Any student of PNG history will spot the frightening parallels that are developing (we have noted the parallel before). The civil war which tore apart Bougainville for most of the 1990s, began when landowner leaders issued 'unreasonable' compensation demands (similarly Prime Minister O'Neil has labelled the PNG LNG landowner demands as 'unreasonable'). In the case of Bougainville the Panguna Landowners Association demanded K10 Billion.
To suppress the Bougainvillean landowners, the government declared a State of Emergency in June 1989. The PNGDF and the RPNGC mobile squads, then proceeded to burn villages and force displaced civilians into detention camps, where numerous human rights abuses occurred. Hundreds of people died as the security forces bombed, mortared and fired upon civilian areas. They then supplemented these brutal military tactics by placing a blockade around the island. No humanitarian aid was allowed in. This killed thousands of innocent villagers.
|Children killed in a PNGDF Mortar Attack on a Church in 1996|
Since the end of the conflict, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the security forces have modified their ways. The fact not one soldier, police officer or more importantly Commanding Officer was ever charged for the crimes committed in Bougainville speaks volumes. Nor have those who were politically in charge, been held to account.
Sadly, the Southern Highlands are likely to be a greater powder keg, with arms readily available to landowner groups if attacked.
The Prime Minister should not confuse the interests of the nation, with the interests of Esso Highlands. Nor should the public be surprised by recent elevation in landowner discontent. For those who have cared to listen, landowners affected by the PNG LNG project have been making their grievances known.
Moreover, as the recent case of Tumbi aptly demonstrates, the national government is prepared to disregard the rights of PNG citizens, when they come into conflict with PNG LNG. Indeed, to date the families displaced by the landslide are living in tents next to the debris, while PNG LNG truckles rumble over the bodies of those buried.
Violence and force is not the answer to landowner grievances. PNG LNG production deadlines should not dictate the government's response. Patience and dialogue are the only solution to the current impasse.