as a way forward to combating tribal warfare.

Inter-marriage between people of diverse creeds and cultural backgrounds provides a workable, constructive and lasting solution to suppressing all manner of animosities that linger deep in the hearts and minds of human beings.

Inter-marriage can also assist in ensuring there is more empathy involved in making decisions that concerns the sharing of the nation's wealth.

Awigal Gima

Nice article. I am from Wabag but have lived in Hagen, Lae and Port Moresby. My closest friends are from Rabaul, Kerema, Central and Chimbu.

Personally I don't like it when the first question a new person asks me is, "Where are you from?" Most times I say, "Papua New Guinea" because really does it matter where I'm from? No.

I don't really care where you are from. Do we have any interests in common? If yes, Bam! we're friends. Big thing is we see each other as people.

And then we have the stereotypes that highlanders are like this, coast-landers are like that. More often than not these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes.

Ethnicity, provincialism and regionalism is overrated. Respect for one another is all we need.

Do not get me wrong, I am proud to be from Wabag but I do not want that fact alone to identify me.

I like how you say intermarrying would in a way work towards lessening these tensions regarding ethnicity.

Another thing, our government really has work to do in upholding our peace. It's good a lot of young people are joining the police force. Hold tight, PNG will get better.

Mathias Kin

Politicians are directly behind all these troubles. They are little war lords of their different tribes.

They pretend that all is good at the national scene. They buy big and powerful guns for their tribe. The more powerful the gun (and the number), the more powerful his tribe is.

They enhance their strength by pumping money into their pockets. I am seeing all these happening in Simbu where politicians openly buy guns for their people. Most aspiring politicians buy a gun before attempting politics.

From Moresby, Mr MP can connect via mobile phone with his tribesmen in Komo, Angore, Tari, Salt Nomane etc to organize a certain ambush or a raid, as described well by Busa Wenogo.

It happened in an electorate in a South Simbu recently and it is all too evident now in Hela.

Apparently these war lords are university educated politicians who we expect would embrace the modern culture brought upon us by the white men and do away with this Stone Age habit of killing, revenge, burning and looting.

Sad to say these very people are promoting it.

So where do we stand now having come four decades as a sovereign nation? As suggested here by Wenogo, I think another 20 years of slogging it through as a nation without any major upheaval (or calamity, civil crisis?) and hoping 50% of PNG people are mixed blood through inter marriage and the people in provinces such as Simbu(parts of), WHP, SHP, Enga and Hela are more educated than they are now, we should come out the other side (after 20 years?) as a well to do nations among the nations of the world. But at what cost?

Pumping more development money into an SOE will not help. Rather all proponents of the issue; PNG LNG, Hela and SHP Prov Governments, National Leaders, PNG RPC, Village leaders all should get together at "an end to all tribal fight summit" to identify what has gone wrong along the whole spectrum since 1975.

And what can be done to arrest this very appalling situations in these provinces. Only my suggestion.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Sadly in such cases, so called leaders and influential people in the community are behind the conflicts. How sad.

Elites and educated people have been coaxed, conned and tricked into buying guns and power arms for their tribes and clans.

This is happening all over the country, so lets not pretend as a country that its not happening.

And the fact that these groups are using high powered guns attest to an indication that they are not worse off materially or money wise.

So why fight? Is there any gain in fighting and destroying lives and properties?Why cant we give peace and normalcy a chance for the laws to take their course?

The Government should give the responsibility back to those who are hell bent on creating havoc and destruction.

"If you continue to fight, no development and service will come." Period!

There are costs to consider, children, women, the innocent and development.

Maybe NGOs, churches and peace advocates need to be better at their game in trying to spread the peace message.

Paul Oates

Having visited the Balkans recently I agree with your summation Chris. Except that is for disunity of entrenched religions (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim), this has all the portends of a Balkans imbroglio.

It's however also very like many countries in Europe in the so called 'middle ages' when petty kings arose and then eventually were amalgamated into nations.

PNG is going through the amalgamation and nation building process that all countries seem to have to go through, but in a very short length of time. It says a lot for her people's inherent resilience and strength of character that they have been able to do this without so far disintegrating as a nation.

Great, well written article. Thanks Busa.

Chris Overland

This is a very well written article which describes the problems associated with tribal fighting very succinctly.

Now is the time for the government to actually take serious and enduring action to at least control if not end the fighting.

The banning and seizure of guns is a necessary part of this process.

If not, a descent into anarchy and the subsequent "Balkanisation" of PNG remains a very real risk.

Robin Lillicrapp

The problems are symptomatic of inability to practically participate in wealth sharing.

The much vaunted projects destined to enrich the populus are seemingly growing wings and flying away to unseen nests.

I notice in some countries dependent upon oil revenues, the people are afforded receipt of payments on cards which are periodically loaded with payments derived from the nation's revenues.

Admittedly this will not be a transparent option to rural Helas unskilled in digital options.

I opened a Twitter account yesterday.

Corney kindly "followed" me. I jokingly told him it was as yet to me a mystery that probably my grandchildren would uncover to me.

So it may be for the emerging generation in PNG to be arbiters for change and a protective influence to assist bridging the generation gap especially where technology and custom clash.

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