Graft and crime are pushing PNG close to collapse

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2003, 12:00am

Papua New Guinea is on the verge of social and economic meltdown and could descend into anarchy, according to a report released yesterday by an Australian think-tank.

The report, by the Centre for Independent Studies, warns that PNG is in danger of splitting into a patchwork of semi-autonomous fiefdoms run by criminal gangs and warlords - a trend already evident in the oil-rich southern highlands region.

'Papua New Guinea shows every sign of following its Melanesian neighbour, the Solomon Islands, down the path to economic paralysis, government collapse and social despair,' warned the report's authors, the centre's Susan Windybank, and Mike Manning, director of the Institute of National Affairs in the PNG capital Port Moresby.

They found that living conditions for the PNG's five million people had barely improved since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975.

Despite millions of dollars in mining revenue and A$12 billion (HK$56.6 billion) in aid from Australia since 1975, the country is sliding, with much of the wealth siphoned off by corrupt government officials and businessmen.

The country is affected by a chronic lack of investment in roads, education and health, as well as the legal system, armed forces and police.

'Violent crime rates are soaring, law and order have broken down, and PNG cannot effectively monitor and defend its land and sea borders', leaving the country vulnerable to people-smugglers, drug traffickers and terrorists, the report warned. 'The risk that Islamist terrorists may use PNG as a haven cannot be dismissed in light of last year's Bali bombing. Terrorists could pay PNG's criminal gangs to assist them with preparations for attacks on Australian soil or against Australian civilians and assets in PNG.'

While the population is growing, job creation is 'totally inadequate', leading to a generation of bored, unemployed urban youth who join gangs of raskols, or violent criminals, in the slums of Port Moresby. The capital was ranked the world's worst place to live in a survey of expatriates last year.

'The extent of lawlessness scares off investors and tourists, reinforcing a downward spiral whereby no jobs are created and law and order get worse,' the authors said.

Strategists regard PNG as part of an 'arc of instability' to Australia's north that includes Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

'It is clear that [Australia's] long-standing 'hands-off' approach of respecting PNG's sovereign right to make its own choices by supporting its development since independence through generous aid has not worked,' the authors say, urging a greater role by the Australian government.

They suggest withholding aid until corruption is addressed, but acknowledged that such sanctions could leave Canberra open to accusations of callousness and neo-colonialism.

The authors criticised Australian Prime Minister John Howard for sending 2,000 troops to the Gulf to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein while allegedly ignoring Australia's own backyard.

'Australia has an Iraq taskforce when it needs a Melanesian taskforce,' they said.

The unremittingly bleak report concludes: 'If PNG's downward spiral continues, conditions common in mineral-rich, central African countries will follow, leading to the further impoverishment of most Papua New Guineans at best, or anarchy at worst.'

The country's mineral wealth had 'subsidised a small political elite at the expense of investment in roads, education and health', while deficit financing had left little money for institutions such as police, the legal system and armed forces, the report said.


Living conditions have barely improved since PNG gained independence in 1975

Despite huge mining revenues and HK$56 billion in aid from Australia since 1975, PNG is virtually bankrupt

The country is lawless and there is a risk that Islamic terrorists will establish bases there