PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Revelations mount about cold-blooded killings

Issue 

BY SEAN HEALY

A week after police killed peaceful student protesters, it is the government of Prime Minister Makere Morauta under fire, as demands for compensation and a comprehensive inquiry increase and new revelations emerge suggesting that police shot students as they held their hands in the air.

A dawn-to-dusk curfew is still in place in Port Moresby, which the police commander says he is in no rush to lift, and police reportedly still have a heavy presence on the streets and outside public buildings in the capital.

But discontent is simmering and likely to erupt again once the traditional mourning period is over. Students returned to class on July 3 but have promised that they will continue their campaign against government plans to privatise state assets including the Papua New Guinea Banking Corporation (PNGBC).

More than 1000 students attended the July 5 funeral service on campus of three of the four students confirmed killed — Simon Noki and Steven Kil, both from Western Highlands, and Thomas Muruwo, from Eastern Highlands province. A service for a fourth student, Matthew Pawen, from West New Britain, is yet to be scheduled.

While the service proceeded peacefully, the anger was evident. Mourners at one point shouted down the speaker of parliament, Bernard Narokobi, forcing him to stop his speech half-way through.

The government initially attempted to claim that the killings were a police response to looting by students and settlement dwellers, a story which rapidly fell apart as students started to tell their own accounts of the events on June 25-26.

Four students from the University of Papua New Guinea, in Australia for a student environmental conference, told a media conference in Sydney on July 4 that their protest had been entirely peaceful until riot police broke it up during the evening of June 25.

"We took the Gandhi way, the non-violent way", said one student, "Anne", who, like her colleagues, is using an assumed name to protect her safety back in her home country. "We did nothing to state property, we were very peaceful."

Once police were given the order to break up the sit-in outside the prime minister's office at 11pm on June 25, "they chased us all the way back to campus" several kilometres away, recounted another student, "Forest".

Riot police penetrated as far as Forum Square, the centre of the campus, and were shooting at anything that moved for several hours, from 3am until 7am, Forest said.

"We were all in shock", Forest recounted. "It was more like a battlefield, the firings were so regular."

"Finally, we couldn't take it anymore, so the students said 'we're just going to front up regardless, if they are going to shoot us, let them shoot us, let there be a mass grave in the University of Papua New Guinea'."

"So we held our hands up and slowly walked towards where they were firing. Even though we held our hands up, and we approached them as close as 20 or 30 metres, they just opened fire at us and that's when the killings occurred."

The students say that there is as yet no clear idea of how many people in total were killed by police, as police also fired on settlement dwellers who supported the students' cause in several separate incidents during the morning of June 26.

Anne said that students were going out into the settlement communities to find reports of any people still missing. The presence of police outside the hospitals, and the fear of arrest or worse, were acting as major deterrents for people to come forward, she said.

The students also confirmed reports that the killings were carried out by police units flown in from Mount Hagen and other provincial centres immediately before the June 25 operation.

"The local police were supportive, they were with us, because we didn't do any damage during our protest", said Anne. "It was police from outside [the capital] who dispersed the crowd" and stormed the university.

Morauta has promised a government inquiry into the affair and the coroner is also investigating, but Forest said that the students "are not confident about the inquiry" and fear it will be "biased". They believe the inquiry should have wider terms of reference and be carried out by those at arms' length from the government.

The families of the dead students have already lodged demands for large sums in compensation.

While the shootings may have created a climate of fear on the streets of Port Moresby and ended the threat of immediate protest, they have also politically wounded Morauta, possibly fatally.

If Morauta delays the privatisation program which sparked the students' protest, he risks delay or cancellation of US$55 million in World Bank loans and even greater sums of aid from Australia and Japan, which are contingent on the sale of PNGBC.

But if he doesn't delay the sell-off, he faces escalating protest not just by students but also by unionists and maybe even the country's soldiers and likely defeat in national elections due next year.

The International Monetary Fund has publicly backed Morauta and urged him to stick to the structural adjustment program.

Mark Tarin, the fund's representative in PNG, whose expulsion from the country was one of the students' main demands, said on July 3 that the IMF "regret[s] that [the killings] happened" and backed "what the government is doing to resolve this issue".

"Our support for the government's economic program remains intact", he added. "We will continue to support it and we hope this remarkable effort by the government continues. Our assessment is that the government is doing all it can to meet all [the] conditions" of the structural adjustment program.

Meanwhile, a little-heeded decision by the country's National Court may help the students' cause and worsen Morauta's.

In rulings over the past month, the court has found that the government cannot transfer the assets of the PNGBC and other state-owned enterprises into the hands of the Privatisation Commission for sale without also transferring their liabilities. The rulings are likely to make the state assets far less attractive for private investors.

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