DUBLIN - After the end of apartheid in South Africa a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to deal with much of the racial conflict in preceding years.
In this Commission, the emphasis was not on punishment of the guilty but on resolution of past hurts and grievances, even atrocities. Amnesty was granted to many participants. Most accounts say the Commission was successful.
Can there be ‘truth and reconciliation’ in the Papua New Guinean context? Perhaps we can we learn from traditional peace-making processes in the Highlands, such as that followed the Kum River massacre of 1942.
The massacre’ is described in Br Pat Howley’s book, 'The KomKui Who Made a Covenant with God', which was reviewed by Ben Jackson for PNG Attitude five years ago.
By late February 1942, miner Dan Leahy and kiap Dalkeith Chambers had already departed from Mt Hagen to join the wartime New Guinea administrative division, ANGAU. Chambers left a policeman named Burei from Mussau in charge of the government station. Burei had access to firearms.
After Chambers had gone, a fight that had been brewing between two groups in the large Mokei tribe erupted, not for the first time.
On 22 February, Mamp the son of Kump who was living with the Mokei Nampakae. was killed by the Mokei Komunka. Another Mokei Nampakae man was killed by the Mokei Komunka on the same day.
The Mokei Nampakae, knowing a full scale tribal battle was now unavoidable, was able to persuade the policeman Burei to join their side and assist with his firearms.
At first Burei objected, saying he would be recognised and later punished, but the Nampakae disguised him as a warrior and, without his police uniform, he went with his gun to the battlefield at Kum River.
The Komunka came forward thinking it would be a typical tribal battle with spears and bow and arrows. But on the Nampakae side, Burei and his gun was hiding behind a shield carrier from where, directed by the Nampakae, he targeted leaders of the Komunka.
His aim was good and as many as nine Komunka leaders were killed that day and more were injured. The Nampakae emerged victorious, but they were shocked at the extent of the killing. It is said that they were embarrassed and even ashamed.
The Komunka plotted retaliation against Burei the policeman but they were later assured that he had been killed on assignment in Madang District. However tensions remained between the Komunka and the Nampakae and for some decades the Nampakae would not venture into the Komunka area for fear of retaliation.
In the early 1970s, however, with national independence approaching, a Komunka leader, Yapi Ropa, and another Komunka, Koi Mamp, began to talk about peacemaking and restoring the unity of the Mokei tribe.
They invited Nampakae leaders to a feast and gave them gifts of pork. On the Nampakae side, Michael Poti, a son of the former leader Ninji, and Raphael Doa, a member of parliament, began urging their own Nampakae tribesmen to think about a traditional compensation payment to the Komunka.
In 1975, under the leadership of Raphael Doa and Wamp Wan, the Mokei Nampake held a ceremony at Gumats just outside Hagen on the road to Mendi and Wabag.
They gave as many as 200 pigs and other gifts in compensation to the Komunka. The Komunka accepted the offerings and peace prevailed.
It can be noted that while it was the Komunka who initiated the peace process, they did not specify what they expected by way of compensation. When the compensation was given they were satisfied with the payment as the Nampakae had endeavoured to make a generous payment.
The compensation sought by the Komunka and given by the Nampakae was effective in restoring peace and there has been no major tribal fighting in the Komunka area since 1942.
While more than 30 years passed between the Kum River killings in 1942 and the reconciliation in 1975, the peacemaking process can take place within a much shorter period of time.
About 14 years ago some Jika Milakamp men killed a Mokei Komunka man after a weekend fight at a Mt Hagen night club. The same weekend, some young Mokei Komunka men who had heard of the killing kidnapped two male Jika Milakamp students and held them hostage.
Within 24 hours the Mokei Komunka leaders, including Pius Tikili and the late Andrew Dokta, managed to get the hostages released and delivered safely to their parents. And less than a month later, the Jika Milakamp paid compensation in a major public ceremony at Pope’s Oval in Hagen Town. A serious conflict between the Jika and the Mokei had been avoided.
In brief, the traditional Hagen reconciliation process can be effective and it need not take too long to conclude. In both these cases, reconciliation of the parties concerned was given a higher priority than punishment.
The word ‘compensation’ has gained something of a negative connotation in Papua New Guinea due in part to victims or their relatives sometimes demanding disproportionate reparation for deaths or injuries. However, it is helpful to examine the concept and legal processes more carefully.
The word ‘compensation’ is derived from the Latin ‘com’ meaning together and ‘pendere’ meaning to weigh. The original meaning was to ‘restore a balance’. The Pidgin phrase ‘skelim na stretim’ is a good parallel.
So compensation is not meant to be a type of extortion, but a careful weighing up of matters, a restoring of balance in a community, and evaluation and action to remedy harm done.
English common law, in dealing with disputes that involve killing or murder, usually end with a decision regarding guilt or innocence and the imposition of a sentence if the accused is found guilty. But common law does not explicitly concern itself with reconciliation.
In most customary Melanesian systems of justice, however, the process is directed towards achieving reconciliation between the parties and restoring harmony in the community. In other words, even after guilt and punishment has been clearly established, the parties try and reach reconciliation and harmony.
I have seen rival tribes await a judicial decision outside Mt Hagen court house and having heard the evidence and judgement come together to see how they can arrive at a reconciliation taking the court decision into account.
Historically, Saxon law and Germanic law were much closer to the Melanesian system. If a person was killed the families of the criminal and the victim would meet and decide on amount of ‘bote’ (compensation) to be paid.
In ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic law, ‘wergeld’ was the price of a person's life on the basis of rank and it was paid as compensation by the murderer’s family to the kin or lord of a slain person. This would free the culprit of further punishment or obligation and prevent a blood feud.
Later, with the introduction of Roman law and in English common law, murder came to be seen as an offence against the state and the victims’ rights were overlooked and practically ignored.
These days many modern legal systems are returning to greater recognition of ‘victim compensation’. However, reconciliation with the offending party is not necessarily included in the process.
Can we learn from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also from PNG customary methods of achieving peace and reconciliation? Is English common law too focused on punishment and not enough on reconciliation?
Perhaps Papua New Guinea needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some sort.