Shadow of secession hangs over PNG

Issue 

A summit of New Guinea Islands premiers held in the West New Britain capital of Kimbe on April 7 to discuss greater autonomy from the Papua New Guinean government ended with no definite resolution on the question of secession. The meeting did decide on the formation of a regional or state government grouping East and West New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville and Manus. The grouping is seen as an option by the Islands provincial leaders to maintain their autonomy should provincial governments be abolished. So sensitive was the issue that the PNG government barred the National Broadcasting Commission from reporting on the meeting, bringing upon itself a storm of protest about attempts to interfere with media freedoms.
In the event that the national government meddles with the authority of the provinces without their consent, the regional or state government will automatically assume the stature of the federal government of an independent state, the meeting determined. DAVID ROBIE reports from Port Moresby on the background.

Five years after Papua New Guinea's North Solomons province — largely the copper-rich island of Bougainville — tried to break away, four other provinces are now talking of secession. Some leaders are calling for a "Federated Melanesian Republic" which would slice off more than a quarter of the country and more than an eighth of the population — about 540,000 people.

The "federation" would include East and West New Britain, New Ireland and Manus Island provinces along with troubled Bougainville.

Last year Islands premiers launched a regional awareness campaign and called for a referendum to seek the people's support. One premier, Steven Pokawin, leader of the innovative and popular Manus Island government, enlisted the support of former prime minister Solomon Mamaloni of the neighbouring Solomon islands. His move was branded by some critics as "treachery".

Secession has become a dirty word with the government of Prime Minister Paias Wingti, and some ruling spokespeople have called for the jailing of secessionist advocates for sedition.

A controversial new law, the Internal Security Act, introduced last year as a result of the bitter Bougainville conflict, provides harsh penalties for secessionist supporters but so far it has not been invoked.

In a recent visit to Rabaul, capital of East New Britain province, Ben Micah, chair of the Constitutional Review Commission, a new body steering government plans to abolish the country's costly provincial government system, faced angry opposition. Police were forced to escort Micah and his colleagues to safety after they were harangued at a public rally.

The chairperson had tried to explain the government plan to scrap the 19 provincial governments and establish centralised provincial authorities and local governments by the next general election in 1997.

Micah warned the Islands premiers against any serious secessionist move. "We already have a similar problem on Bougainville, and people in the region are sick of such ideas", he said.

"I will uphold the integrity of the constitution. It was adopted in 1975 and we have to remain as one country, one people, one parliament, one flag and one law."

Premier Pokawin resigned as Islands representative from the Constitutional Commission, alleging it had "politically motivated interests", after Wingti's cabinet rejected the premier's recommendation to carry out reforms in provinces where governments have been sacked or suspended while other provincial governments would be allowed to continue in office until the election.

The government has ousted eight provincial governments, accusing them of incompetence and, in some cases, corruption. The National Court has revoked the suspension in at least two cases. In the case of Bougainville, the provincial government of Premier Joseph Kabui was sacked when it "sympathised" with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army's struggle for secession and set up an interim administration. Until then the Bougainville administration had been regarded as PNG's showpiece provincial government.

The new daily, the National, said PNG's government and the citizens "must sit up and take note of the serious consequences" of the move by island leaders. "It cannot be shrugged off as a bluff", the paper said. The government had done so with an "outrageous" 10 billion kina compensation claim for environmental damage and land losses by landowners over the giant Panguna copper mine "with disastrous consequences". An estimated 5000 people have died on the island from fighting, disease, malnutrition and lack of medical treatment since the conflict began.

Papua New Guinea, a merger of former Australian and German colonies, has a fragile unity that has frequently been under threat. Secessionist feelings have been strong in the southern half of the country and also in some highlands provinces which were settled by the colonisers as recently as the 1930s.

Many national leaders fear that if any part of the country succeeds in breaking away, it could lead to the disintegration of the nation.
[ 1994 Asia-Pacific Network.]

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