From arrows to AK-47s: modern warfare and the future of Papua New Guinea

Clashes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) formed part of a familiar cycle. At least they did until modern weaponry and foreign energy projects reignited historic tensions and escalated the conflicts with devastating effects. Where disputes were once able to contain themselves, with their own mechanisms for re-establishing relations and peace-building, attacks and counter attacks as well as further retaliation and revenge threaten to push the conflict beyond the point of reconciliation. Something must be done before it is too late.

The conflicts can be traced back over hundreds of years, however, in its recent history there has been a change from arrows to AK-47s and fire to firepower. Older reports describe villages and crops being burnt to the ground, contributing to the massive displacement suffered by thousands as well as the tragic deaths. Although the attacks were undeniably horrific, they were bound by certain tribal rules. In 2017 fighters acknowledged that “Our traditional law is we don’t burn people sleeping in houses. The other is we don’t use tear gas. The third law is we don’t sleep with the women in times of fighting, we sleep in the men’s house. We don’t use bombs. We use guns, bows and arrows only.”

These laws contained the attacks and meant that they fit into established cycles whereby clashes were dealt with and prevented from spiralling. Disputes arose for various reasons, some because of ongoing land issues whereas others were down to more individual cases, marital or otherwise. If you provoked one of the tribe, you provoked them all. After the fighting, a ‘compensation’ ceremony would take place and peace-building would commence and the tribes would reconcile. Linus Digim’Rima from University of PNG explains that this peace process would last for about two to three years before the cycle repeated.

Modern weaponry has obliterated this cycle. The small island offers smugglers a variety of options for coastal entry, and a supply from the neighbouring West Papua sustains the modernisation of tribal conflict. With minimal border control operating in PNG, little is done to stop the influx. Now, reports recount bullets being “sprayed” inside houses while people are sleeping and automatic weapons mean that individuals can now attack where groups were needed before. This new level of volatility and increased humanitarian cost of the fighting makes reconciliation harder and retaliation the favoured policy. The erosion of respect for traditional laws has also meant that women and children now suffer horrendous attacks as a result of this war where nothing is off-limits.

In July 2019, the global media was horrified by the murder of 18 women, children and unborn babies. Their hacked bodies were placed in multiple mosquito nets, with corpses being separated and mixed with those of others and health workers were unable to identify the individual victims. Other communities have had to bury their dead under the presence of armed guards for protection. If nothing is done to prevent the escalation of such attacks the future of the highlands and the tribes within it is immensely worrying.

To make matters worse, a $19 billion Exxon-lead Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project backed by Australia, PNG’s former coloniser of 70 years, serves Japan, China and South Korea whilst actually harming the local economy. Despite Australia’s Export Finance and Insurance Corporation partially justifying its half a billion dollar loan on the hope it would contribute “considerably to PNG’s economic growth”, when Exxon reached its 300th shipment the tribes in the areas where the pipeline had been built were yet to receive any royalties. The Jubilee Australia Research Centre exposed the exploitative project and fuelled claims of ‘neo-colonialism’ when it published a report in 2018. It revealed how ‘despite predictions of an 84% increase in household incomes, the outcome was a fall of 6%’ and ‘Despite predictions of a 42% increase in employment, the outcome was a fall of 27%.’ Such extraordinary failings by international private actors exploit the highlands and the tribes living there, as well as exacerbate existing land disputes.

More than that, the company has further starved the area of the already lacking services including police, where specialist squads are used as security for the project when there are only 40 police for the province of 400,000 citizens to begin with. Hela Provincial Administrator, William Bando, despaired that “Our Tari-based MS9 [police mobile squad] were taken by Exxon-Mobil to provide security, while our people are dying.” This despicable sacrifice of the needs of the tribes in favour of multinational corporations abandons the tribes without addressing the urgent and pressing need to resolve the conflict.

Some work has been done by international actors, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) playing a leading role. Their main activities consist of distributing relief kits, working on ensuring access to clean water and health care as well as talking to individuals on all sides of the tribal fighting in an attempt to at least reinstate the traditional laws to minimise the escalation of fighting.

Given the incredible cultural and linguistic diversity within the highlands, with some 800 languages being spoken, it is vital that the ICRC’s work within the existing tribal structure is continued in the pursuit of peace. As well as that, it is vital that the situation is changed so that locals actually benefit from the ‘economic leaching’ which is exploiting their home. The United Church’s Young Ambassadors for Peace programme is also an important scheme, whereby the promotion of mediation and focus on PNG’s youth helps pave the way for future peace and stability by investing in the younger generation, giving them the dignity and support that they deserve.

The importance of women in the peace-building process cannot be stressed enough. Not only because they have increasingly become the victims of the attacks, but also because of their traditional position of ‘neutrality’, established by the fact that they often marry into tribes rather than being born into them. The opportunities they provide in their unique place in tribal society must be capitalised on to ensure that the peace process works to the benefit of all members of society in the highlands. Women have been overlooked too many times in the peace-building process and PNG has an incredible opportunity to change that.

Peace is possible in PNG, however, it will be by no means a simple or straightforward process. The remote nature of the highlands admittedly obstructs access to a certain extent but the women, children and men in the tribes deserve more than to be ignored and hidden away with their situation disregarded as hopeless. Women and work within the tribal structures can be continued to alleviate some pressure on the situation and if it is not done soon, the opportunity could disappear.

Image: Bob// Flickr

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