Thursday, 24 September 2015

Papua New Guinea at 40 Years passed silently in Australia but Papua New Guinea celebrated 40 years of independence from Australian colonial rule on September 16. Papua New Guinea was one of the last colonies in the world and gained independence under Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who said: “By an extraordinary twist of history, Australia, herself once a colony, became one of the world’s last colonial powers. By this legislation, we not only divest ourselves of the last significant colony in the world but we divest ourselves of our own colonial heritage. In making our own former colony independent, we as Australians enhance our own independence. Australia was never truly free until Papua New Guinea became truly free.”

Few Australians seem to know, or recall, that Australia once controlled PNG and used a force of kiaps, a patrol officer in charge of a region whose role could embrace police officer, judge and from time to time jailer, to keep order across the isolated nation. That seventy years has been rapidly overlooked even though Australia’s history and sense of self is intimately bound up with the wartime heroism of the Kokoda Trail and the local Papua stretcher bearers who provided terrific assistance. In fact, there is even a replica Kokoda Trail in the hills outside Melbourne, popular with hikers and Japanese tourists. After that it might be Bougainville or Ok Tedi that Australians remember.

The recent Pacific Islands Forum held in Port Moresby, but partly for the hefty criticism Australia and New Zealand were subject to over climate change. Witch burnings, which we have covered also.

It seems there has often been a climate of friendship, but rarely of full understanding, as this excellent 1999 feature story by journalist Sean Dorney explains. Dorney, who had been in PNG since 1974, writes early in his piece, “I began my talk that night with a tragic tale to illustrate how we Australians and our neighbours often don’t understand each other very well and how easy it is for signals passing between us to be misinterpreted.” The rest is far too long to even give a useful prĂ©cis, but one point he does make is that many senior political figures told him that, “their country suffers from too pure a form of democracy.”

Political stability and good governance have not inevitably been out of the country’s reach, but matters have been complicated by many factors, from the remoteness of so many communities to the tremendous diversity of languages – well over 800 – and “wantoks” or traditional owners of land who can wield money and power in some areas. Some experts also suggest the resources boom and the migration to bigger towns or cities has also been partly responsible for the upsurge of witch killings and their uncharacteristic sadism.


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