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Revolt forces PNG government back down

By Ash Pemberton

The Papua New Guinean government has backed down in the face of a society-wide revolt over its new power to suspend judges. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the law would not be implemented until public consultations were carried out.

Thousands of students from the University of PNG rallied in Port Moresby on March 23. Students said in a statement that the law undermines the constitution by removing the separation between the government and courts.

Seven big trade unions joined the call to repeal the law on March 28, the Post-Courier said that day. The Community Coalition Against Corruption and the PNG Chamber of Commerce also opposed the law.

Students from the University of Technology in Lae began an indefinite boycott of classes on March 29, Radio Australia said that day. Prisoners also threatened a mass breakout from jails if the law was not repealed, PNGPerspective.com said the day before.

The law was enacted on March 22 in response to a long-running dispute between a section of PNG’s elite and O’Neill’s supporters over the government’s legitimacy.

Judges became targets of the government after the Supreme Court ruled in December that O’Neill had unconstitutionally deposed former PM Sir Michael Somare, who had been absent from the country for months due to illness.

Parliament later passed a law legalising O’Neill’s government. A week-long stand-off developed during which Somare and O’Neill both claimed to lead the legitimate government.

Since Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio ended the stand-off and declared O’Neill prime minister, Somare and his supporters have waged a campaign to regain power.

Somare admitted ordering the failed military coup against O’Neill on January 26, AFP said on January 28.

Somare has been a dominant figure in PNG politics since the country’s independence in 1975, serving three terms as prime minister. His last term was marked by higher-than-usual corruption and nepotism, leading to rising unpopularity among the public and alienating many parliamentarians.

O’Neill has tried to present himself as a reformer, but he is a veteran politician who has been accused of corruption in the past. His government includes ministers who served under Somare.

Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia, Justice Nicholas Kirriwom and Justice George Manuhu were asked to resign by deputy PM Belden Namah on March 20, AAP said that day.

Injia, who headed the Supreme Court that ruled O’Neill’s government illegal, was recently charged with trying to pervert the course of justice over his handling of the estate of a dead judge. Manuhu was accused of colluding to protect Injia.

Kirriwom was targeted by Namah over the contents of a leaked memo in which Kirriwom called for his colleagues to fight back against the O’Neill “regime”, PNG Exposed said on March 13.

O’Neill’s government has been under fire from sections of the PNG elite since it took power in August last year. Some elites were upset by O’Neill’s talk of giving landowners more rights to wealth from mining and his promise to curb the corruption that flourished under Somare.

O’Neill has since backed away from these promises and resorted to undemocratic methods to fend off attacks by Somare supporters.

The dispute is expected to come to a head in national elections scheduled for June. However, Namah expressed his desire to postpone elections for a year, the Canberra Times said on March 5. He later said he had no power to stop the elections.

Australian foreign minister Bob Carr threatened sanctions against PNG if elections did not go ahead in June. Carr was forced to back away from the threat, but his comments reflect Australia’s colonial attitude towards PNG, which was under Australian rule until 1975.

Since independence, the PNG state has operated as a conduit for the enrichment of foreign companies, especially Australian companies. PNG’s corrupt elites feed off the crumbs of these foreign operations while ordinary people live in poverty.

The latest example came on March 29 when the government announced it would send soldiers to Southern Highlands province to end landowners’ protests that stopped Exxon Mobil’s $15.7 billion gas project.

On January 24, 60 people were killed and 42 homes were destroyed in the area by a landslide, believed to have been caused by work on the gas project, IPSNews.net said on March 9.

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