Eyewitnesses: Anti-IMF students killed while surrendering, Papua New Guinea

by Craig Skehan, Sydney Morning Herald, 6/30/01 Monday, Jul. 02, 2001 at 4:12 PM

"We did not have anywhere to go because there was a fence at the back of us, so we thought we must surrender to the police to avoid being shot," Doa said. "We thought we would be all right if we surrendered with our hands up."

errorSource: http://www.smh.com.au/news/0106/30/review/review3.html

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Price of protest
Uncivil unrest ... students protest over the World Bank reforms.
The killing of student demonstrators this week will bring continuing problems for PNG, writes Craig Skehan.

A protest blockade of PNG government offices had been broken up and students had been chased by police back to the University of Papua New Guinea campus when the real violence started.

The riot police began to attack the students and all hell broke lose, according to a third-year commerce student, William Doa. "We did not have anywhere to go because there was a fence at the back of us, so we thought we must surrender to the police to avoid being shot," Doa said. "We thought we would be all right if we surrendered with our hands up."

However, he said the riot squad police, who had been specially flown to Port Moresby from Mt Hagen in the Highlands, opened fire with shotguns and M-16 assault rifles.

Another student said: "The police ordered us to raise our hands and walk. We did just that, but they opened fire on us." Three students were killed, two from the Western Highlands.

The killings are now being compared by fellow protesters to the deaths of demonstrators in Jakarta during May 1998, which preceded the collapse of the Soeharto regime.

And accounts of what happened in PNG have been zipping around the world via the Internet links of anti-globalisation activists. The fact that blood had been spilled because of protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has made it something of a cause celebre. Australian students demonstrated outside World Bank offices in Sydney's Martin Place on Thursday and yesterday there was another protest at the PNG High Commission in Canberra.

The detail of what did happen on Monday night and the early hours of Tuesday morning is to be the subject of an official investigation and a coronial inquiry. A post-mortem examination has been ordered. However, many student and trade union leaders fear there will be a whitewash and/or long delays in completing the probes.

The protests continue. A crowd outside the Port Moresby general hospital, where the three bodies have been kept, reached several thousand on Wednesday. There have been tensions - including scuffles - over what to do with the bodies. Some of the student leaders wanted to seize the corpses from the hospital's morgue and take them to the Parliament House office of Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta. But family members objected and, in any event, heavily armed police blocked the proposed route.

At one point, several truckloads of soldiers went to the hospital, saying they wanted to protect the students from police. The commander of the PNG Defence Force, Brigadier-General Carl Marlpo, appealed for his troops to remain loyal to the country's Constitution and not join the protesting students. Nonetheless, about 60 soldiers in uniform marched to the university, heads bowed in mourning for the slain students. Some of the soldiers were relatives of those who had died. Analysts are trying to gauge the extent of general sympathy within the military for the student and trade union campaign against privatisation of government enterprises and land tenure changes. The military had an internal revolt in March over plans to cut the number of personnel. Dozens of weapons were seized and there was a 12-day stand-off before the Government backed down over the down-sizing program.

Some soldiers had been still awaiting redundancy payments from an earlier round of personnel shedding. Morale in the desperately under-resourced armed forces remains low. Insiders say the widows and families of soldiers killed during the debilitating Bougainville secessionist conflict are still living in military barracks because they have not received the compensation payments which would allow them to return to their villages.

The World Bank and IMF have warned PNG that it cannot continue to live beyond its means. As well as cutting costs by measures such as reducing the size of the armed forces, the international agencies have called for the sale of major government airline, power, ports, communications and banking enterprises. Another key demand of the World Bank and IMF, in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in soft loans, is for a "land mobilisation" program. Essentially, this would allow clan groups to voluntarily register their traditional land. It is argued that this would help eradicate barriers to resource and other developments, including by allowing communities to raise capital for their own small-scale projects. Critics, though, claim avaricious corporations and rich individuals would exploit changes to acquire land for themselves.

The Australian Government has been a prominent backer of the structural adjustment program, contributing almost $200 million towards its implementation. The Prime Minister, John Howard, telephoned Morauta on Wednesday to reinforce this support. And the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, warned in Parliament that it would be a disaster for PNG if the privatisation and land reforms were abandoned in the face of the concerted protests. There had already been demonstrations outside the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.

Opponents of the privatisation of bodies such as Air Niugini, the PNG Banking Corporation and Telekom say national assets will be lost to foreign control. The trade unions lament inevitable job losses. The Howard Government believes PNG, the biggest recipient of Australian aid, cannot continue to subsidise loss-making operations.

But the privatisation push being backed by Australia is itself resulting in such deep social divisions - and now violence - that it will discourage foreign investors. And the market is so small - a large proportion of the 4 million population relies largely on subsistence agriculture - that privatised bodies would almost certainly be left to operate as monopolies. In the past there has been alleged high-level corruption in relation to privatisation deals, including in relation to the water supply. Port Moresby residents now pay incredibly high water charges.

Morauta is seen by his supporters as realistically acknowledging that public finances can't be allowed to continue to hemorrhage. Government enterprises, once privatised, would at least mean losses were not coming out of the public purse. If greater efficiency did result in better, cheaper services to consumers, there would be a political bonus for the Government. The alternative scenario is that in some areas there would be higher charges for consumers. But the upshot is unlikely to become clear in the short term. And PNG is due to have national elections before the middle of next year. The indications are that the row over privatisation and land reform has taken a heavy toll on the Government's popularity. Added to that is disquiet over the circumstances in which the protesters were killed and up to 20 were injured.

Students are demanding to know whether private companies paid to fly members of the riot squad from Mt Hagen to Port Moresby to break up the blockade of the Prime Minister's office. The Mt Hagen riot squad is often called upon to provide security for lucrative mining operations in the Highlands - particularly Placer's Porgera gold mine and the Kutubu oil field operated by the giant corporation Chevron.

In a sign of the times, the mining companies also enlist, clothe and arm their own staff as reserve policemen. This has blurred the lines between the publicly funded police force, which at times receives under-the-table financial assistance from companies, and privately financed police reserve forces which in places are more akin to militias. Hence the question being raised by students as to whether the Mt Hagen riot squad had outside backing to travel to Moresby, given serious doubts that the police force would have had the funds to do so.

In the shadows, opportunists lurk. Alienated squatter-settlement dwellers see unrest as a cover for looting. And there are opposition politicians who seek to undermine the Government and acquire power for themselves. There are also members of provincial governments, who have been removed for inefficiency and corruption, who also have a vested interest in destabilising Morauta's ruling coalition.

The imminent funerals of the dead Highlands students pose a serious risk of rioting of the sort which caused extensive damage in Port Moresby this week. Mt Hagen is a well-known flashpoint. When Highlands leader Iambakey Okuk died in the 1980s, mourners went on a destructive rampage. Back in 1995, there were riots in the Highlands over an earlier version of the currently proposed land reforms. The fact that the military is willing to openly defy the government of the day, on a grand scale, was demonstrated by the 1997 revolt against then prime minister Sir Julius Chan over the hiring of mercenaries to fight the secessionists on Bougainville.

Australian John Longhurst, who is in PNG for a trade union development seminar, said yesterday: "Everyone is feeling pretty bruised by what has happened. The police are under siege. The students have some sympathy from the soldiers, but quantifying that is difficult. Now a lot of people are in mourning. This is something which is not going to be forgotten."