Perceptions of corruption behind PNG Highlands unrest

5:28 pm on 15 June 2018

Frustrations over alleged corruption sparked yesterday's unrest in the capital of Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands province.

The Mendi residence of Southern Highlands Governor William Powi was burned during a day of politically-driven unrest in the PNG province, 14 June 2018

The Mendi residence of Southern Highlands Governor William Powi was burned during a day of politically-driven unrest in the PNG province, 14 June 2018 Photo: Twitter/ @MartynNamorong

PNG's government has declared a state of emergency in the province after supporters of losing election candidates destroyed a commercial plane, the local courthouse and other buildings in Mendi.

Police said it was yesterday's court decision to dismiss a petition against the provincial governor William Powi's 2017 election win which sparked the rampage.

Speaking from Mendi, RNZ Pacific reporter Melvin Levongo said police were outnumbered and unable to stop a mob armed with high-powered weapons destroying an Air Niugini Dash-8 aircraft at the provincial airport.

After this, the mob went to burn down the governor's residence, the local courthouse and other buildings in Mendi town.

According to Mr Levongo, people were very frustrated at the court result.

"They said they blamed the judiciary system... (that) it's compromised, and it was clearly a corrupt way that Mr Powi won his election, but the court didn't go [their] way so it was a rebellion against a corrupt governor, that's what most people said."

"The mob wanted to do something... people were very angry towards the governor, the current government, and so did something to get the attention of the current government," Mr Levongo said.

He said a dark chapter in PNG's history had been created.

"In PNG history, nobody burnt down Air Niguini before. It's our pride, and for the people in Mendi to be doing that, it's sad. The whole nation is unhappy about it."

On social media, sadness and outrage were expressed by Papua New Guineans at the unrest, mixed with context about the frustrations which led to the unrest.

The situation remains tense in Mendi, the provincial capital having gone into lockdown overnight. It's understood many residents have left town to return to home villages or communities where they can feel safe.

The unrest occurred in a region severely affected by February's magnitude 7.5 earthquake in neighbouring Hela province. The quake caused around 150 deaths, as well as widespread destruction to public roads, buildings and villages, displacing thousands of people in the process.

"This latest chaos... it's making life harder for the people who were affected by that earthquake," Mr Levongo said.

PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill called the unrest in Mendi an "absolute disgrace", saying those involved would be arrested and prosecuted.

He has announced the declaration of a State of Emergency in Southern Highlands, saying additional security forces would be deployed to prevent further unrest.

"There is no place in politics for this type of behaviour, and leaders involved with this activity will be held to account.

"All leaders must respect the rule of law, respect decisions of the court and respect the safety of people and property."

Meanwhile, Mendi's police commander said around two hundred people gathered this morning around the scenes of yesterday's destruction at Mendi airport.

According to Commander Gideon Kauke, no arrests had yet been made as police suspected that would only inflame the crowd.

"Some are very curious about what happened yesterday and they came to observe and see what destruction is done yesterday," he explained.

The destroyed Air Nuigini Dash 8 at Mendi Airport

The destroyed Air Nuigini Dash 8 at Mendi Airport Photo: Supplied

"The others they intend to find out why and how it happened. And those who were involved in the tension yesterday they are also here. So it's sort of a mixture of people are gathered together here in Mendi this morning."

Commander Kauke said about a hundred police were on the ground maintaining security, while military support arrived late yesterday to help regain order.

He linked the unrest with political events, saying it was not a usual law and order matter.