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Papua New Guinea protests - PM O'Neill's response 'not encouraging'

PNG has been rocked by political unrest in recent weeks, amid calls for the prime minister to resign over graft charges. Analyst Jonathan Pryke tells DW about the reasons behind the turmoil and the government's response.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is located just to Australia's north, has seen a wave of demonstrations over the past several weeks, with protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill over allegations of corruption.

In addition, thousands of students across the country have boycotted classes for weeks. On Wednesday, June 8, police opened fire at students and deployed tear gas to disperse crowds during a protest at the University of PNG's Waigani campus in the capital, Port Moresby. Dozens of people were wounded, but there were no deaths, the government said.

A court granted an injunction on Thursday barring university students from protesting on campus or barricading and locking classrooms. Despite the court ruling, the situation remains tense with some protesters saying they have no intention of giving up.

In a DW interview, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the PNG Network and research fellow at the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, says the government's response in the coming days will be critical to de-escalate the situation.

DW: Thousands of students across Papua New Guinea have been protesting against Prime Minister O'Neill and boycotting classes for weeks. Why are they protesting?

Jonathan Pryke: Students at the University of Papua New Guinea, the main university in the country, have been protesting for five weeks now calling for Prime Minister Peter O'Neil's resignation. The students say the prime minister is no longer fit for office, citing multiple criminal investigations against him, his attempts to shut down the police force's corruption unit, and poor fiscal management.

Jonathan Pryke

Pryke: 'Despite the protests, the prime minister has a strong base of support in parliament and it is unlikely that he will resign under pressure'

What are their main demands?

The students started their protests by demanding that the prime minister submit himself to questioning in a corruption case that the police are investigating concerning the authorization of allegedly fraudulent payments of millions of dollars to a legal firm.

As the protests continued the students' demands evolved to a point where they are now calling for O'Neill to stand down.

How has the prime minister responded to the protesters' demands?

The prime minister has refused to meet with student representatives but has responded through written statements and engagement with local media. He has refused to stand down and argues that students should leave the investigations to the police and the courts and return to their studies.

Despite the protests, the prime minister has a strong base of support in parliament and it is unlikely that he will resign under pressure. Without the protection granted to him by virtue of holding the office of prime minister, it is likely that the cases against O'Neill would accelerate and lead to trial. This creates even more of an incentive for the prime minister to hold onto power.

How rampant is the problem of corruption in Papua New Guinea?

PNG is ranked 139th out of 167 countries measured in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. So it is clear that corruption is a major problem in all areas of Papua New Guinea. Given the influences of a patronage system, a weak state and the pervasiveness of corruption in all parts of the country, it is a very complex issue to resolve.

There is, however, a growing discontent in the population about the largesse of the abuse of government funds by the political elite who seemingly operate with impunity. It is certainly a major factor in the unrest we are currently seeing.

How has this affected the country's economic development?

There is a substantial amount of leakage within all levels of government. What's more critical for the state of PNG's economy, however, is its dependence on natural resources.

Papua New Guinea is one of the most resource-dependent countries in the world, and the unforeseen collapse in commodity prices resulted in a 20 percent drop in revenue in 2015. Such dependence on volatile international markets that the country has no control over can play havoc with domestic policymaking and budgeting.

Facing a significant cash crunch, the government is under increasing pressure to live up to its lofty election commitments, and the strain on primary service delivery is hurting Papua New Guineans. An overdependence on natural resources, a lucrative sector with limited accountability to the general population, also facilitates the ease of corruption in PNG.

What should be done to counter the problem of graft in the country?

Quite simply, we need to see more transparency at all levels of government. The government should be working to increase the accountability of their state-owned enterprises, government processes, contracts and revenue collection from the natural resources sector.

The more the public knows about these major flows of government revenue, the better they can hold the government to account about where the revenue ends up.

Reports suggest that the current situation in the country remains volatile. How do you expect it to develop in the coming days?

Watch video 01:15

Papua New Guinea - Police shoot protesters

It is difficult to predict what will happen next, and the government's response in the coming days will be critical. Prime Minister O'Neill has already suspended parliament and stated that there will be an internal police investigation into the matter.

He has also questioned the integrity of the protesting students and called for an investigation into their motives as well as attacking the media for misreporting the situation. These are not encouraging signs.

The prime minister needs to be addressing the fact that his police force shot into a crowd of unarmed protesters. He should be calling for an independent investigation into how this occurred, and should also be taking steps to meet with student leaders to talk through their demands and de-escalate the situation.

Jonathan Pryke is director of the PNG Network and a research fellow in the Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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