Monday, May 23, 2016

Standoff in PNG: Students take on Prime Minister Peter O'Neill

An NBC News report on May 17 - a useful backgrounder, but much has happened since.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's "I will not resign" reply to UPNG and Unitech student presidents over their "stand down" petition - May 23

By Bal Kama

Students at the University of Papua New Guinea are the latest in a long list of those in the firing line for denouncing the leadership of PNG’s seemingly impregnable Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

The students have been on strike against the government since the end of last month. Students from the University of Technology and Divine Word University are also boycotting classes.

The UPNG students want O’Neill to resign from office and have demanded the police commissioner not suppress criminal investigations against the PM.

The students have threatened to withdraw en masse from their studies if the Prime Minister refuses to go. [Editor: He refused on Monday].

But what are their ultimate chances of success? Will O’Neill give in?

Tertiary student movement in PNG has been a powerful tool for political activism on national issues since Independence. Back in 1991, students were involved in a violent protest against the government for increasing MPs’ salary.

In 1997, students joined the PNG Defence Force to protest against the use of Sandline mercenaries in the Bougainville crisis, and demanded the resignation of the then Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan. Chan withdrew the mercenaries and resigned from office.

In 2001, students protested against the privatisation of state assets and the land mobilisation programme (LMP) administered by Sir Mekere Morauta’s government.

Eventually, Mekere withdraw the policies, including the LMP that sought to to acquire customary land rights as surety for loans provided to the government and was part of World Bank’s structural adjustment programme (SAP).

However, the success of the protest came at a huge cost with three students allegedly shot dead by security forces.

Apart from such tragedy, the students have generally been successful in getting their demands met. These successes have created an expectation that PNG leaders would listen to tertiary students as a legitimate intellectual voice of the people.

The PNG Constitution provides for the right to protest, to hold public assembly, and for freedom of expression. However these are qualified rights, meaning they can be restricted if it appears that a protest would cause disharmony and instability.

The laws were tightened after the bloody outcome in the 2001 protest against Mekere’s government. The current protests are within university campuses because of the restrictions and the associated risks in taking to the streets.

These restrictions may reduce the impact of the protests but certainly not their importance.

Will the Prime Minister give in? The central concern is whether O’Neill will give in to their demands. He has insisted on many occasions that he does "not have any intention to resign". He continues to maintain that people must "show evidence of me benefiting financially or otherwise and I will resign".

Almost all his cabinet ministers that have so far been implicated in various criminal investigations, including the Minister for Justice and Attorney-General Ano Pala, have adopted this defence. The "innocent until proven guilty" syndrome is certainly contagious within the corridors of Waigani.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues have argued their stance is necessary to protect public offices from unwarranted and malicious allegations; however, it may also be argued that their steadfast resistance against legally sanctioned investigations demeans the very offices they seek to protect.

The students are not only against an uncompromising Prime Minister, but also someone who had shown little respect for their demands in the past.

In 2012, the students protested against the O’Neill government for enacting the Judicial Conduct Act 2012 (now repealed). The Act gave PNG Parliament the power to regulate the conduct of judges.

O’Neill dismissed the protest and blamed Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia for instigating the political impassse between the Parliament and the judiciary that brought about such legislation. 

Assuming the Prime Minister refuses to resign, the students may make good their threat to withdraw from studies en masse. Generally, university students are well respected in their own communities.

Any withdrawal or suspension from studies will certainly result in growing resentment against O’Neill. Frustrated students will most likely undertake a "crusade" against the Prime Minister and his party, the People’s National Congress (PNC).

Bal Kama is a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University's College of Law. This article was first published by The Interpreter and it has been republished with the permission of the author.
National Capital District (NCD) Powes Parkop meets UPNG students to take delivery
of a petition against Prime Minister Peter O'Neill on May 19.
Photo: Citizen Journalist/Asia Pacific Report

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