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Papua New Guinea – The Land of the Unexpected

Much is known about the white beaches and pristine blue waters of the South Pacific, not to mention the idyllic atolls and lagoons with teaming coral reefs and exotic plant-life, but within those same waters, the second largest island in the world, Papua New Guinea, still remains an enigma and a land that has not been exposed to the wider world’s attention. Other than the occasional image of the ‘Huli Wigmen’ and their impressive body-decoration and unique dancing and chants, imitating the Bird of Paradise, nothing within this country features as an international interest. To unravel this Melanesian enigma, one must regard the history and development of this unique culture, their way of life and complex society to understand why the country is still swathed in mystery and remains unknown, even to its closest neighbours, Australia. There are over one thousand tribes in Papua New Guinea and their independent languages contribute 10% of the worldís languages.

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The Melanesian people inhabit the south-western Pacific, commonly known as Oceania. The Independent state of Papua New Guinea governs North Solomon Island-Bougainville, West and East New Britain, the Trobriand Islands, and the off-shore islands surrounding the mainland. According to the most recent statistics (2013), there is an estimated 7.014 million people living within these islands, 80% still living in rural areas without the basic amenities, such as electricity and sanitation.

In colonial times, the Dutch East Indies included the western area of the Island of New Guinea until 1949, when they gained Independence from the Netherlands and became known as Indonesia. The Dutch held sovereignty over western regions of New Guinea until 1962. The UN transferred control of West New Guinea to Indonesia, known today as Papua, in 2002. The extreme south-eastern quarter of New Guinea was governed by Britain and the north-eastern region by Germany from 1883 until 1906, when British New Guinea was transferred to the newly established Commonwealth of Australia. During the war years, Australia was given the mandate to govern the two territories: British and German New Guinea until 1949. In 1975, Papua New Guinea gained its Independence from Australia and became a Commonwealth Realm, with Queen Elizabeth as Sovereign Head of State. Following the Westminster form of Government for any Commonwealth country, the appointment of a Governor General represents the Queen.

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The years following Independence were rocky and there were many constitutional crises, and instability, with votes of no-confidence disrupting Parliament There is an election of a new Prime Minister every five years after a national election. In recent years, there has been a change in the Constitution to prevent the no-confidence vote so as to ensure stability occurring soon after the elected parliament has been convened. They must wait until two years before they can propose a non-confidence vote. One of the reasons for this chopping and changing within Parliament was due mainly to the fact that elections in Papua New Guinea attract many candidates, many gaining barely 15% of the votes in the past-the-post system. With the reforms of 2001, i.e. the introduction of the Limited Preferential Vote System, many of the candidates from the twenty one provinces outside of the National Capital, Port Moresby were elected with The Alternative Vote, thus cutting the numbers of candidates by half.

To gain a privileged position in the political life of Papua New Guinea, particular in the rural areas, where there is no employment and opportunities to progress in business, many aspiring unsuitable candidates would chose this as a way of gaining prestige and status and, a chance to move to the National Capital. Unfortunately, many province minsters have been caught in this web of intrigue and their positions gained by corruption and rigging of votes. In recent years, this practice of buying votes has changed and within the Commonwealth, Papua New Guinea is the most transparent, with stand-offs with the National and Supreme Courts dealing with individual corruption cases. The most recent being the dispute between the former Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare and the newly elected Prime Minster, Mr Peter O’Neill in 2012. The crisis caused by Somare, by not accepting defeat, resulted in a writ for a new Election to be issued. In previous years the military and police would have had a role in the crisis, and even an attempted military coups, but all are short-lived in relation to other democracies. This is mainly due to the development of telecommunication and access to the social media, where the public, via mobile phones and access to television and radio, are more likely to be informed and restrained in reacting by violence and tribal fighting, that on many occasions, has resulted in villages erupting in violence due to misinformation and hearsay, a form of bush telegraph or tokwin (rumour).

Papua New Guinea is divided into twenty one provinces outside of the National Capital District, Port Moresby, (the newest provinces, Hela and Jiwaka, both in the Highlands region formed in 2012). Despite each province having an elected Governor, the problems of autonomy and equality of each region in relation to adequate funding is indicative of the many regional disputes and in-fighting in government. Each province is not only measured by its population but also by its density, therefore, provinces that have a large population, for example in the Gulf, 121,128, with a density per population of only 3.04 (2011 census) do not get a fair cut of the expenses. Many constituents within the Gulf province live in remote, inaccessible areas; consequently, money for development, such as health, education, road improvements, and small businesses often will not reach their needs. The distribution of government funds depends mostly on areas that will be profitable, mainly where there is exploration for oil, gas and minerals, thus, non-production agricultural land remains neglected.

(R.M.H.)

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