PAPUA NEW GUINEA IS A COUNTRY AT WAR. But it is not at war with another country. It is a war with itself.
Internecine clan warfare has been going on for thousands of years and it still persists today, albeit sometimes in a toned down and more subtle way.
In many parts of the country conflict is still the natural state of affairs.
In many of Papua New Guinean societies the cult of the warrior is still extremely pervasive.
And I don’t mean a warrior in the romantic Homeric sense that many of them like to be portrayed. I mean it in the dumb and brutal sense described by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes.
In the wider world it is the sort of primitive impulse that propelled Bush, Cheney, Blair and Howard into their pointless middle-eastern wars.
These people, like the bigmen of Papua New Guinea, are the sort who can turn brutality into a virtue. During warfare pillage, torture and rape are openly condoned as legitimate weapons to use on the enemy.
In Papua New Guinea many young men are still trained in the nuances of war, including the pragmatic aspects of killing and the magical ethos in which much of it takes place.
Violence is essential for the preservation of clan lands and clan reputations. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is inculcated into young men and perpetuated as they progress through manhood to the higher echelons of the respected elders.
To a Papua New Guinean warrior the pain and suffering that he might inflict on people outside his clan is immaterial to the greater cause of clan solidarity.
The only lull in this state of affairs came with Pax Australiana when the rule of law was introduced. During this period the educated elite and intelligent people in the country discovered the many advantageous of a peaceful existence.
With the deterioration of law and order since independence and the return to the old warlike ways this elite and intelligentsia now find themselves like children crying in the wilderness. They wonder how their government could have let them down so badly.
In some areas, such as the Southern Highlands and Hela, the lull in hostilities only lasted for 40-60 years and is within the living memory of some elders. The return to clan-based anarchy and enmity has almost been natural.
In areas where clans are still engaged in simple subsistence farming its members are very much concerned to retain land. With increasing population pressures they are also keen to expand their borders as much as possible.
In these places land is still being acquired by conquest and compensation. Anything that impinges on this process, like a large resource development, is first and foremost considered a threat. It is as if another clan from over the hill has come down looking for a fight and the spoils that go with it.
And in Papua New Guinea when rights and entitlements look like being threatened the natural response is aggression.
Communities in Papua New Guinea are mostly small and insular. Beyond the immediate community everyone is an enemy. The sense of a larger community spirit that you might see in countries like Australia and America is hard to find in Papua New Guinea. When you go into rural Papua New Guinea you are, to all intents and purposes, entering a war zone.
This is something that many people like resource developers don’t seem to appreciate. When it comes to land your simple subsistence farmer is no pushover. They can become extremely difficult people to deal with and they are prepared to trample over other people’s rights to protect their patch and get what they want. To steal from another clan or trick them out of something that is legitimately theirs is a coup, not a crime.
This view of Papua New Guinea in a natural state of warfare is one that I’ve harboured for a long time but it is certainly not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination.
It belongs to a lot of people, including some well-known writers and commentators on PNG Attitude who are much smarter than me and have much longer experience in Papua New Guinea.
They would maintain that it is an unpalatable truth for most thinking Papua New Guineans and is best kept to oneself and under the radar. It is something that you might warn a friend, or someone you think needs to know, about and then deny having ever said it later on.
In the land of the unexpected some of those surprises are not nice at all.