The recent shooting of Papua New Guinean university students by police forces marked a turbulent period in Papua New Guinean politics. It has been reported by the Sydney Morning Herald that police with automatic weapons, had shot at students on their march to Parliament. Students had been boycotting university classes since early May to demand Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s resignation and to face a corruption inquiring involving a police interview.
The shootings of the protesters left at least 12 injured and multiple deaths had been reported by foreign news outlets. Local police alleged that stones had been thrown at them, contradicting the accounts of student protesters and Former PNG Attorney-General, Kerenga Kua, who stated that protesters demonstrated “exemplary” behaviour.
Following the incident, numerous responses by domestic and foreign actors brought the shootings into the wider framework of democratic rights and state power. The Prime Minister’s immediate response was an adamant refusal to resign and justified police actions based on allegations of violence from protesters. The PNG Court has banned further protests alongside the government’s insistence of the resumption of classes soon. Additionally, the PNG government, police and Ombudsman Commission have all announced investigations into the shootings. The results of these findings will take time and will face international and domestic scrutiny as well as legitimacy concerns. Internationally, Australia has offered assistance via the Australian Federal Police presence in Papua New Guinea. International Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have also demanded independent inquiries into the shooting, for which the Ombudsman Commission’s political neutrality could deliver.
The implications of the shootings reflect fragmentation between the democratic right to protest and the role of police actions enabled and justified by the government. This is not to imply that the police force and the O’Neill Government is corrupt, but rather that the transparency and accountability demanded by citizens has been met by the Prime Minister’s refusal to answer corruption allegations. O’Neill has been accused of siphoning money overseas originating from $30 million of fraudulent legal bills made to a law firm. These serious allegations and continued stalling by O’Neill undermines the fabric of democracy and rule of law. As a result of these protests and stalling in motions, parliament will resume in August.
Furthermore, the peaceful role of protest to exercise freedom of speech, enshrined in PNG’s constitution, has been tested by the shootings. Continued plans by students to boycott universities and continue in their protest to parliament, reflects the importance of peaceful engagement to deliver change. Violence on either sides would not deliver such change demanded and could create further tensions as evident in violence spreading into other regions outside the capital, Port Moresby. It is in the best interest of Papua New Guinea’s democratic values that O’Neill addresses the allegations in a conciliatory manner.
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