NOOSA – Sir Pita Lus, one of the fathers of Papua New Guinea independence, has died in Maprik aged 86 only a few weeks after giving his last public speech.
Sir Pita was elected to seven PNG parliaments, including the first House of Assembly in 1964, his political career ending in 2002 after 38 years. He was knighted in 1979.
He was a founding member of the Pangu Party, persuaded the great leader Sir Michael Somare to enter politics and remained a major figure and influencer throughout his career.
From the beginning he gained a reputation for fiery rhetoric and unruly parliamentary behaviour but, while this did not always endear him to his colleagues, it strengthened his position as a politician to be listened to.
Historian Hank Nelson later wrote that, in the 1964-68 House of Assembly, there were only seven Papua New Guinean members who stood out of whom only one, John Guise, showed an ability to govern and two, Pita Lus and Gaudi Mirau, were willing to speak aggressively.
Sir Pita was born on 16 September 1935 in Lehinga village in the Maprik area of the Sepik District.
He was not a recognised clan leader by birth and did not learn to read and write until he was 24.
From the beginning, it seemed as though his life would be unpropitious. His father led a group which speared to death a white recruiter who, despite protests, had threatened to take Lus’s older brother.
His father was convicted of murder and sentenced to serve a three-year prison sentence in distant Rabaul, where he died before
Sir Pita was raised by his mother and older brother and very early showed an independent and aggressive temperament.
In 1949, aged 14, he left home to seek his fortune, finding work in Rabaul and then Kavieng as a cook and domestic servant.
He briefly returned to Maprik in 1952, but soon left again to work on Manus, finding a job as a labourer employed by the Australian Navy.
He gained notoriety when he joined, and became spokesman for, a strike against long working hours, later saying it was “the first time I had ever spoken defensively against Europeans”. Later Sir Pita wrote in Kovave:
“Labourers got up at six o'clock in the morning to cut grass. One day, those of us who were involved held a meeting for a strike. At the meeting the foreman asked each one of us to prepare an argument that was suitable to present on behalf of the group to the patrol officer. I looked at the men who sat there making no attempt to say a word.
“I got up and said, 'My name is Lus and I am going to try to express my opinion. When I was at Rabaul I observed that the people who worked for the government got up at about seven or eight o'clock to start work. Here we are getting up very early at six o'clock like a lot of prisoners. This to me is improper.'
“Everybody including the foreman said, ‘You will be the one to talk with the kiap.' The kiap with some police came by the government's boat. The clerk came and called us to appear before the kiap. We all gathered and sat before the kiap for a court case. They asked us, 'Who has something to say?' I said, 'I have.' 'You are the one who influenced these people, are you?' I said 'I did not influence them, but we are not your gang of prisoners’.”
Sir Pita said he was struck by the kiap to the anger of the hundreds of striking labourers but the kiap realised this was developing into a dangerous situation began a negotiation after which conditions were improved.
The incident brought Sir Pita to adverse attention but did not stop his progress. He was trained to become a painter and then became foreman.
After seven years on Manus he returned to Maprik in 1959, aged 24, and approached a missionary with the South Seas Evangelical Mission saying he wanted to learn to read and write.
The man must have been impressed because not only did he agree to find a place for Sir Pita in school, he invited him to live with his family. During this period the name Pita was added to his family name.
Sir Pita reached Grade 3, became literate and was recruited as a Pentecostal catechist working across the Maprik-Dreikikir region.
It was here that he built and consolidated what was to become his political power base
In 1964, the colonial Administration held what was PNG’s first democratic election for a newly formed national House of Assembly.
A man of considerable charisma. Sir Pita defeated five other candidates to become the Member for Dreikikir.
At the following 1968 election he transferred to the Maprik electorate, which he was to represent for a further 34 years.
Dr Jo Herlihy later wrote that he was “regarded as an obstreperous rebel” who others saw variously as a “parliamentary clown, interjector, champion of the little man [or] outspoken critic of [the colonial] government.”
Sir Pita himself viewed his personality in these words, “We Sepik people are not easily aroused; we war with words…. I am not given to fighting”
In 1975, in an article for Pacific Islands Monthly, I wrote:
"Pita Lus immediately made his mark [in the House of Assembly]. During his first two years as a member, he voted against the Administration 22 times in 30 divisions on the floor of the House. No man was so consistent an opponent of the colonial government. Not Guise, not Chatterton, not Pasquarelli."
And I revisited a fiery war of words in parliament:
Lus: "You shut your mouth and sit down."
Abal (continuing): "I ask you, Mr Speaker, to order Mr Pita Lus to shut his mouth for a little while."
Lus: Point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Tei Abal is not sticking to what he should be talking about."
Abal: "You are a liar. Sit down."
At this early stage of his political career, he constantly criticised expatriate domination of politics and commerce: “They only make the profits and go away with them.”
Associated with this was his strong faith in the capabilities of Papua New Guineans and his early advocacy for self-government.
Meanwhile in addition to his success in politics, Sir Pita was achieving in business. By 1972 his parliamentary biography listed his interests as ‘farmer, cattle, coffee, rice, trade store, trucking’.
In 1967 he became a foundation member of the Pangu Pati, establishing a branch in Maprik, where in recruiting members he explained the party concept as: “If the government does not listen to the wishes of the people, the party can tell the government and they must listen”. Maprik became a Pangu stronghold.
Journalist Miriam Zarriga has written of how Sir Pita convinced Michael Somare, to enter politics:
“Somare told him he was not popular and that no one knew him. Sir Pita told him: ‘I will campaign for you. You will win. PNG has to gain independence.’ So he campaigned for Somare because he wanted him to become prime minister. ‘I rode my motorbike up the Sepik Highway campaigning. The road wasn’t that good as now. I slept along the highway’.”
Somare stood and won the seat of Wewak in 1968 and went on to lead PNG to independence. In 1973 he appointed Sir Pita as the Minister of State for Police.
Sir John Kaputin once wrote: “Sir Pita Lus might have been perceived as vociferous and a loose cannon, but, behind this façade, there was a very serious mind concerned with real issues, expressed in Pidgin with lots of humour and punctuated with colourful phrases in English.”
A favourite story of Sir Pita was that when Somare and others were debating a desirable date for Independence, he slapped the table and loudly exclaimed, “Let me pick the date”, saying 16 September was a good date, to which the group agreed. Whereupon Sir Pita laughed and told them it was his birthday.
At his last public appearance on Independence Day this past September, a frail Sir Pita was joined by prime minister James Marape.
On that day, Sir Pita made his last speech:
“We didn’t get Independence for you to fight each other, we didn’t get Independence for you all to hate each other, and we got it because we wanted the best for this country.
“If you have turned away from our Christian values that this country is built on, turn back to God, who remains our father of this Nation.
“Stop the tribal fights, we became a government because we wanted you all to have a good life, a settled life.
“To all of you who turned up to celebrate this day, my wife and I are happy to join you all, may God continue to bless and guide you.
“I want to tell you all, wherever you came from Nuku, Drekikir, Angoram or Wewak, you all have come to be one.
“Fighting will not take you anywhere, do not fight, in the eyes of God, I am here to tell you to listen to me and sit down and respect each other, this is our country. God is constant and always faithful.
“Independence was for you all, keep on working to making this country great.”
Miriam Zarriga wrote: "As Sir Pita concluded, he lifted his hands and blessed the country."
Sources: Kovave v1 n1, November 1969; Yagl-Ambu v1 n3 September 1974; Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1975; The National; Stories By David Wall; EMTV Online