[Documents menu]History of Papua New Guinea and occupied West PNG
Date: Tue, 22 Apr 97 10:47:24 CDT
From: bghauk@berlin.infomatch.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Thousands Rally As Prime Minister 'Steps Aside' In Papua New Guinea

Thousands Rally As Prime Minister "Steps Aside" In Papua New Guinea

By Bob Aiken and Doug Cooper,
in the Militant
Vol. 61, no. 16 (21 April 1997)

SYDNEY, Australia - A jubilant crowd of several thousand demonstrators blockading the Papua New Guinea (PNG) parliament in Port Moresby March 26 celebrated the news that Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan had just "stepped aside."

Facing a 10-day army mutiny and rising mass protests, Chan announced that he, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Haiveta, and Minister of Defence Mathias Ijape would do so while an inquiry is held into a US$36 million contract between the PNG government and mercenary outfit Sandline International. Sandline was hired to carry out an offensive on the island of Bougainville, where the Bougainville Revolutionary Army has effectively defeated the PNG Defence Force in a nine- year guerrilla war.

The previous evening demonstrators were outraged when Parliament defeated, 59-38, a watered-down motion calling on Chan to step aside during the inquiry, which he announced March 21. During the five-hour debate, chants of "Resign!" could easily be heard inside from the 5,000 students, workers, and shantytown dwellers massed outside. Hundreds of armed police did not attempt to disperse the crowd.

Within minutes of the vote, protesters began stopping cars and blocking the legislators from leaving. A number of armed enlisted men from the Murray Barracks, the main military base, defied orders and joined the blockade.

Chan reportedly escaped by donning a police uniform and hiding in a police vehicle. Some MPs scaled a fence separating Parliament from a golf course. Most remained trapped over night.

The political crisis was sparked in PNG March 17, when the commander of the PNG Defence Force, Brig.-Gen. Jerry Singirok, announced that the army would no longer cooperate with Sandline. He also demanded that the three ministers resign and an inquiry be held.

Despite being sacked by Chan, Singirok continued to press these demands from within the barracks.

The mercenaries, apart from their commander, retired British army Lt. Col. Timothy Spicer, were expelled from PNG. Spicer was released into the care of UK High Commissioner Robert Low, pending charges of illegally possessing a hand gun.

Students at the University of PNG Waigani campus in Port Moresby were at the center of the protests. They boycotted class and held daily forums. "Our collective view," Student Representative Council president Kevin Kepore, said, "is that there are more illegal things that this government has been involved in besides the Sandline International issue."

By March 24, Chan had become increasingly isolated. Five cabinet ministers resigned, with Governor-General Sir Wiwa Korowi and church leaders calling on Chan to step aside pending the outcome of the inquiry.

"The processes of parliamentary democracy appear to be working," Australian prime minister John Howard commented, as he welcomed Chan's decision to stand down. The PNG prime minister had earlier requested that Canberra send troops to Port Moresby to help restore order. Canberra, for its part, refused to rule out sending troops to "protect" the 12,000 Australian citizens in PNG.

The Australian government's strenuous objection to the use of mercenaries flowed from the need to reinforce its standing as the main military force in the region and its assessment that the mercenaries would destabilize the political situation in PNG, its most important former colony. Its intervention in PNG affairs, including placing its troops on alert, sparked virtually no protests in Australia.

Major Walter Enuma, a key Singirok supporter, said March 23, "We would like to see this thing off the streets and back into the political arena."

Singirok declared March 24, the eve of his deadline to Chan, that "the matter is now with the Parliament."

Addressing a group of soldiers, the "sacked" general called for discipline, declaring, "We are intact!"The PNG cabinet appointed the mining and petroleum minister, John Giheno, as caretaker prime minister March 27. Some leaders of the anti- Chan protests see this as merely a cabinet shuffle, with Chan remaining in charge behind the scenes. Chan declared that he will return to office once he is cleared by the inquiry.

Bob Aiken is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and Doug Cooper is a member of the AWU-FIME amalgamated union.

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