THIS week’s police shooting of students at the University of Papua New Guinea campus are a sign that an authoritarianism and tyrannical reign is well and truly upon us.
This should concern every law-abiding and peace-loving citizen of PNG at home or abroad.
Of course this is not the first time that the police have been involved in confrontations with protesting students which have resulted in casualties.
In 2001, tensions between police and students protesting against the privatisation of state assets and a land mobilisation program administered by the then Morauta government resulted in three student fatalities.
The socio-political climate in which the current tensions have been brewing is in stark contrast to 2001 though.
Firstly, there is a strong atmosphere of nationalist sentiment and yearning among university students and other patriotic Papua New Guineans.
These people seek a national narrative of unity, democratic justice and self-government that has not reached such fervent heights since the pre-independence years. Such feelings have been fuelled in part by the social media.
My analysis of anecdotal and media sources indicates that, nationwide, Papua New Guineans are awakening to a realisation of a rampant government and are voicing their views and expectations of how they believe they should be governed.
What happens in Waigani can no longer transpire without invoking the ire of the rest of PNG since Papua New Guineans are perceiving the direct correlation between corruption, unaccountable leadership and deteriorating moral and socio-economic standards.
The common theme transcending regional, ethnic and linguistic boundaries is a deep and unsettling understanding that something is definitely not right with the current leadership.
Politically, PNG is now seeing a leadership of unprecedented tyrannical proportions, more akin to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Banimarama’s Fiji. What appears on the surface to be a stable government is but a smokescreen for the rot that is festering within.
The parallels with Zimbabwe and Fiji are based on an emerging culture of impunity that the current prime minister has cultivated and is propagating through his defiance of the law.
Apart from the serious allegations against him, Peter O’Neill’s actions to marginalise the judiciary and the legislature, and dissolve or usurp power from processes that exist to hold the executive accountable, are serious and aggressive purges against democracy and should not go unnoticed or unpunished.
I commend the university students on the staunch stance they have taken, since there now seems nothing left to hold the leadership accountable.
Throughout history, the ability and proficiency of students in mobilising and advocating contemporary issues in their societies has been a prominent feature in many countries.
A powerful example of student mobilisation was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip who was a student in his last year of high school.
The assassination sparked World War I and his action was dubbed as “the shot that reverberated around the world” because of the subsequent horrors of the war that ensued. Ultimately a Yugoslavian nation-state was created, so Princip’s ethno-nationalist goals were achieved, but at a great cost.
The ability of students to mobilise for a cause makes them a convenient and perfect vehicle through which important social and national movements can be driven.
In PNG, the university student’s hard line stance against the emerging culture of impunity cultivated by our current government remains unshaken.
The casualties of today, I would argue, are a case of martyrdom of peaceful warriors of democracy.
The adaptability and efficiency of the students’ mobilisation on behalf of the silent majority has become a cultural arbiter in PNG.
Hence, right or wrong, this social movement for change has taken on a significant role in maintaining and enriching our young democracy.
This day in our history – 8 June 2016 - with at least 30 students injured and hospitalised while carrying out peaceful protest – should be remembered not because of the casualties alone but because of the political context and the beliefs and ideas they stand for and have been fighting for.
It is a different political landscape from the 1960s when PNG was pushing for independence from the Australian colonial administration.
Now the people face oppression from an internal oppressor and this is where more parallels can be drawn between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Bainimarama’s Fiji. O’Neill is like a rat backed into a corner with nowhere to go – and what do all rats do in similar circumstances?
A historical analysis provides three scenarios of what may happen, which I posit here.
The first is what is currently happening with the rat continuing to fight with Machiavellian wit and techniques to maintain his power because to submit to the rule of law would certainly entail a period of incarceration or some other justifiable punishment.
The implication of this is that our democracy is being warped into an authoritarian state as the fight progresses.
A second scenario is seen in the case of “the shot that reverberated around the world” and is an example of the extreme measures that can be taken when the oppressed are pushed to the limits of their tolerance of the government’s apparent impunity. Violence and chaos ensue.
The third scenario is the option of compromise that I propose here, which is that of a self-imposed political excommunication. If O’Neill cannot reconcile his reasons for clinging onto power then one non-violent option he should consider is exilium.
In the ancient Roman republic this was a voluntary act of self-banishment from one’s community in order to avoid the legal penalties of one’s transgressions.
The current prime minister should seriously consider this option to avoid any further rot of the integrity of our democracy as well as anymore unnecessary casualties and further loss of life.
He should choose a country whose regime matches his own political and ethical values – say Zimbabwe or Fiji – and ask for political asylum. Who knows, the people of PNG might be willing to meet the cost of his repatriation there.
Gregory Bablis is studying for a master’s degree at the College of Asia Pacific in the Australian National University. He is also vice president of the PNG Canberra Students Association in the Australian Capital Territory.
Disclaimer: The ideas discussed in this article reflect those of the author and not of any of the organisations he is associated with.