China wants to align Belt & Road with PNG development
Death of Leo Hannett - a Bougainville leader of the middle way

Uneasy calm returns to highlands as O'Neill sends in the troops

Landowners set fire to LNG assets
Huts and equipment torched at the LNG project - the damage is being assessed and at last report it wasn't certain when operations would recommence


NOOSA – Last week turned out to be one of those only too frequent turbulent periods in Papua New Guinea when you never know what’s going to happen and, for long periods, who might be in charge.

The week ended with the deployment of half the PNG Defence Force's ground troops to the region as the government seemed to have decided to crush for once and for all a well armed if disorganised blend of angry landowners, disaffected tribes and criminal elements (see below).

First angry supporters of losing candidates in last year's contentious national elections set alight an Air Niugini aircraft and burned down court buildings and the governor’s residence in the Southern Highlands capital of Mendi.

The entire nation watched attentively as for some days prime minister Peter O’Neill seemed to be reluctant to visit his troubled home area and use his authority to placate people whose aggression had reached boilover. Fortunately in this incident there were no deaths recorded and just a few injuries.

O’Neill eventually flew to Mendi, touching fingers with some of his people through the mesh of a safety fence before flying out to Beijing where the action was more benign but could ultimately turn out to be just as precarious for a stable south Pacific.

Then more violence erupted in neighbouring Hela Province where landowners protesting about the non-payment of gas royalties by the PNG government set fire to equipment and blockading and airstrip and roads leading to the major resource project operated by ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil said heavy equipment has been damaged at its Angore gas pipeline construction project and the impact of the equipment damage on the project's schedule of work was being assessed.

The noted commentator Martyn Namorong wrote: “While PNG's prime minister is wined and dined in Beijing, landowners destroy ExxonMobil's PNG LNG assets in Hela Province. Shows how out of touch the ruling class are.”

By now the PNG government had declared a state of emergency and begun to deploy the first of 440 Papua New Guinea Defence Force troops to the distressed region.

This is a huge number of troops for a PNG operation and is reminiscent of the then government's response to the Bougainville crisis of the 1990s when PNG soldiers were overcome by guerrilla and irregular forces of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and forced into a humiliating and costly retreat. (See also Chris Overland's comment at the end of this article.)

Their commander, Brigadier-General Gilbert Toropo, was confident his soldiers would restore the rule of law. "We will only use minimum force to contain the situation," he said.

Meanwhile deputy prime minister Charles Abel tried to reassure landowners saying the government was working to release royalties from the LNG project but court disputes were holding up the release of funds.

But landowners have heard too many excuses in the past and this one was unlikely to provide much comfort.

Young men in Tari (Johnny Blades)
Tari is a dangerous town these days - bushknives the weapons of choice

By yesterday Mendi police commander Chief Inspector Gideon Kauke was able to say the town was operating normally with a 6am-6pm [sic] curfew in place.

 “Police are working around the clock to collect the names of criminals who were involved in burning down of Link PNG DHC-8 plane and the buildings,” Kauke said.

In Tari, tribal hostilities were also reported to have quietened down. Tari had been the focal point for deadly tribal fighting with about 20 people reported killed since March in and around the town.

But the police commander there, Thomas Levongo, said there was no guarantee fighting would not break out again.

"You know Tari, expect the unexpected. So now at the moment it's quiet but I don't know, anything could happen any time."

Chris Overland comments:

The 440 PNGDF members deployed to Mendi represent a full battalion of troops or about 50% of all PNGDF land forces.

This is, on the face of it, an extraordinary response by the government. Presumably, there is little confidence that the RPNGC can handle the situation, possibly because it is out gunned in this case.

Moving such a large number of troops into the area is fraught with risk. While their rules of engagement aim to minimise the risk of conflict, it will only take one idiot on either side to open fire to ignite a conflagration.

Let us hope that the leadership on each side is wise enough and strong enough to prevent this.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Here's a question for you Daniel.

Why are highlanders so violent?

And why do they seem to enjoy being violent?

It's something that I've wondered about for the last fifty years or so.

Internecine warfare was once widespread throughout Papua New Guinea but coastal and lowland people have long abandoned the practice.

Why haven't the highlanders?

Is it because they are such a conservative society? Conservative governments are notorious for taking their people to war. Is that what's going on?

The wars of the conservatives are usually about economic gain.

What sort of gain do highlanders expect from their little wars?

Daniel Kumbon

Clearly the government of Papua New Guinea is not in control of the escalating law and order problems in the country.

Shocking news has just reached Wabag that a young teaching couple, their two children and relatives were massacred at a road block as they were travelling home to Kompiam for the term break.

Soldiers from Moem Barracks deployed to Wabag to quell a tribal fight between two tribes on the fringes of town were sent to Kompiam to retrieve the bodies and find those missing.

The names of the family and relatives killed were Sir Tei Secondary School teacher John Pyapenge, his brother Dalu Pyapenge and Luke Pano.

His wife Faith Pyapenge who is also a high school teacher is in the Intensive Care Unit. Their infant son and Faith’s mother are still missing as well as other relatives who were travelling with them.

Reports say the Pyapenge brothers were from a different tribe and not from two other tribes from Kompiam engaged in a prolonged tribal warfare involving high powered guns.

There are also on-going tribal wars involving guns in Laiagam and Porgera.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Strange curfew: “By yesterday Mendi police commander Chief Inspector Gideon Kauke was able to say the town was operating normally with a 6am-6pm curfew in place.” Perhaps he means 6pm-6am. Either way, it’s not normal to have a curfew as he claims.

Francis Nii

The presence of high powered guns in the region poses a threat to any peace initiative.

Guns must be controlled before talking about peace.

The state of emergency and the deployment of troops are to quieten down the hostility only. When the SOE is over and the troops have returned, can the people change from their hostile behavior and live a normal live?

This is anybody's guess.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)