THE ongoing student unrests at our universities – especially University of Goroka, Unitech and UPNG – took on a new dynamic with as yet unknown elements resorting to arson as a means of venting their anger.
I do not wish to speculate here whether or not students were responsible or if external elements were involved, suffice to say that media have been reporting a mixture of both.
The absurdity of all this is that Peter O’Neil has remained oblivious to the reasons for this current state of affairs and has continued to bounce off an outpouring of calls from all levels of society for his resignation.
Obviously, he did not force people to burn down buildings and vehicles at the different universities but his stubbornness in not heeding these calls and continuing his propagation of a culture of impunity has created a void within which immorality, criminality and opportunistic behaviour has been allowed to proliferate.
The nature of student unrest and national movements against governments toes a very fine line between the ‘right’ side of the law and the ‘wrong’ side of the law because very often the law is manipulated, controlled and enforced by those in power.
This has been apparent in PNG under the current leadership and it did not take very much for the issues to be transformed into, and concurrently portrayed as, ethnic or political.
I believe this is not necessarily the case and is just a convenience to divert the people’s attention from the real issue at hand, which is a defective leadership.
In fact, in most other vibrant democracies, these events would logically point to defective leadership and implicated leaders would have already stepped down.
Plans by the current government for a commission of inquiry are also signs of a diversion and the people of PNG are already wise to this ploy.
What should be noted with alarm are reports that the government has imposed a curfew at universities and that the PNG Defence Force will be called in to assist the police to maintain the situation.
No matter how well-intentioned, this kind of arrangement is a precursor to an authoritarian type of rule and should be scrutinised carefully.
A major casualty in the ongoing unrest at UPNG has been the Book Nook, the business and brand name given to the PNG-Pacific collection of books collected and kept for sale by the UPNG Press & Bookshop, the only stock-holding bookshop in PNG and operating in the niche area of PNG and Pacific books.
With the expansion of this unique collection of books, mainly through the efforts and expertise of general manager Dr John Evans, a new space was created directly under the old bookshop at Gunther Building, the main UPNG administrative block.
The collection was moved there in 2012. However, in late 2013, the UPNG administration had the collection moved to the old Printery Building, adjacent to the Security Base. The building was burned down on Friday 24 June between 4m and 6 am. The PNG-Pacific collection is now just a pile of ashes.
While the most recent valuation of the collection in 2015 by a US bookseller was K715,000, I would argue that this unique collection was priceless as a cultural and historical heritage that marketed PNG to the rest of the world through the sales of books on PNG history, biology, law, anthropology, literature, linguistics, medicine, poetry, agriculture, culture, prehistory and other aspects of PNG society.
The monetary value simply would not do justice to the value of the books that have been burned along with the building in which they were housed.
While much has been published about PNG, the bulk of this has been done outside the country and, over the years, the bookshop has built its international credibility and capacity to import these books into the country and to print and publish books itself.
Indeed some of the books that have been lost were scarce and it will take many more years to replenish their number. Some notable original Press & Bookshop titles and prints lost in the fire include Sana: An Autobiography of Michael Somare, Arise, Sir Thomas! The Autobiography of Sir Thomas Ritako, Ebia Olewale: A Life of Service, and Nameless Warriors: The Ben Moide Story.
Dr Evans has assured, though, that all Press & Bookshop titles can be reprinted as Sterling Press in New Delhi and Masalai Press in California have electronic copies of all its titles.
Other titles will have to be reordered and imported from all over the world. However, the loss of original books is lamentable and the way in which they were lost should be condemned.
Over the years, many international and national academics and others have commended Dr Evans and his staff for the improvements to the Book Nook.
Last year, a former professor at ANUs College of Asia and Pacific commented:
“I've been meaning since my last visit in 2014 to write to congratulate you and the staff on the UPNG bookshop, which has improved so much in your time there.
“As you said on the national book day, bookshops are essential in PNG and the UPNG bookshop has developed well beyond its low point of only selling a few course readers.
“The lowest ebb was when the shop was privatised and the valuable stock of real treasures virtually given away. Now there is a wide range of course-oriented books, others in wider topics, and the incredibly valuable recycling of books from earlier decades.
“Very few books are written about PNG these days, and serious students (and academics) need to get hold of what they can, especially since the Somare Library at UPNG is so run down. The essential materials for PNG studies are simply not available on-line.
“And then there's the involvement with in-country publishing, which is essential for any academic community and helps local academics get recognition. I have travelled widely in PNG and there is no serious book seller in PNG, and no private business would provide the essential service your team provide.”
A Fellow at the State, Society and Governance Program at ANUs College of Asia and Pacific made this comment also in 2015:
“As a regular UPNG bookshop customer from 1981, and a former UPNG staff member (till 1996), I recently visited the bookshop for the first time in about five years.
“I was deeply impressed five years ago at the remarkable ‘rebirth’, development and expansion of the bookshop. But in those five years, the improvement and expansion of the bookshop has only continued and improved. And this at a time when all the other serious bookshops that once used to operate in PNG have all but ceased to exist.
“I was particularly struck by three main things about the bookshop. The first concerned the material available in relation to the disciplines taught at UPNG. Even at its best in the early 1980s, the bookshop tended to have mainly a few standard texts available in relation to each discipline. Now, in addition to those, there is an eclectic range of material into which students – and staff – can dip. This is an unparalleled resource, and one that is particularly valuable when the Michael Somare Library’s ability to renew and expand its resources is so constrained.
“Second, in relation to PNG and the wider Pacific, the stock available in the bookshop is remarkable. It far exceeds the range available in any bookshop I know in Australia (and as an avid reader and sometime collector of such volumes, I am regularly surveying what is available in Australia (as well as other countries, where, again, there is nothing comparable that I am aware of).
“To have this array of material available in PNG is an astounding achievement, and not one that was ever even attempted when the bookshop was at its best in the 1980s. Further, I know of no university bookshop in Australia that has the range of books I found in the UPNG Bookshop the week before last.
“The third thing was that the staff of the bookshop were very knowledgeable, helpful and efficient. They helped me locate the many things I was interested to look at, and advised me with interest and enthusiasm. To build the teamwork and effectiveness of the staff must have taken years of enthusiastic attention from management. This alone is an unusual and invaluable resource, and one that really should be recognised, encouraged and protected by the university.
“I have no doubt, however, that UPNG academic management recognise that fact, for it is to be congratulated on foresight it has clearly exhibited in supporting the development and operation of such an amazing bookshop. No doubt UPNG academic management support for the bookshop has enabled it to be developed by Bookshop management to a point of extraordinary achievements. The contribution that the resource this Bookshop is making to scholarship and to education is, in my considered view, incalculable.”
The Book Nook has been another unnecessary casualty in the ongoing battle to save our democracy from becoming a demo-crazy!
Gregory Bablis is a master’s degree student in the College of Asia Pacific at the ANU and vice president of the PNG Canberra Students Association.