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Papua New Guinea: People rebel against World Bank

What started as a peaceful student sit-in against privatisation may yet erupt into a nationwide uprising ... News summary including elsewhere unpublished, primary source eyewitness account and analysis/commentary from PNG movement leader. From Australia's Green Left Weekly.

Papua New Guinea: People rebel against World Bank

BY SEAN HEALY

What started as a peaceful student sit-in against privatisation may yet erupt into a nationwide uprising against Prime Minister Sir Makere Morauta, after police shot dead at least three students in what some have dubbed ``Papua New Guinea's Tiananmen Square''.

PNG authorities are doing their desperate best to repress and split a nascent coalition of students, settlement dwellers, unionists and soldiers up in arms at its economic program. But even if Morauta and his police force successfully ``restore calm'' to the capital, Port Moresby, that uprising will likely have only been delayed, maybe by as little as a few months.

Papua New Guinea is caught in a deep economic crisis and debt trap, with seemingly no way out. It already owes the IMF, World Bank and other multilateral institutions some US$906 million; its total annual debt servicing of US$211 million is about 40% of the government's whole budget.

As a condition on both existing loans and a further pending loan of US$210 million, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have forced the government to submit to a harsh structural adjustment program. The Australian government has also made its A$300 million a year in aid contingent on government compliance with the austerity plan.

Popular anger at enforced economic hardship, and now political repression, can only grow.

The police killings happened during the night of June 25-26, when riot squads moved in to break up a crowd of several hundred students staging a sit-in outside the prime minister's office, Morauta House.

The students had begun their protest on June 18, boycotting classes and rallying support from local settlement dwellers in opposition to government plans to privatise public utilities, including the PNG Banking Corporation, Air Niugini, Telikom and Post PNG.

Student leaders said that the sell-off program would result in 70% of state-owned assets being transferred into the hands of, largely foreign, companies.

They formulated a petition of three principal demands: an end to the privatisation program, an end to government attempts to register traditional land ownership claims, and the expulsion of World Bank and IMF representatives from the country. If Morauta was not willing to do that, they said, he should resign.

On June 21, several thousand students and their supporters marched from the university campus to Parliament House, closing schools and the public transport system and shouting ``Rausim [chase away] World Bank, Rausim IMF, Rausim Australia''.

When the prime minister refused to receive their petition, they decided to camp outside his office and appeal for more public support.

Morauta's attitude to the student protesters was initially dismissive, claiming on June 22 that their ``awareness program ... was not based on an intelligent, informed or rational basis'', that ``the current protest is certainly not being conducted in a civilised manner'' and that they were being used by ``thieves'' with hidden agendas.

Over the weekend, however, the pressure on Morauta to respond to students' demands increased, as support for their protest grew amongst Port Moresby residents.

By June 25, his tune had changed. In statements released over the weekend, Morauta had categorically denied that the government had any plans to require traditional landowners to register their claims.

Registration is widely seen as a prelude to the privatisation of land, which in PNG is more than 90% communally owned and which most people have a deep connection with. Though extremely unpopular, the opening up of the land to commercial ownership has long been a desire of the IMF and World Bank.

That afternoon, flanked by half his cabinet ministers and a wall of police, Morauta received the petition from the crowd of 4000 student protesters. He said he would carefully consider the students' proposals and respond to them the next day.

The students then decided to stay a further night and wait for his response.

An eye-witness, Port Moresby-based lawyer Moses Murray, a supporter of the students' cause, recounted to Green Left Weekly what happened next.

Between 10pm and 11pm, Murray said, when the crowd had dwindled to a few hundred as students went back to the university to wash and change, riot police moved in.

A police commander told the students that they had achieved their stated aim, to deliver their petition to the prime minister, and that, having done that, they should now disperse. When they refused to obey, Murray said, riot police started firing warning shots and tracer bullets and then tear gas into the crowd.

In panic, the crowd fled, seeking to escape back to the university. There Murray listened to students' reports of their escape, of how the police had chased them, beating those they caught and shooting at those they couldn't.

Some reported that several students had been seriously injured by police; by morning, Murray said, they had learnt that at least one student had been shot dead during the night.

The response to the death was angry and instantaneous. Early in the morning of June 26, the students marched on the local police station, where they were confronted by police. They were then joined by a peaceful march from the settlements.

According to Murray, it was when the two groups joined that police stormed in, firing tear gas, then chasing the dispersing crowd, then using live ammunition.

``They were shooting at will,'' he said, ``Students were running away and were being shot in the legs, feet, ankles. One was shot in the chest; he later died.''

Other reports indicate that the units most responsible for the violence were Australian-trained riot police flown in from Mount Hagen, in the highlands, where they guard the facilities of US and Australian mining companies.

At least three, and possibly as many as six, people were killed during the police operations on June 25 and June 26. At least 17 were injured.

Murray said government claims that the shootings were an attempt to stop the looting and burning of buildings are wrong <197> rather the property damage happened in response to the shootings.

On June 27, students again rallied in the streets, marching on the Port Moresby General Hospital, where they demanded the release of the bodies of the slain students, which they planned to take to Parliament House. Shortly after 2pm, the largely peaceful crowd of 2000 was dispersed by a police baton charge.

Morauta has since declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and given the police wide powers to enforce it.

Support for the students has come from the country's trade union movement, which has called a strike for Port Moresby and is organising to extend it nationally. Since June 26, the city's port, offices, schools and public transport system have all been closed.

Many unionists are just as angry as the students about the government's privatisation plan. A three-day strike by PNG Banking Corporation staff for guarantees that, if sold, their superannuation and other entitlements will be protected finished just as the students' protest was beginning.

PNG Trade Union Congress leader John Paska has called for the prime minister's resignation, saying the police attack ``was completely unprovoked. They were just a bunch of thugs chasing unarmed students in their own yard and shooting them like hunters.''

There are some signs that the unrest in the capital may spread nationwide. On June 27, riot police dispersed an angry crowd in Mount Hagen, where two of the slain students come from.

Most significantly, the students have had some support from the soldiers in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. On June 27, students and settlement dwellers marched on the capital's Murray Barracks, urging soldiers to join them.

While army commanders were able to keep the gates firmly locked, they weren't able to prevent a group of at least 60 soldiers marching in uniform in sympathy with the dead students.

Army commanders are now confident that they have the PNGDF under control <197> at least as long as they keep them confined to barracks. But if protests continue and the army are mobilised to put them down, major defections could be likely.

In March, the government was forced into a quick backdown when soldiers rebelled against a cabinet plan to cut the PNGDF's numbers from 4100 to 1900. The plan has since been resurrected: a defence department review recommended on June 21 that army numbers be reduced to 2000.

Whatever happens from here, ``this is the end for Makere'', said Powes Parkop, a representative of the left-wing Melanesian Solidarity group, which has been part of the protests.

``People in the street won't trust [Morauta] ever again'', Parkop told Green Left Weekly. ``they will see that he is a bullshit artist, a local stooge for the World Bank and the IMF.''

Parkop rejects claims that the structural adjustment program is the only solution.

``What the World Bank has been able to do is to get the entire elite to accept that its way is the only way to get PNG out of the current crisis, but [Morauta] hasn't come up with anything new, just more of the same World Bank-IMF program'' which the people have previously rejected.

Since Morauta assumed office in 1999, ``he has been saying that if we do this and this and this, there will be sunshine at the end of the day. But things have only gotten worse, the economy has slowed down, prices have sky-rocketed, all because of the structural adjustment program.''

Parkop points to privatisation as an example. ``Initially, the justification was that it was needed to free up funds to pay the debt. It was only because of protest that they are now saying [privatisation] is to improve efficiency; it's a newly-invented objective.''

In any case, Parkop says, if the privatisation goes ahead, services will worsen, not improve. ``The PNGBC has banks all over the country; if it's run on a profit basis, it will have to cut down on those services. Likewise, Air Niugini runs routes to some provinces which aren't profitable but are subsidised; if it is privatised, they also will go.''

Blame rests not only on Morauta, the IMF and the World Bank though, according to Parkop: ``the blame must be put back on Canberra'', not just for training police but for being so insistent on the austerity plan.

Since the killings, foreign minister Alexander Downer has backed the PNG government, saying that he is ``disturbed'' by the ``riots''.

``The fact is that this is a campaign against the reform program of the Morauta government. If they abandon the reform program, there obviously will be a disaster for Papua New Guinea'', Downer told Radio Australia on June 26.

Australian corporations are the biggest investors in the PNG economy, accounting for two-thirds of foreign equity. Their A$2.7 billion in assets are mainly concentrated in the country's highly profitable mining sector, including BHP's notorious Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in the country's highlands and Rio Tinto's gold mine on Lihir, in the country's north-eastern islands.

Australian companies are the most likely beneficiaries of Morauta's privatisation program, if it proceeds.


© http://www.greenleft.org.au 2001, republished with permission.

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