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Barely coping highlands people struggle for services & peace

JOHNNY BLADES | Dateline Pacific | Radio New Zealand 

Johnny Blades

WELLINGTON - Political and tribal violence in Papua New Guinea's Highlands is compounding the struggles in a region devastated by a major earthquake nearly four months ago.

The two provinces worst hit by February's 7.5 magnitude quake - Hela and Southern Highlands - have been thrown into further disorder recently by violent unrest.

In Hela, frustrated landowners have attacked the major LNG gas project, while in the Southern Highlands, disputes related to last year's election have reignited in shocking fashion.

PNG's government declared a state of emergency in Southern Highlands after supporters of a losing candidate in the regional election went on a rampage in Mendi.

When a court ruling upheld the election result, a mob destroyed a commercial aircraft and set fire to the local courthouse, the provincial governor's residence and other buildings.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill went to Mendi earlier in the week and called on people to respect the court decision and the rules of the state of emergency which includes deployment of extra police and soldiers to the region.

The man tasked with overseeing the nine-month state of emergency, Thomas Eluh, admits political divisions in the province run deep:

"The province is ever divided. People have taken sides, and it's extremely difficult to try and convince them. But what I have been banking on is consistent awareness and dialogue with the people. I hope this time we can be able to convince, particularly the ringleaders, that this is not the right approach. The right approach is that there are courts there and things there to sort out whatever differences they have."

Komo warlord
A Komo warlord claims Tari police assist in smuggling guns into Hela Province

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Hela Province, tensions rose around LNG gas project operations. Landowners frustrated about non-payment of promised project royalties damaged project equipment in Angore.

They also blockaded a main access road and airstrip. A local NGO worker who works on tribal reconciliation and disaster relief James Komengi says the unrest in neighbouring Southern Highlands is having an impact on Hela:

"Yeah the problems up there are actually affecting Hela with movement of people and movement of supplies travelling in, and the free movement of people, and vehicles have been hijacked and people are harassed on the road, and that sort of thing is happening."

The police commander in Hela's capital Tari, Thomas Levongo, says there are a lot of firearms in the province:

"They've got a lot of high-powered guns. Some of the guns they have, I've never seen before. They come from Indonesia, you know, West Papua, and along that border Papua new Guineans, including people in Hela, can go and get the guns."

James Komengi says many families who have lost homes or sustained major damage to their homes are struggling for basic services:

"Nearly all schools are closed. So some parents have had to sell everything they had, and not even bother about rebuilding their homes, but with whatever funds they had they have taken their kids out to better education, so it's really a confusing situation here. And with the ongoing tribal fights, it doesn't give some parents the opportunity to go back and try to rebuild."

Mr Komengi says it's approaching two months since UN aid workers were forced to withdraw from Hela due to the security problems.

He says Hela was barely coping with its own complex set of violence around tribal conflict, election disputes and frustrations over the gas project when the earthquake occurred. According to him it's a double disaster, and the ensuing chaos showing that it's not manageable.


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