Papua New Guinea: No High Profile Religious Leader
PAPUA New Guinea is locked in political combat, with the old Sepik strongman trying to claw back power from the new-generation Highlander who made a pre-emptive raid on the parliamentary numbers to secure the riches of incumbency.
In classic Melanesian fashion, both are upping the ante with payback moves that are starting to spiral dangerously. Politics in PNG does not always follow the niceties of protocol. Power is rarely given - it is taken.
A circuit-breaker is required, but who can do it? PNG has no council of chiefs or president or high-profile religious leader. It has a governor-general who appears paralysed and a judiciary tangled in politics. Deposed prime minister Michael Somare is right to be concerned about the precedent set by a government that ignores a Supreme Court judgment.
Fortunately, PNG's military culture has not developed like its neighbours in Fiji and Indonesia, so the officers remain wary about taking over civilian rule, despite Colonel Yaura Sasa's recent attempt at a military takeover - a one-day fizzer that attracted little support.
But PNG has a way out through the floor of parliament and a return to traditional kastom values by its leaders.
The country has a Westminster system, but is a Melanesian nation, in a region where kastom values are a strong undercurrent in politics and everyday life. The Melanesian Way is based on shared values of community, tolerance and consensus, rather than Western style individualism and confrontational party politics.
In his 1975 autobiography, published in the year he became PNG's first prime minister, Somare wrote about the wisdom of Sana, the kastom title he was bestowed with from his father and grandfather.
Somare's father told him: "Every clan has its own special magic, and ours is the magic of peace. When people come to fight us, we call them to eat first. We sit down together. We talk. We eat. We believe that after eating, their minds will be changed. They will not want to fight us any more."
The role of a Sana is to be by turns a fight leader and a peacemaker. Somare used the role of fight leader to unite and bring independence to his people. Now, 40 years later, in the twilight of his political career, he seems intent on maintaining this fight leader stance when it may be time to draw on the Sana wisdom of peacemaker instead.
Somare could return to kastom values to resolve the crisis and preserve his legacy. He might have a Supreme Court judgment on his side, but PNG's parliament and people have largely moved on from his rule. It would be better for those around him to focus on his legacy and the transition to the next generation, so he is well remembered as the father of the nation who brought independence and later helped transform the economy with significant investment.
He needs and deserves a dignified exit from politics, with his nation at peace, not sliding into civil unrest and with its institutions undermined.
After his fight leader gestures - backing an attempted coup and filing contempt charges against the PM - is the hope Somare will now make a Sana gesture of peace. A compromise might be to drop his claims to be PM as long as he can remain an MP, giving him five months in parliament until the next election to manage his departure and rally those loyal to him.
Nor is the impasse just about domestic politics and individual egos - the situation reflects increasing geopolitical pressures on PNG as it emerges as the resource El Dorado of the South Pacific and a Pacific power in its own right. It is strengthening the role of regional groups such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group and becoming more assertive in regional forums.
Somare's "Look north" policy means his backers in Indonesia, Malaysia and China have a stake in this struggle, while the O'Neill government enjoys quiet support in Australia and the Pacific.
Under Somare, Indonesia knew it could always contain the independence movement in West Papua from gaining institutional sympathy in PNG.
But Deputy PM Belden Namah has signalled a tougher approach to Indonesia following an air incident and continuing Indonesian military incursions into PNG. A new generation of PNG and Melanesian leaders are on a collision course with Jakarta over its hold on West Papua. In recent weeks, the MSG (representing PNG, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia) has offered West Papuan leaders the opportunity to apply for observer status, something Somare alone had blocked before.
Canberra has not displayed any overt support for the O'Neill-Namah government, and may be less concerned about who is in power as long as there is an orderly transition to elections in June, when it is quite possible none of the current protagonists will emerge as prime minister.
Somare's father gave him another piece of advice when he was young: "You don't win people by being angry with them. Sana invites people. When you see a canoe coming, go down to the beach, help them to pull their canoe ashore. Invite them in. People will always remember the man who helped them to pull up their canoe."
The bottom line is that most Papua New Guineans don't care about the legal details of this constitutional crisis: they just want a government that delivers basic services without political instability and graft.
Will the people remember Somare as the man who helped them pull up their canoe? That will depend on whether the Grand Chief wishes to be a fight leader or a peacemaker.
Kastom leadership and parliamentary process are the way for PNG to settle its crisis, if Somare is allowed, and prepared, to sit down in parliament with his political enemies. By reverting to kastom peacemaking, Somare would cement his legacy as a statesman in PNG and throughout the Pacific.
Ben Bohane is the communications director at the Pacific Institute of Public Policy in Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Source: The Australian
Photo Credit: BBC News of the World
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