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1997 – That turbulent and defining year

(Waide) PNG was witnessing a law and order breakdown
1997 was a dangerous year in PNG, but it ended  more positively with Sir Mekere Morauta  at the helm

| My Land, My Country

LAE - In the first quarter of 1997, word came out that the government of Sir Julius Chan was in talks with a British security contractor, Tim Spicer, to bring in South African mercenaries to end the Bougainville civil war that had been running for eight years.

The protracted conflict had seen the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) withdraw from Bougainville, depleted, demoralised and badly in need of rebuilding.

The government decided to proceed a hefty security contract with Spicer’s company, Sandline.

When news of the contract broke in Australia, Opposition MP and National Capital District governor Bill Skate became the strongest political voice against the contract.

Behind the scenes, NGO groups led by the Melanesian Solidarity Group formed an alliance with other stakeholders and politicians.

(Waide) Jerry Singirok - called on the prime minister to step aside
Major General Jerry Singirok called on prime minister Chan to step aside for calling in mercenaries. He was sacked

At Murray Barracks, PNGDF commander Jerry Singirok issued instructions for Sandline mercenaries to be disarmed and arrested.

Major General Singirok then went on NBC radio and called for the prime minister to step aside. Chan sacked Singirok.

But over the following days, the already tense situation further escalated. In parts of Port Moresby, riots broke out and police were called in to disperse rioters with teargas. Students at the University of Papua New Guinea marched on parliament.

Eventually, the mercenaries were rounded up, publicly humiliated expelled from the country.

1997 was also an election year and, with Sandline still fresh in the minds of voters, key political leaders lost their seats including prime minister Chan. His deputy, Chris Haiveta, survived the election.

When parliament met, Bill Skate was voted into office as prime minister. His tenure was plagued with a host of economic and political problems, including allegations of bribery and corruption.

Skate took over at a time when political allegiances were fluid and unpredictable. Anti-Sandline observers were angered that, later in term, Skate chose Haiveta to become deputy prime minister.

When Skate came to power, the country’s cash flow had been severely starved by 10 years of war in Bougainville.

PNG was struggling with a severe drought; the water levels of the Fly River had dropped so much that barges were left stranded. Mining operations were suspended and staff sent home.

These problems were compounded by controversies surrounding political and economic decisions.

One of those decisions was to employ former World Bank head in PNG, Dr Pirouz Hamidian Rad, on a K7 million contract. The Opposition was furious. Blows were traded inside and outside parliament.

Rad developed the 1999 budget with recommendations to cut funding to important sectors like education, health and law enforcement.

On an even grander scale, the Skate government attempted to give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in the hope of funding support, fell through after it was revealed publicly.

But things got out of control even more.

Corrupt and incompetent, prime minister Bill Skate

Outside the old Jackson’s airport terminal, Skate publicly sacked his deputy, Haiveta.

The prime minister had just returned from an overseas meeting. While he was away, an associate, Mujo Sefa, released videos of him boasting about alleged crimes. Sefa, also filmed the defence minister appearing to receive cash bribes.

When the Mujo Sefa tapes were broadcast on Australian television, Skate underestimated the impact of the news. At the airport, he first tried to downplay the news. But, under questioning, he announced the sacking of Haiveta and Coalition partner Andrew Baing.

Coalition MP’s immediate withdrew their support. With Haiveta gone from cabinet, the Pangu party split into two camps. Faced with immense pressure from within his own ranks and from the Opposition, Skate resigned, paving way for the election of a new prime minister.

After a lot of political wrangling in the weeks leading up to Skate’s resignation, Coalition leaders including John Pundari had made a decision to back Sir Mekere Morauta as prime minister.

This has now become part of the tapestry of Papua New Guinea’s rich, troublesome and sometimes infuriating political history.


Bougainville rebels rest on a beach. With a civil war raging, 1997 was one of PNG's most unpredictable and turbulent years

In 1997, John Eggins led a team of young, largely inexperienced journalists, camera operators and producers in the coverage of the Sandline riots. The late journalist Jerry Ginua, journalist Titi Gabi, producer Sincha Dimara and cameraman Francis Benny were the most senior at the time.

Benny Malaisa was trapped inside parliament with politicians including Grand Chief Michael Somare when soldiers laid siege. Cameraman Wari Ila filmed soldiers outside National Broadcasting Corporation. Jerry Kuasi was there during the action.

The ABC/PVM crew led by Andrew Johnson and Sean Dorney had perhaps the most experienced cameramen, Peter Dip, Joe Sabbath and a few others. The most senior journalists at the NBC, the Post Courier and The National guided the flow of coverage in the months and years that followed.

Most have now retired. Some have passed on. Their sole aim, despite the threats and instability, was to be truthful and balanced so Papua New Guinea would be informed to make the right choices and not go down the path of nationwide civil unrest. Much respect to them all.


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