Papua New Guinea’s political unrest set to enter new phase with no confidence vote

Updated 19 July 2016, 13:00 AEST

After more than two years of civil disobedience, court battles and an anti-corruption investigation PNG’s Parliament will hold a vote of no confidence that the Government has sought to avoid for more than six months.

Papua New Guineans will find out this week if protests, civil disobedience, court battles and an anti-corruption investigation will bring down their Prime Minister.

Peter O’Neill has been fighting for his political life since police shot protesting students at the University of Papua New Guinea on June 8.

The students had been boycotting classes, demanding the Prime Minister resign and allow anti-corruption police to question him over official corruption charges which date back to June 2014.

As Foreign Correspondent reports, the boycott was the sole high-profile protest police had not been able to shut down — until they opened fire on a march to Parliament, wounding eight people and causing dozens more to be injured by tear gas or in the resulting stampede.

aSince the boycott, pilots and maritime workers have staged their own protests, calling in sick en masse in an act of civil disobedience.

Thousands of people were stranded around the country when pilot absences grounded domestic and international flights.

The PNG Opposition won a court battle to recall Parliament — adjourned the day of the shooting — for a vote of no confidence the Government had been trying to avoid since October 2015.

The Supreme Court — in an extraordinary ruling on July 12 — ordered Parliament to return and demanded the vote to take place.

PNG’s 111 MPs will vote this Friday, with the Opposition needing 56 votes to topple the Prime Minister.

Mr O’Neill must convince the broad governing coalition that he can hold the country together until the general elections next year.

Some Government MPs have already left, saying they fear unrest will spread if the Prime Minister does not resign.

But the majority have flown out of Port Moresby with the Prime Minister for a week in the provincial capital of Alotau, to avoid the influence of the emboldened Opposition.

‘It’s not been an easy decision’

The allegations against Mr O’Neill have been a source of controversy since anti-corruption police first obtained an arrest warrant for the Prime Minister in June 2014.

They alleged Mr O’Neill had signed a letter authorising a $30-million payment to Paraka Lawyers, the firm at the centre of a long-running scandal over fraudulent legal bills charged to the PNG Government.

Mr O’Neill created the anti-corruption agency — Taskforce Sweep — that later sought his arrest and he authorised it to investigate the payments to Paraka Lawyers.

But the chairman of the taskforce, Sam Koim, said that should not protect him from scrutiny.

“It’s not been an easy decision, we’ve laboured over this decision for quite some time,” he told Foreign Correspondent.

“He provided resources … but you see we don’t investigate individuals, we objectively investigate crime and crime leads us to people.

“So when we investigate crime and an individual … is implicated then we are left with no option but to take those actions.”

Mr O’Neill has long denied the allegations — saying they were politically motivated — and has fought them in a number of complicated legal proceedings.

He also sacked the Police Commissioner and Attorney-General and tried to disband Taskforce Sweep, but that was overturned in court.

I am entitled also to exercise my rights: PM

Mr O’Neill explained why he was fighting the arrest warrant in a formal response to the students on May 23, saying the police pursuit of him “does not make any sense at all”.

“The questions that need to be asked are: Why am I and others being charged, when Paul Paraka Lawyers have not been prosecuted by the police to establish that there was fraud?” Mr O’Neill wrote.

“Is this the logical thing to do or is there another ulterior motive behind this?

“I have challenged the Warrant of Arrest in the court as there has been a clear miscarriage in the administration of law.

“As a citizen, I am entitled also to exercise my rights as provided for by the constitution.

“In addition I have a duty to protect the Office of the Prime Minister and if I do not, what will stop it from happening to future governments?”

But the protesting students and some civil society groups say the way Mr O’Neill has fought the allegations, and the suppression of public protest about it, is undermining trust in PNG’s institutions.

“It’s the undermining of those systems and it’s the infiltrating of the independent institutions, that is one of the most dangerous things that has happened,” Mr Koim said.

“All of these check and balances are like the release valves that we have.

“When you suppress all of that and when you tamper with all of that what you are doing is you are brewing up popular discontentment, which is a recipe for revolution.”

Students in shock

After the shooting, the UPNG students were scared and shocked, but also passionately resolute and convinced of the righteousness of their protest.

“It’s a total fight against corruption, nothing more, nothing less,” one of the UPNG student leaders, Christopher Kipalan, said.

Mr O’Neill and his supporters said the students were incited to protest and blamed the Opposition for politicising matters before the courts.

“This protest and the factors that led to the incident today have been driven by people who are not students,” the Prime Minister said in a statement issued several hours after the shooting.

“The people behind these protests have political agendas.

“Members of the Opposition have been engaging with students, and have been encouraging them to pursue Opposition demands in relation to DSIP funds (government funding for local projects) for Opposition members and calling on me to step aside.

“Opposition members even made claims in the national Parliament that students were killed when they knew this was false.

“The blood of the injured students is on the hands of those members and their supporters.”

The students vehemently denied being influenced.

Student Representative Council president Kenneth Rapa said the boycott was triggered by a growing anger at how Mr O’Neill responded to the corruption allegations.

“What the Government is saying is an insult to the intellectual generation of this country,” he said.

“He’s saying that you don’t know anything about this economy and the rule of law, you are being pushed around, that’s what the Government is saying.

“We are not being pushed by anybody or dictated by anybody, we are doing it because of the knowledge that we have.

“We know, we understand, that’s why we are in the university.”

In particular, students identified the closure in April of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate — the police division trying to arrest Mr O’Neill — as the final straw.

“Some students come from poor backgrounds and we believe as long as the rule of law functions … we will have a chance in making it in life in this country,” Mr Rapa said.

“We will have a chance in becoming someone as long as the law protects us, but if the law of the land is being manipulated, then people in power will use the law for themselves and unprivileged and ordinary citizens of this country will suffer.

“So that’s why the students believed that we had to be the protector of the law.”

The boycott spread to PNG’s other state-run universities, the University of Technology in Lae and the University of Goroka.

But there were disagreements and violent clashes between students in both universities, leading many students to abandon the campuses and return home.

In Lae, first-year Unitech student Graham Romanong was killed.

Three students have been charged over his death.

In Port Moresby, the UPNG administration eventually decided to abandon the academic year, saying the campus was no longer safe.

Most students have returned home, although some remain stranded in Port Moresby, waiting for funding so they can fly back.

Watch Eric Tlozek’s exclusive report on the student shootings, A Bloody Boycott, at 9:20pm on ABC.

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