A left wing view of the Somare legacy
18 May 2021
| International Committee of the Fourth International | Extract
Link here to the complete article
SYDNEY - The first years of Papua New Guinea’s independence coincided with the collapse of the nationalist program of economic regulation and import substitution based on tariff protection that had been widely promoted and adopted in former colonial countries.
From the late 1970s and 1980s, governments in the so-called Third World instead sought to integrate their economies into the capitalist world market by welcoming foreign investment on exploitative terms.
This approach saw PNG transformed into a lucrative source of minerals and energy for many of the world’s largest transnational corporations.
Australian investments were protected after PNG independence, most importantly Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper and gold mine that was opened in 1972 in Bougainville.
The mine, one of the world’s largest copper sources, caused widespread environmental damage and triggered a separatist civil conflict in Bougainville that has not finally been resolved despite an end to fighting.
Just four years after independence, dissatisfaction with the government triggered student protests and workers’ strikes in Port Moresby. Tribal conflicts spiralled in some regions, including the Highlands. Extreme social inequality and lack of decent housing in the capital city also saw an increase in violent crime.
Prime Minister Michael Somare responded by declaring a state of emergency over much of the country in 1979, and threatening to deploy the military to crack down on strikes and demonstrations.
This was only the first of many states of emergency, with the military repeatedly deployed in the Highlands and other parts of the country in the 1980s.
Somare’s foreign policy was squarely in line with US-Australia Cold War imperatives. His loyalty to the Western powers found one expression in his enthusiasm for the British monarchy. After independence he accepted a seat on the Queen’s Privy Council and a knighthood (afterwards insisting he be referred to as ‘Sir Michael’).
Somare also sought to appease the neighbouring Indonesian military junta that had come to power in 1965-66 through an anti-communist bloodbath. Somare endorsed Indonesia’s brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975 and welcomed the Indonesian dictator Suharto to Port Moresby in 1979.
PNG politics increasingly became dominated by unstable cliques of capitalist politicians and ‘independents’ based on narrow parochial appeals in a country fragmented by hundreds of language or wantok groups and motivated by the crumbs of office and personal aggrandisement.
To provide some small measure of stability, governments formed on the basis of unwieldy and shaky alliances have been protected by a 30-month period of grace when no-confidence votes are not permitted.
Somare was installed for a third term as prime minister in 2002 on the basis of a coalition of 13 parties and 20 independent MPs. His final term in office (2002-2010) saw greater friction with Canberra. Somare regarded the emergence of China as a significant power in the region as an opportunity to gain financial assistance as well as some leverage with Australian imperialism.
Somare initially agreed to the Australian government’s Orwellian-named Enhanced Cooperation Package, $A1 billion neo-colonial program aimed at inserting Australian police, legal officials, economists and other state officials into key positions of power in Port Moresby.
The program was modelled on the 2003 Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an Australian military-police takeover of that Pacific country.
By 2006-2007, however, Somare withdrew support for the operation, in part because of Australian government provocations on PNG soil during its illegal vendetta against Solomon Islands’ attorney general Julian Moti.
Somare won a national election in 2007 amid threats of an Australian military intervention and ‘regime change’ operation. In 2011, however, his continued orientation to Beijing under the banner of a “Look North” foreign and economic policy saw the Australian government endorse his illegal ousting by political rival Peter O’Neill.
Somare’s domestic record is marked by the failure of successive governments, his own included, to alleviate the enormous poverty and social inequality that wracks PNG.
The country exports cash crops—including coffee, cocoa, coconut and palm oil—as well as minerals such as nickel, copper and gold, and also oil and gas. The aggregated value of these exported resources since independence would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars.
This has not flowed, however, to ordinary Papua New Guineans but to many of the world’s largest mineral and energy firms, mostly Australian and American—including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Barrick Gold, BHP Billiton, Newcrest Mining, and Rio Tinto.
A tiny elite layer within PNG accumulated significant personal fortunes, Somare and his family among them. In 2011, it emerged that he and his children owned a number of Australian beachfront houses and luxury apartments.
The former prime minister was repeatedly accused of corruption, including accepting multi-million dollar corporate bribes —though this was always denied and not proved in court.
For most people, so-called capitalist development after independence has been a disaster. Many mining and energy extracting operations have produced environmental crises—most notoriously at BHP’s Ok Tedi copper and gold mine, where waste chemicals were dumped for more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, with more than 50,000 people affected by the poisoning of the Fly River eco-system.
The country remains among the world’s most impoverished. Average life expectancy is just 65 years. Diseases including polio, malaria, and HIV-AIDS ravage the country, contributing to an annual death toll of more than 15,000 children, or one in every 13 children.
Around three-quarters of the nine million people still depend largely on subsistence agriculture. Just over half have access to electricity, and only a small minority access reliable power.
Within PNG villages and towns, there are numerous serious social problems, including alcoholism and family violence. Around one-third of the population is out of school and unemployed, and only 62% of adults are literate. Within the cities and towns, young people are afflicted by mass unemployment, lack of basic facilities, and a shortage of educational opportunities.
It is a damning indictment of Somare and the entire venal capitalist class he represented that they have proven unable to meet the democratic aspirations and basic social needs of the vast majority of the population.
A new generation of Papua New Guinean workers and youth will in the next period turn toward a new political perspective, based on socialist internationalism and Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.
Workers in the country confront the same exploitation, often by the same transnational corporations, as their fellow workers throughout the Asia-Pacific and internationally.
A unified struggle with workers internationally—above all in the Pacific states, Australia and Indonesia—needs to be based on the fight for a government of the working class and rural masses that will establish genuine democracy and end neo-colonial oppression through socialist policies directed to the social needs of the population.
The late Brian Medlin was a fine human being and a great sceptic.
He was arrested and imprisoned following involvement in an anti-Vietnam War march in September, 1970 but he had also been dragged off to the city watch house a year earlier. I know that because I was there too while home on leave.
He was a poet and writer, both of fiction and academic articles. I can’t remember the name of it but he wrote a ripper about ego. He called himself Tim Tregonning when he wrote fiction. I also think there was a collection of his essays, poetry and short stories published after he died.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 18 May 2021 at 01:39 PM
It is a guilty pleasure to read a Marxist analysis of Michael Somare's contribution to PNG history. It is a useful antidote for the fawning hagiography which characterised many of his obituaries.
It takes me back to my student days when I was studying philosophy under Professor Brian Medlin, a renowned Marxist and leader of the Moratorium Movement against Australia's participation in the Vietnam War.
At one point he was imprisoned for his participation in a Moratorium march. This hugely increased both his profile and notoriety amongst the students at Flinders University, hence my desire to study under his tutelage.
Anyway, Professor Medlin taught his students that there is more than one way of seeing the world and that this usually is done through the prism of culture. All philosophy is an expression of culture in some way: there is no purely objective way for humans to see and understand the world.
He strove to at least diminish the distortions such prisms caused amongst his students although not with much success in the case of most of them. His impact upon my thinking came long after I ceased being his student.
I mention this because I believe that, fundamentally, modern PNG is a product of its prevailing cultural norms and that Somare and others were almost certainly doomed from the start in their efforts to create a Melanesian version of a liberal democracy.
The sheer weight of PNG's ancient cultures, notably the pattern of life based upon mutual reciprocity and familial and tribal communalism, was always likely to make it very hard indeed to create a political system in which the power of wantoks was muted.
Like many kiaps, I recognised this potential problem quite early on but the great and the good were certainly not listening to either the kiaps or even the people as they ploughed on towards independence.
Also, another major mistake at the time was to assume that PNG was and would be easy to govern. After all, if a comparative handful of kiaps and police scattered around the country could exert effective control over the population, surely an indigenous government could do even better?
While I think that Michael Somare was, on balance, a positive force in PNG history he was hardly without his flaws.
In particular, he succumbed to the enormous pressures exerted by the cultures that he was a part of and the added pressures arising from having to engage with the voracious neo-liberal capitalism that had always been lurking in wait for the day when PNG's colonial masters and protectors departed.
PNG is still struggling with these same forces and seems likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
It has the added pressure of having to deal with the rise of a new imperial power in the east which is no less self interested and determined to assert its dominance than were the European imperial powers of the last century.
It is not inconceivable that PNG will once again find itself caught up in conflict between the world's great powers just as it was between 1939 and 1945. What form that conflict will take is an open question but that it will occur seems certain.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 18 May 2021 at 09:24 AM