History repeats itself with tragic impact in Papua New Guinea

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Report by David Robie. This article was first published on Café Pacific

Student footage as the Papua New Guinean police tried to arrest the leader, Kenneth Rapa, moments before opening fire on the crowd. Video: Cafe Pacific on YouTube

By DAVID ROBIE

BARELY had the whiff of teargas and gunshot smoke drifted away from the University of Papua New Guinea campus this week when the blame game started in earnest with the O’Neill government pointing the finger at the parliamentary opposition and also international media.

The media were blamed for initial reports by some reputable international brands that up to four people had been killed. There were no deaths, but four of the 23 people reported to be injured were taken to Port Moresby General Hospital critically wounded and stabilised.

It could have been an even worse tragedy.
Sadly, the scenes of chaos shown on campus and chaotic news reports are typical.

I lived in Papua New Guinea for five years during the 1990s when I headed the journalism programme at UPNG.

There were at least two occasions when I was there when police came onto campus – a provocation in itself as there is an understanding that police don’t do that, if not actually illegal – and fired teargas at protesting students.

Teargas canisters themselves can cause serious injuries as our award-winning Uni Tavur newspaper student reporters and photographers showed at the time in graphic reports and images.

The police arrived on campus last Wednesday heavily armed and in camouflage fatigues – to quell another peaceful protest (after more than five weeks of them)?

Clearly somebody in high authority had given the green light to the police to use any steps necessary – maximum force – to crush the protests once and for all. The police were ready for business.

Students have traditionally seen them themselves as the “people’s” opposition, providing checks and balances on the power elite in the country which they regard as corrupt and opportunistic.

They are the voices to raise the questions that grassroots people cannot easily express.

This editorial in The National on Thursday sums up the situation quite well:

HISTORY has repeated itself. In 2001 protesting University of Papua New Guinea students were fired on by police resulting in four deaths.


Of great concern is that this is not the first time police personnel have fired
on unarmed civilians in tense and provocative situations.


Two years ago also in Port Moresby’s Hanubada Village, police fired
indiscriminately into a crowd after a confrontation between National Capital
District rangers and street vendors turned violent. Two men were allegedly shot
by police.


What took place [on Wednesday] morning at UPNG in Port
Moresby will go down as another tragic chapter in the country’s history.


Students, who had organised themselves en masse to conduct a peaceful protest
at Parliament House were stopped by armed police as they tried to board
buses.


The situation quickly got out of hand after students refused to call off their
planned protest.


Shots were fired by police personnel and according to a press release from the
office of the Police Commissioner Gari Baki, 23 students were wounded with five
in a critical condition at the Port Moresby General Hospital.


Plunged into chaos
The city was then plunged into chaos as news of the shootings quickly spread by
word of mouth and particularly on social media websites like Facebook. Public
safety is paramount and the police have a duty to keep the peace and ensure
public as well as private property is protected and no one’s rights are
infringed upon.

 

Sadly, they failed to uphold their constitutional duty when they fired into the
crowd of students. If this how the police are going to handle public protests
by students and basically any group wishing to exercise their democratic and
constitutional rights, than something is terribly wrong with this State
body. 

The police have claimed that they were attacked initially by some of the
protesters with stones and responded with force. But they cannot seem to
understand that there is no place for meeting this kind of rowdy and
belligerent behaviour with maximum force. It is completely disproportionate to
the offending act.

Over the past five weeks UPNG students had boycotted classes and protested
calling for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to step aside and answer allegations
of corruption that have hung around him for some time.

The police and the National Executive Council, which is headed by O’Neill and
his senior ministers, should have foreseen the potential of an event such as
this taking place.

The police have continued to use strong arm tactics as their first course of
action when dealing with the public.

These aren’t one off instances, there is a clear pattern showing the
reactionary nature of how police carry out their duty.

Fearful, angry public
Police have managed to restore peace and order but there is no doubt that the
public is both fearful and angered by the conduct of the police force. This
situation must be handled with a great deal of care and consideration.

Today and the coming week will tell us how much damage has been done to public
confidence in the O’Neill government.

If it was at all time low levels then it
has hit rock bottom or near enough now.

The government will not come out of this looking good. Opposition MP Gary Juffa
recently questioned the government’s continuous suppression of free speech and
the right to protest indirectly by remarking that the police were carrying out
a fear campaign against anyone or group, including the media.

Juffa asked some
pointed but valid questions.

Rhetoric vindicated
The rhetoric has been vindicated by the events that transpired yesterday.

The question now remains as to what the government will do to rebuild that
faith and trust that has significantly been eroded by events yesterday.

How are they going to mend this bridge? Or will they be happy to watch it burn
and continue unabated?

The acting chancellor of UPNG, Dr Nicholas Mann, told foreign media he did not
know the full details of what happened.

“I understand that police had not given them the clearance or approval to do [a march on Parliament], so when there was defiance of lawful instruction there
was bound to be consequences.” That is almost a rebuke of his own
students.

O’Neill told Parliament he was not aware who had authorised the armed policemen
to shoot the students and vowed that there would be a full inquiry into the
UPNG unrest.

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