MADANG – On Friday prime minister Peter O'Neill declared a state of emergency in Southern Highlands Province following a serious outbreak of civil violence in the capital Mendi.
The decision covered the suspension of the provincial government, appointing an emergency controller, deploying the police mobile squad and criminal investigators, initiating troop deployments and approving K6 million to enable their mobilisation.
The unrest – including the torching of the governor’s residence, an Air Niugini aircraft and the court house - was triggered by a national court ruling dismissing a petition challenging the election of Governor William Powi.
The PNG electoral commission had declared Powi the winner of the regional seat in last year’s general elections, a decision unprecedented as the decision was made before counting was complete.
What is particularly interesting about this matter is that it is taking place in O'Neill's own province. So what does he do?
Well, instead of flying back home to address the issue, he hides out in Port Moresby and attends the opening of the new port facility.
I have no doubt the Mendi issue could have been easily resolved without a state of emergency had he returned home to take the lead.
The problem for O'Neill and other Southern Highlands politicians is that the people have lost trust in them and respect for them.
So perhaps it is understandable why they would be too scared to go back to the province to resolve this matter.
It is sad when the people of the Southern Highlands, living in fear and uncertainty, are ignored by their leaders who remain in Port Moresby to cut ribbons and play golf.
In the recent past, when there was similar civil disruption in my own province of Madang after police killed some young men, I rushed back home to help try to resolve it.
I had received reports the situation was out of control and that hundreds of youths planned to march into town to burn down the police station and every settlement in Madang.
I travelled to the troubled area to meet with community and youth leaders who explained there was little they could do as the garamut had been beating night and day sending out word to meet at 4 Mile and march on the town.
The next morning I was up 6 to intercept a crowd of young men armed with bush knifes and home made guns. I asked them to let me sort it out. One shouted if I tried to stop them I would be killed and called to the crowd to torch my car. I responded “OK wokim na yumi lukim” (do it and lets see what happens).
I was on my own without police escort. It was a no-go zone for police personnel.
To try to avoid a confrontation I said let's meet at the market and discuss the issue.
When I arrived, several thousand people with makeshift arms had gathered there.
I climbed onto the back of a vehicle to address the crowd, explaining I could not let them march into town. This didn't go down well.
As a compromise they requested to march in peaceful protest and said nothing would happen. I said no. They then asked if the police mobile squad could escort them to provide security. I said I would speak to the commander and drove to meet with him, quickly realising that the mob had already started marching behind me.
I drove as far as a bridge and used my vehicle to block the road. I got out, stood in front of it and asked them to stop.
In the end the issue was resolved after I promised the family members of those killed that an investigation would be carried out to establish if the shootings were lawful. If not those responsible would be held to account.
Last week a formal coroner’s inquest began and former chief justice Sir Arnold Amet, at my request, is assisting the family members with their case.