More than 20 students were injured at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby when police opened fire on students protesting against corruption on June 8. Several of those injured remain in a critical condition.
Students have been protesting and boycotting classes since May 2. The students were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill over corruption allegations and authoritarian moves to block investigation of the allegations.
The protests were triggered by the government and police command shutting down the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate (NFACD) in April. The NFACD was established after O'Neill came to power in controversial circumstances in 2011, promising to deal with PNG's endemic corruption.
However, in 2014 Chief Superintendent Matthew Damaru, director of the NFCAD, obtained an arrest warrant for the prime minister over allegations of laundering almost $30 million — “an offshoot of a much wider scam involving dozens of senior officials,” the ABC said on April 17.
O'Neill stalled the investigation through the courts for the next two years. However, matters came to a head in April when the NFACD arrested Attorney-General Ano Pala, Supreme Court judge Bernard Sakora and O'Neill's lawyer Tiffany Twivey Nonggorr.
On April 16, at the government's behest, PNG Police Commissioner Gari Baki suspended Damaru and two other senior NFACD officers.
After the suspended officers obtained a court order for their reinstatement, the government shut down the NFACD on April 18. This was the catalyst for the student protests.
The June 8 shootings took place when students tried to march on parliament. On June 14, the National Court refused an application by lawyers acting for the students for an order to stop the deployment of police to UPNG campuses, prevent the harassment and arrest of student leaders, and make senior police explain the shootings in court.
Despite harassment and heavy pressure to return to class, students have continued to boycott classes in all three universities. They are taking their protests off campus.
Corruption and police violence have been endemic in PNG since it obtained independence from Australia in 1975. Formal independence did not bring economic independence. The economy is dominated by mainly Australian mining interests and Asian and Australian logging interests.
A third of PNG's extensive old-growth forests are controlled by foreign countries. Logging companies use corruption to avoid paying tax and to ignore environmental regulations, a report released by the Oakland Institute in February found.
Foreign-owned mining operations in PNG are known for their disregard of basic environmental safeguards. The destruction of the Fly River by the Australian-owned Ok Tedi mine is a well-known example.
The national budget is dependent on Australian direct aid, which is tailored to serve these interests. This includes funding and arming the police and military.
The police, in particular the Mobile Squad, are notorious for their use of excessive violence against landholders objecting to ecologically and socially destructive mining operations.
Last year, Aid/Watch Director Thulsi Narayanasamy said: “Australia's commitment to assisting PNG to end corruption appears to be purely rhetorical. Their reluctance to provide support for PNG's internal anti-corruption measures coupled with their facilitation of corruption makes it evident that Australia is pursuing national commercial interests at the expense of assisting concrete anti-corruption measures.”
The result is that Australian aid has increased poverty. “Poverty has increased sharply since the mid-1990s and the nation's level of income inequality is the highest in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the nation's wealth of mineral resources, according to Oxfam Australia,” the June 14 Los Angeles Times said.
More than 40% of the population are illiterate. This year poverty has been exacerbated by climate change-induced drought.
Australia's use of PNG's Manus Island to house a concentration camp for refugees has compounded Australian complicity in corruption and police violence.
Narayanasamy said: “Australia's primary requirement from PNG is maintaining the Manus Island detention facility and their cooperation with resettlement of refugees. This has left Australia to posture about ending corruption with aid money though none of it supports the processes that really matter.”
The August 4, 2013, Age reported that increased funding for the Mobile Squad was part of the deal to reopen Manus Island. The squad has been used to violently suppress protests by refugees, including the February 2014 protests which ended with Iranian refugee Reza Berati being beaten to death.
An Australian Federal Police whistleblower told the ABC in November: “The [police] were essentially murdering people, raping people, burning villages down … What we soon noticed was that anything that painted the government of PNG with corruption, or the [PNG police] with their brutality, murder and rape was being sanitised [in AFP reports].”
In April, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that Manus Island detention centre violated PNG law. However, the June 9 Sydney Morning Herald said: “The Turnbull government looks to have persuaded PNG to keep the camp open until after the Australian election.”
In return, the Turnbull government has refrained from criticising O'Neill's attacks on the rule of law and shooting of students.
On June 10, 108 refugees detained on Manus Island released a statement in solidarity with the students, stating: “We are writing in solidarity with PNG students and our friends who lost their lives during their peaceful protest.
“We are very aware of the corruption issues in PNG. Billions of dollars have been given to the PNG government by Australia to run the Manus detention centre. That money has not been used for the people of Manus or PNG, but has been used to deny our liberty and keep refugees illegally imprisoned.
“We have a common fight against corrupt government in PNG and Australia, and a common fight for freedom from tyranny … We are still fighting for our freedom and we will not give up.”
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