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Unrest in the highlands exposes deep political divisions

Enga fightersJOHNNY BLADES | Dateline Pacific | Radio New Zealand

WELLINGTON - Last week's court ruling upholding Southern Highlands governor William Powi's 2017 election win sparked the rampage by supporters of a losing candidate who had challenged the result.

As part of the ensuing state of emergency provisions, Papua New Guinea’s government has ordered the deployment of armed forces to restore order and has suspended the provincial government.

However, subsequently supporters of the suspended government and Mr Powi have been mobilising around the province with high-powered weapons, threatening violence.

While Mendi had quietened down by Monday, Mendi police commander Gideon Kauke said the potential for unrest remained acute.

"This is not a normal law and order situation. It is political differences and politically manipulated issues that are causing all the destructions," he said.

Earlier, prime minister Peter O'Neill said those behind last week's destruction would be arrested and prosecuted. But Commander Kauke said police hadn't made arrests yet because the situation was highly charged.

"We will not immediately take action, but we will try and form a team of investigators, and they will look into this one," Kauke said.

"Those who are responsible in causing destructions and the burning down of buildings, they'll be investigated, arrested and charged."

A former top policeman, Thomas Eluh, has been placed in charge of the nine-month emergency operations.

Eluh was appointed as acting provincial administrator in Southern Highlands late last year as the national government sought to restore order to a dysfunctional public service amid lingering lawlessness and election-related violence.

He continued in the role through February's magnitude 7.5 earthquake which caused widespread destruction and death in both Southern Highlands and Hela provinces.

However Eluh, from Manus, was seen as having disrupted the interests of some Southern Highlands political power brokers and was sidelined in April.

Well aware of the type of political ructions linked to the latest unrest in Mendi, Eluh said he still had strong support on the ground in the province and would be available to listen to grievances. But he cautioned he would not play politics.

"There are a few factions here and there, particularly aligned to certain politicians," he said, "and of course the current acting administrator (Joseph Cajetan) would want to maybe protest or do these sort of things. But we will not allow it because of the state of emergency."

Eluh said his approach would include encouraging talks between the opposing political factions. Rather than using brute force, he said bringing the community onside was one of the first things he would be doing.

"It's not a police issue alone. This needs a collective effort from everybody," he explained.

"I've done that before, during my time as an administrator, for the first time. I was given military and the police to - in a way - use force. But that's not how I operate. How I operate is getting everyone onside: churches, youths, leaders at all levels."

Eluh admitted that it would be difficult to placate the mobs involved in political violence.

"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."

O'Neill held a press conference with other elected leaders from Southern Highlands province in Port Moresby on Monday.

"We want to apologise to PNG for some of the events that has taken place, mainly out of frustration that they have not been given the opportunity to engage in the court proceedings which resulted in a decision that they were not accepting," he said.

O'Neill alluded to the rampage as being the actions of a "few individuals", and said the leaders had agreed that the rule of law must be followed.

Dash 8 torched at MendiAlongside O'Neill at the press conference was the losing candidate whose supporters were behind Thursday's rampage, Joseph Kobol, as well as Powi whose election Kobol has alleged was the result of a rigged electoral process.

Kobol apologised for what his supporters had done. He admitted the destruction of an Air Niugini Dash-8 aircraft was uncalled for, saying he was willing to let the election challenge be handled by the court system.

"The state of emergency that's been in place during the (earthquake) disaster will be extended, and now it will take carriage over all the other law and order issues in the country as well," the prime minister added.

"They will conduct their own investigations without any political interference whatsoever from the leaders and we will allow the agencies of government including police and defence and the courts to deal with some of the law and order issues in the province."

However PNG's parliamentary opposition has demanded that the prime minister, who is a Southern Highlands MP, resign over the unrest, describing it as an indication that  the people of the province had rejected his leadership

The opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch said elected leaders of the province must go to Southern Highlands to resolve the situation

"We need to have Southern Highlands getting down to Mendi and getting the leadership there to resolve the issue," Pruaitch said.

According to Pruaitch, the unrest was bad publicity for PNG particularly as it prepared to host the APEC leaders’ summit in November.

Meanwhile, there are fears that the Southern Highlands' unrest could spread to neighbouring Hela Province, itself recently hampered by deadly tribal fighting.

At the weekend a police mobile squad team was held up and had its vehicles and guns taken by angry supporters of the suspended provincial government in Nipa near the provincial border.

The build-up of weapons among tribal and political groups in the Highlands is of particular concern. A former PNG Defence Force commander, Jerry Singirok, has warned that police and military deployed to the region to quell the latest unrest could face superior firepower.


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Chris Overland

The ABC is now reporting that 440 PNGDF members have been deployed to Mendi. This represents 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.

Philip Fitzpatrick

According to the Post Courier the National and the District Court facilities, and equipment that were destroyed by fire in last Thursday’s riot in Mendi cost more than K4 million.

The National Judicial Staff Services Secretary Jack Kariko and Acting Registrar for the Supreme and National Courts Samuel Ikiso revealed this yesterday in a media statement as they joined the nation to condemn the “unlawful” and “criminal ”destruction”.

“The District Court building is new and built by AusAID at a cost of about K3 million in 2011 and the National Court which was the previous District Court building was upgraded by the Judiciary at a cost of K500,000 and a further K600,000 spent upgrading the equipment and supplies,” they said, adding that the judiciary was saddened to experience its worst and first ever loss of facilities they have toiled long and hard to build since 2010.

They said such cowardly actions of a shameless few that have targeted harmless and defenseless service providers do not represent the way of life of the vast majority of the law-abiding people of Southern Highlands Province and that those responsible must be brought to justice soon.

Mr Kariko and Mr Ikiso said that the judiciary was concerned about the need to maintain rule of law in the province at all times and was holding talks with the its partner law and justice agencies to continue court operations in the province while it plans to rebuild facilities in Mendi in the near future.

They said the judiciary is considering operating from temporary bases out of Ialibu and Pangia where the District Court is based and would hold discussions with the Magisterial Services to upgrade those facilities if needed to accommodate the National Court.

The destruction of assets provided by Australia must be of concern to the Australian government. Why haven't they mentioned this?

Martinez Wasuak

I wonder how and when those high powered weapons were made available to men believed to be not trained in using it.

I'm afraid such situation might escalate into another much more advance Bougainville conflict.

Those weapons probably made available to them by some good educated comrade who are so selfish without foresee what lasting impact it might have to most innocent citizen.

There might be push factor all added up and it all comes back to an educated individuality or so called wana be leaders.

It is now or never for an individual to make a change or we'll see our beloved country suffer more. We are living in a perilous time?

God Bless my country.

Chris Overland

The picture of armed men attached to Jonny Blades' article is more revealing than it may seem to those who understand little about guns.

Of the men visible in the picture, at least three (possibly four) appear to be holding Armalite AR-15 assault rifles. Two others are holding what appear to be pump action shot guns.

The AR-15 is a weapon much beloved of the US National Rifle Association.

It is also the weapon of choice for the so-called "preppers" (those who believe Armageddon is imminent and so are busily preparing for that event) and, of course, those who intend to kill as many school children as possible before being arrested or gunned down themselves.

In the hands of a competent infantry soldier, an AR-15 can do very serious harm at ranges up to 300 metres. A carefully aimed shot at a range of less than 100 metres will often be fatal.

This is why Jerry Singarok thinks that the PNGDF and Police may be outgunned in the Southern Highlands. I think that he is right.

Patrol Officers were sometimes obliged to interpose themselves and their police between warring tribesmen in an effort to stop tribal fighting.

This was an daunting and risky task: an old fashioned arrow could certainly kill you and even a comparatively minor wound could be exceedingly unpleasant.

The thought of trying to get between warring tribesmen carrying AR-15 rifles or shotguns makes me shudder. Basically, it would be suicidally dangerous to do so. It would take only one over excited idiot to open fire and all hell would break loose.

I do wonder not only where these rifles have come from but why the RPNGC has actually allowed people to hang on to them.

None of the weapon holders is likely to be well trained in their use, nor have the self discipline required to not start shooting if placed in a very high stress situation such as a confrontation with an "enemy" force.

Basically, the mere existence of such weapons exponentially increases the odds of something really bad happening.

That said, I think that it is now far too late to even hope that these weapons might be surrendered, so a new and much more difficult risk must now be factored into the already complex equation in the Southern Highlands (and elsewhere I presume).

Good luck to those who have to collectively guide this situation to a successful and peaceful conclusion.

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