THE right to peaceful protest is fundamental to any liberal democracy. Governments who fear their people and respond to demonstrations with unreasonable force are rightly condemned.
For police with automatic weapons to have shot unarmed university students – as happened in Papua New Guinea capital of Port Moresby on Wednesday – speaks volumes of the fragility in Australia's closest neighbour. There is simply no justification for this violent crackdown.
Students across PNG have engaged in a five-week boycott of their classes in an attempt to pressure Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to step aside. For two years, Mr O'Neill has prevaricated in the face of an investigation into long-standing claims of corruption.
When investigators issued an arrest warrant in 2014 to question him about millions of dollars in fraudulent payments, Mr O'Neill made sure the anti-corruption task force was disbanded, sacked the attorney-general and installed a new police chief.
When the PNG Supreme Court allowed the investigation to resume in April, the investigators found themselves again suspended.
The corruption claims levelled against the prime minister are fuelling a wider national malaise. The PNG economy is crumbling and debt is mounting after an expected boon from natural gas deposits was cut by falling global commodity prices.
Public servants have gone without pay and severe budget cuts have followed in critical sectors, such as health and education. Foreign currency is also in short supply, raising fears about imports.
On Wednesday, the tensions boiled over after students from the University of Papua New Guinea attempted to march to Parliament in support of a no-confidence motion against the O'Neill government. Police blocked their path, shooting into the crowd with bullets and tear gas. More than a dozen people were wounded – at least three critically.
Parliament was also adjourned early before the no-confidence motion could be heard. The next sitting is not until August, effectively triggering a constitutional ban on no-confidence motions, which cannot be tabled within 12 months of an election, and PNG is expected to go to the polls in July 2017.
With the police compromised and the Parliament hobbled, frustration about Mr O'Neill's belligerence has mounted. He has blamed the students and "agitators" for provoking a police response, but also conceded the event "could have been handled better". An independent and transparent investigation is urgently needed to establish what led to this outrage.
Australia offered to help. About 70 Australian Federal Police officers are already serving in PNG in mentoring roles. Mr O'Neill immediately rebuffed the offer, calling it an "internal matter". This was missed opportunity.
There is understandable sensitivity within PNG about any Australian interference, given the colonial history. But if Mr O'Neill is so sure of the police conduct, an independent inquiry would have bolstered confidence in the community.
The Turnbull government should also be more vocal in the demanding Mr O'Neill respect of the right of students to protest. Australia provides more than $550 million each year to PNG in foreign aid, but the relationship has been deeply compromised by the Manus Island detention camp.
Relying on PNG to process asylum seekers has seen Australia lose influence over the priorities for aid, and generally cowed Australia's voice about governance challenges in the country.
Instead of attempting to keep the Manus Island camp operation, Australia should not be foisting its responsibilities onto the neighbours. PNG clearly has enough problems of its own.