'PNG Is A Tinderbox'


Martyn Namorong is angry.

And he’s got a right to be. From the poorest province in Papua New Guinea, Namorong was able to come to the capital, Port Moresby, to study medicine. His future seemed certain. Instead, he dropped out of medical school and had to make his living on the street, selling betel nut.

As he sat at his small stall, he watched the urban poor fight to survive, and he began wondering why this was so.

Since independence from Australia in 1975, the state had slowly and steadily atrophied, forcing ordinary Papuans to rely on old methods to survive: intensive food gardens in their communally owned land (which accounts for around 97 per cent of the entire country). Widespread corruption funnelling money from mining and logging companies to the Port Moresby political classes had entrenched a sense of abandonment among the urban poor, villagers who had moved to the big city hoping to find work or forced to leave as the rural population swells.

Namorong watched all this, and wondered, and his anger grew.

He began penning missives on his blog, the Namorong Report, excoriating the political and economic system in PNG. His focus shifted from medical and public health issues to the wider picture. In 2011, he won the PNG’s top award, the Crocodile Prize, for essay writing. He wrote:

"I always thought all my life that I was destined to great things and make a difference to humanity. Today, faced with the uncertainty about the future and the hardship of living in the city, I’m more concerned with being able to survive each day. I am more concerned about my own welfare than saving the world.

"The system of education in this country is a failure trap. It is supposed to groom Papua New Guineans but all it does is it produces a lot of failures. In grade 8 ten thousands get thrown out, in grade 10 and 12 thousands more fall through the crack in the system. This is the failure trap. Students spend much of their lives learning about ideas in arts, science and mathematics and are not prepared for both the cash economy and the subsistence economy. I my case, I regret going to medical school because now I am just an unskilled person. I am definitely not skilled to survive in the savannah of East TransFly nor do I have formal qualifications to be recognised in the cash economy. Thus by default I sell betel nut on the street like many other disenfranchised people.

"I don’t dream anymore, I am grounded in the reality. I grapple with the facts as they are. Perhaps there are too many visionaries and dreamers such that no one is there to deal with the reality of life in Papua New Guinea. Even a vast majority of people who a trapped like me do not wish to deal with reality. That is why fast money schemes continue to thrive and voters are gullible towards politicians."

Emboldened by the success of his essay, Namorong began aiming directly at the corrupt political-business nexus which rules the remnants of the state. He joined a growing group of writers on blogs like Edebamona and PNG Exposed who are unafraid to speak boldly of the issues holding their country back, and challenging the mainstream media.

The mass media in Papua New Guinea lacks clout. The two main newspapers, The National, and the Post-Courier, rarely report on the widespread corruption and webs of influence between Port Moresby’s political elite — the only guaranteed way to wealth in the country — and large businesses, Western and increasingly, Asian.

The National is owned by Malaysian logging giant, Rimbunan Hijau, and never comments negatively on controversies over logging on communally owned land across the heavily forested country.

Murdoch’s Post Courier regularly runs press releases or one-sided commentary, and though there are journalists like Simon Eroro, who won the News Limited "Scoop of the Year" this year for his undercover investigation into the movements of West Papuan nationalist militia across the border into PNG, the media is largely cobbled. Chomsky’s notion of "flak" — negative feedback or threats as a method to control the media — is at work in PNG, where a story exposing corruption can force a journalist to go into hiding, along with his or her entire family. But the much-delayed roll-out of the internet in Papua New Guinea has seen a gradual shift towards more open criticism.

Namorong is not afraid of the powers that be. He draws strength from postcolonial African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, particularly his book, Decolonising the Mind, and a sense of fearlessness inspired by desperation. "I figured that as a young disenfranchised Papua New Guinean in an urban setting, I probably didn’t have a long life-expectancy," he says.

"I didn’t wanna die in silence. I knew I had a good grasp of English and an understanding of the undercurrent of society and so I put the two together. There is no difference in what drives me to write with what drives a young man to steal a vehicle and get killed by the cops. We both have nothing to lose. Once one has lost everything and has no hope of any future prospects one lives recklessly. I’d be glad the day some guy puts a bullet in my head because I told the truth. The motto on my blog is a quote from Aung San Suu Kyii: ‘Real freedom is freedom from fear’. I don’t fear death and that gives me the freedom to write."

Namorong’s wellspring is neither nationalism nor patriotism. "These are Western concepts," he says. Instead, he casts himself as an indigenous Melanesian:

"I am an indigenous Melanesian. My people have been independent spiritually, economically, politically and culturally for over 50,000 years. The Independent State of Papua New Guinea was a western concept created to serve western interests and it has done so for over 36 years at the expense of indigenous Melanesians. I refuse to be associated with a corrupt system that has destroyed the Fly River, killed 15,000 people on Bougainville, stolen 5.2 million hectares of customary land and uses the police force to brutalise indigenous Melanesians. I defend the dignity of a free and ancient people."

For Namorong, the driver for change will come from the privatisation of communal wealth, of customary land. "Once private interests subdue the traditional Melanesian social institutions, problems of all kinds arise. Privatisation of national and communal wealth is un-Melanesian. It is what generates the disparities in income distribution and corruption," he says.

It is Namorong’s outspokenness which has attracted others who feel the same tide of tension and rage building up in Papua New Guinea’s cities and regions. It has become real with a uptick in the number of ethnic clashes in Port Moresby and anti-Chinese riots. But as yet, the anger of the growing dispossessed urban poor has yet to target politicians. That’s out of a longstanding respect for the chief, the big-man.

But this week, things may change.

Papua New Guinea now has two governments, led by rivals Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill, each claiming legitimacy, and each appointing their own governor general, police chief and speaker. Unrest in the capital is growing. There are rumours that each side is flying in more members of their respective tribes — Sepik for Somare, highlanders for O’Neill.

To Namorong, this is the latest sign that Papua New Guineans are boiling, following miner strikes, recent riots in Lae, the second largest city, and angry protests against the controversial Special Purpose Agricultural and Business Leases, which effectively transferred communal land to mining or logging companies.

"When I was writing earlier this year, I thought the impact would be felt 15 to 20 years down the line. But as more and more people around the country realise we’re being ripped-off big-time, conversations have now shifted towards next year’s elections," he says. "We have undeserved respect and hope in incompetent big-men to be messiahs. But the elections will spark off widespread unrest. PNG is a tinderbox. The kids just need to strike the matches."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.