Student footage as the Papua New Guinean police tried to arrest the leader, Kenneth Rapa, moments before opening fire on the crowd. Video: Cafe Pacific on YouTube
By DAVID ROBIE
BARELY had the whiff of teargas and gunshot smoke drifted away from the University of Papua New Guinea campus this week when the blame game started in earnest with the O'Neill government pointing the finger at the parliamentary opposition and also international media.
The media were blamed for initial reports by some reputable international brands that up to four people had been killed. There were no deaths, but four of the 23 people reported to be injured were taken to Port Moresby General Hospital critically wounded and stabilised.
It could have been an even worse tragedy.
Sadly, the scenes of chaos shown on campus and chaotic news reports are not uncommon.
I lived in Papua New Guinea for five years during the 1990s when I headed the journalism programme at UPNG.
There were at least two occasions when I was there when police came onto campus - a provocation in itself as there is an understanding that police don't do that, if not actually illegal - and fired teargas at protesting students.
Teargas canisters themselves can cause serious injuries as our award-winning Uni Tavur newspaper student reporters and photographers showed at the time in graphic reports and images.
The police arrived on campus last Wednesday heavily armed and in camouflage fatigues - to quell another peaceful protest (after more than five weeks of them)?
Clearly somebody in high authority had given the green light to the police to use any steps necessary - maximum force - to crush the protests once and for all. The police were ready for business.
Students have traditionally seen them themselves as the "people's" opposition in Papua New Guinea, providing checks and balances on the power elite in the country which they regard as corrupt and opportunistic.
They are the voices to raise the questions that grassroots people cannot easily express.
As a welcome media footnote, it was great to see protest message about the police actions from the University of the South Pacific student journalists, as well as the obligatory "media freedom" statements from groups such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and the Media Council of PNG.
This editorial in The National on Thursday sums up the situation quite well:
HISTORY has repeated itself. In 2001 protesting University of Papua New Guinea students were fired on by police resulting in four deaths.
Of great concern is that this is not the first time police personnel have fired on unarmed civilians in tense and provocative situations.
Two years ago also in Port Moresby’s Hanubada Village, police fired indiscriminately into a crowd after a confrontation between National Capital District rangers and street vendors turned violent. Two men were allegedly shot by police.
What took place [on Wednesday] morning at UPNG in Port Moresby will go down as another tragic chapter in the country’s history.
Students, who had organised themselves en masse to conduct a peaceful protest at Parliament House were stopped by armed police as they tried to board buses.
The situation quickly got out of hand after students refused to call off their planned protest.
Shots were fired by police personnel and according to a press release from the office of the Police Commissioner Gari Baki, 23 students were wounded with five in a critical condition at the Port Moresby General Hospital.
Plunged into chaos
The city was then plunged into chaos as news of the shootings quickly spread by word of mouth and particularly on social media websites like Facebook. Public safety is paramount and the police have a duty to keep the peace and ensure public as well as private property is protected and no one’s rights are infringed upon.
Sadly, they failed to uphold their constitutional duty when they fired into the crowd of students. If this how the police are going to handle public protests by students and basically any group wishing to exercise their democratic and constitutional rights, than something is terribly wrong with this State body.
The police have claimed that they were attacked initially by some of the protesters with stones and responded with force. But they cannot seem to understand that there is no place for meeting this kind of rowdy and belligerent behaviour with maximum force. It is completely disproportionate to the offending act.
Over the past five weeks UPNG students had boycotted classes and protested calling for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to step aside and answer allegations of corruption that have hung around him for some time.
The police and the National Executive Council, which is headed by O’Neill and his senior ministers, should have foreseen the potential of an event such as this taking place.
The police have continued to use strong arm tactics as their first course of action when dealing with the public.
These aren’t one off instances, there is a clear pattern showing the reactionary nature of how police carry out their duty.
Fearful, angry public
Police have managed to restore peace and order but there is no doubt that the public is both fearful and angered by the conduct of the police force. This situation must be handled with a great deal of care and consideration.
Today and the coming week will tell us how much damage has been done to public confidence in the O’Neill government.
If it was at all time low levels then it has hit rock bottom or near enough now.
The government will not come out of this looking good. Opposition MP Gary Juffa recently questioned the government’s continuous suppression of free speech and the right to protest indirectly by remarking that the police were carrying out a fear campaign against anyone or group, including the media.
Juffa asked some pointed but valid questions.
The rhetoric has been vindicated by the events that transpired yesterday.
The question now remains as to what the government will do to rebuild that faith and trust that has significantly been eroded by events yesterday.
How are they going to mend this bridge? Or will they be happy to watch it burn and continue unabated?
The acting chancellor of UPNG, Dr Nicholas Mann, told foreign media he did not know the full details of what happened.
“I understand that police had not given them the clearance or approval to do [a march on Parliament], so when there was defiance of lawful instruction there was bound to be consequences.” That is almost a rebuke of his own students.
O’Neill told Parliament he was not aware who had authorised the armed policemen to shoot the students and vowed that there would be a full inquiry into the UPNG unrest.