Government shaken by PNG student rebellion

June 12, 1991

By Norm Dixon

Large and militant demonstrations by university students, which rapidly gained broad popular support, have forced the PNG government to defer huge pay increases for national and provincial politicians and senior public servants.

The humiliating back-down may not be enough to defuse the crisis. Students leaders are demanding a complete scrapping of the increases, the resignation of the Namaliu government and fresh elections.

Shortly before adjourning on May 22, parliament voted itself pay rises ranging from 17% to 31%. There was no debate. The rises had been recommended by a commission composed of MPs drawn from all sides of parliament. The increases, effective from July 1, boosted a backbench MP's salary from K16,274 to K17,088 (A$23,000). The prime minister's pay rose 22% to K35,472 (almost $48,000).

Parliament also voted itself a range of perks and privileges. An annual entertainment allowance was set at over K40,000 for the prime minister, K12,000 each for the deputy PM and opposition leader and K6000 each for ministers. The PM was also entitled to a new Toyota Crown, as were the deputy PM, the parliamentary speaker, opposition leader and government ministers.

Other items in the package included:

  • a state-owned house or a K600 per week housing allowance for the PM, chief justice, deputy chief justice, deputy PM, the parliamentary speaker and the opposition leader;

  • a state-owned house or a K480 per week housing allowance for ministers, the deputy speaker and deputy opposition leader;

  • a "utility allowance" of between K1200 and K2700 for all parliamentarians and office holders and telephone allowances of between K1200 and K3000.

The widespread anger that erupted shook the government. People saw it as an example of the hypocrisy, irresponsibility and greed of PNG's discredited politicians, in both government and opposition.

The rises came at time of deep recession in the PNG economy. The government had been calling on the country's workforce to make sacrifices for the good of the economy. Wage increases have been blocked. Recent budgets have cut spending on health and education.

Students at the University of PNG boycotted classes and held an angry 1000-strong demonstration on May 24 calling for the rescinding of the rises and the resignation of the government. The demonstration continued and by the end of the next day, 15 government cars and trucks had been burnt. Student leaders began a nationwide campaign of meetings and rallies to win community support. The trade union movement joined the students and threatened to call a general strike. While the politicians' pay rise ignited the anger, deep dissatisfaction with corruption, unemployment and declining urban services fuelled the outrage to a point where one unnamed government source told ABC radio that the government was facing its "gravest crisis" ever.

UPNG students, with the support of the union movement, threatened to organise a mass march on Parliament House. An angry student leader called on the population of PNG to "march to Parliament House, walk inside, take our parliament and proclaim it as PNG's people's government".

The students said they drew their inspiration from the students of Tienanmen Square and South Korea. A student leader from Enga province told ABC reporter Brian Abbott: "The people are suffering. We cannot let people go on suffering. Where are they getting the money from to increase their allowance? I'm crying for my people of Enga and Papua New Guinea. I will die for my people. We want our demands to be met."

On May 28, the student demonstrations spread to PNG's second largest city, Lae. University of Technology students forced the education minister, Utula Samana, from his government car and set it on fire.

Public support for the student's demands continued to grow. The Port Moresby local government called on the parliamentary speaker to scrap the rises, saying that the city was close to "open rebellion".

Adding to the government's woes, the Police Association, the ex-servicemen's association and sections of the rank and file of the armed forces expressed opposition to the pay rises. The government has placed roadblocks around the UPNG campus guarded by riot police armed with automatic weapons.

In the face of this snowballing protest, Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu backed down on May 28 and announced that the pay rises would not take place until after the next national election, due in 1992.

Student leaders met and rejected the deferral, demanding that the pay rises be scrapped altogether. They said that their campaign has gone too far to be called off. Further meetings are planned to map out a strategy.

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