Political solution required to end unrest in PNG's Southern Highlands

8:10 pm on 18 June 2018

Unrest in Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands province is being widely described as a political problem requiring leadership to prevent escalation.

The destroyed Air Nuigini Dash 8 at Mendi Airport

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

PNG's government declared a state of emergency on Friday, a day after a mob went on a rampage in the provincial capital Mendi, destroying a commercial aircraft and setting fire to the local courthouse, the provincial governor's house and other buildings.

Last week's court ruling upholding Southern Highlands governor William Powi's 2017 election win sparked the rampage by supporters of a losing candidate who had challenged the result.

As part of the ensuing state of emergency provisions, PNG's government is ordering deployment of armed forces to restore order, and has suspended the provincial government.

However, subsequently supporters of the suspended government and Mr Powi have been mobilising around the province with high-powered weapons, threatening violence.

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Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Melvin Levongo

While Mendi had quietened down by Monday, the Police Commander in Mendi Gideon Kauke said the potential for unrest remained acute.

"This is not a normal law and order situation. It is political differences and politically manipulated issues that are causing all the destruction," he said explained.

"The supporters are mounting with a lot of high-powered firearms and rifles, and for us we don't want to get into any exchange of fire, so my instructions are basically not to use firearms.

"But all we need to do is bring the leaders in and try to negotiate and talk over the issues so that we solve these problems in a very amicable way," he said.

Earlier, the prime minister Peter O'Neill said those behind last week's destruction would be arrested and prosecuted. But Mr Kauke said police hadn't made arrests yet because the situation was highly charged.

"We will not immediately take action, but we will try and form a team of investigators, and they will look into this one," Commander Kauke said.

"Those who are responsible in causing destructions and the burning down of buildings, they'll be investigated, arrested and charged."

Community dialogue

A former top policeman

Thomas Eluh, has been placed in charge of the nine-month emergency operations.

Mr Eluh was appointed as acting provincial administrator in Southern Highlands late last year as the national government sought to restore order to a dysfunctional public service amid lingering lawlessness and election-related violence.

He continued in the role through February's magnitude 7.5 earthquake which caused widespread destruction and death in both Southern Highlands and Hela provinces. However the Manus native was seen as having disrupted the interests of some Southern Highlands political power brokers and was sidelined in April.

Thomas Eluh

Thomas Eluh Photo: RNZI

Well aware of the type of political ructions linked to the latest unrest in Mendi, Mr Eluh said he still had strong support on the ground in the province and would be available to listen to grievances. But he cautioned that he would not play politics.

"There are a few factions here and there, particularly aligned to certain politicians," Mr Eluh said, "and of course the current acting administrator (Joseph Cajetan) would want to maybe protest or do these sort of things. But we will not allow it because of the state of emergency."

Mr Eluh said his approach would include encouraging talks between the opposing political factions. Rather than using brute force, he said bringing the community onside was one of the first things he would be doing.

"It's not a police issue alone. This needs a collective effort from everybody," he explained.

"I've done that before, during my time as an administrator, for the first time. I was given military and the police to - in a way - use force. But that's not how I operate. How I operate is getting everyone onside: churches, youths, leaders at all levels."

Mr Eluh admitted that it would be difficult to placate the mobs involved in political violence.

"The province is ever divided. People have taken sides, and it's extremely difficult to try and convince them. But what I have been banking on is consistent awareness and dialogue with the people."

A building burns in Mendi during a period of political unrest.

A building burns in Mendi during a period of political unrest. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Melvin Levongo

Pressure on government

Peter O'Neill held a press conference with other elected leaders from Southern Highlands province in Port Moresby yesterday.

"Today we want to apologise to Papua New Guinea for some of the events that has taken place, mainly out of frustration that they have not been given the opportunity to engage in the court proceedings which resulted in a decision that they were not accepting," he said.

Mr O'Neill alluded to the rampage as being the actions of a "few individuals", and said the leaders had agreed that the rule of law must be followed.

Alongside Mr O'Neill at the press conference was the losing candidate whose supporters were behind Thursday's rampage in Mendi, Joseph Kobol, as well as Mr Powi whose election Mr Kobol has alleged was the result of a rigged electoral process.

Mr Kobol apologised for what his supporters had done. He admitted the destruction of an Air Niugini Dash-8 aircraft was uncalled for, saying he was willing to let the election challenge be handled by the court system.

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Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

"The State of Emergency that's been in place during the (earthquake) disaster will be extended, and now it will take carriage over all the other law and order issues in the country as well," the prime minister added.

"They will conduct their own investigations without any political interference whatsoever from the leaders and we will allow the agencies of Government including Police and Defence and the Courts to deal with some of the law and order issues in the province."

However PNG's parliamentary opposition has demanded that the prime minister, who is a Southern Highlands MP, resign over the unrest, describing it as an indication that the people of the province had rejected his leadership

The opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch said elected leaders of the province must go to Southern Highlands to resolve the situation

"We need to have Southern Highlands getting down to Mendi and getting the leadership there to resolve the issue," Mr Pruaitch said.

According to Mr Pruaitch, the unrest was bad publicity for PNG particularly as it prepared to host the APEC leaders summit in November.

Angry tribesman take to the streets in Mendi in Papua New Guinea.

Angry tribesman take to the streets in Mendi in Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Melvin Levongo

Meanwhile, there are fears that the Southern Highlands' unrest could spread to neighbouring Hela province, itself recently hampered by deadly tribal fighting.

At the weekend a police mobile squad team was held up and had its vehicles and guns taken by angry supporters of the suspended provincial government in Nipa near the provincial border.

The build-up of weapons among tribal and political groups in the Highlands is of particular concern. A former PNG Defence Force commander, Jerry Singirok, has warned that police and military deployed to the region to quell the unrest could face superior firepower.

However, for the time being, the onus is on the political leaders to control their supporters in Southern Highlands.

The prime minister appeared to reflect a wider feeling when he said "in terms of the administration of the province we all have agreed that we are sick and tired of politics in our province".

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