Papua New Guinea

Location: eastern half of New Guinea and islands
Population: 3.6 million
Religion: animist beliefs, Christianity
Language: pidgin, motu, English, 700 local languages

Papua New Guinea (PNG) comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a number of smaller islands extending north-east to Bougainville Island at the northern end of the Solomon Archipelago. The population of about 3.6 million is divided into about 10,000 tribes each with varying social and cultural characteristics and over 700 distinct languages; in fact Papuan society is composed only of minorities. In addition there is a small community of Chinese traders and many expatriate foreigners, most of whom are on short term contracts.

The colonial period

Little is known about New Guinea before the arrival of Europeans in the area. Its island and coastal peoples participated in the well-established trading cycles in the area while those in the mountainous interiors were more isolated and technologically unsophisticated. From the nineteenth century the European powers staked their claim to the islands; the Dutch to the western half, which was incorporated into the Dutch East Indies, the Germans to the north-east and the islands; and successively, the UK, the Queensland government and (after 1901) the Australian government, to the south-eastern section. After the end of World War I the German section passed to Australia as a Trust Territory under the League of Nations and later the United Nations mandate. Both the Germans and the Australians had confined themselves to the coastal areas and the islands, sometimes expropriating land for copra plantations and trading. It was not until the 1930s that Europeans began penetrating the unknown interiors in the search for gold. There they found highland peoples — later estimated to number a total of one million — living in the large valleys. However it was many years before there were effective road or transport communications in these remote areas; even today they are limited and air is the most accessible means of transport.

After the Japanese occupation of Papua New Guinea during World War II, the Australians made efforts to improve administration and increase development. However it was not until the 1960s and the commencement of more critical UN scrutiny that a programme of rapid economic development began, with priority being given to education and political development. The war had brought large numbers of indigenous people into contact with the world outside the narrow limits of the Australian administration and for the first time they received more equitable treatment. The material wealth of the Allied armies, and apparent prosperity of black American soldiers in particular, helped to fuel expectations to acquire money and material goods. By the mid-1960s there were the beginnings of an educated independence movement, drawn from an emerging urban elite of civil servants, students, urban workers, trade unionists and the church. In the villages developments took a number of forms ranging from the outright conservatism of the Highlanders, fearful of rapid change and post-independence domination by the coastals, through to various cargo cults, to a number of ethnically based, sub-regional movements seeking a greater economic stake.

During the late 1960s opposition movements were formed, most significantly in the islands. Chief among these were the Mataungan Association of New Britain and the Kabiswali Movement in the Trobriand Islands. Much more serious, in retrospect, was the discontent being expressed in Bougainville. Incorporated into the German ad-istration from 1899 to 1914 Bougainville was a late addition to the nation. Bougainvillians have closer ethnic ties to the northern Solomon Islands than to the other islands of PNG. They are taller and darker than the “redskins” from the mainland and Bougainville leaders have often used the term mungkas (black) to create a sense of unity. They suffered as coastal land was expropriated for plantations. Later Australian administration was indifferent. By the late 1960s Bougainvillians could centre their protest around the working of a large copper mine in central Bougainville owned by Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA), disputing land ownership and the payment of royalties which were paid not to local land owners but to the administration. After repeated demands for a share of the royalties it was agreed in 1967 that 5% of royalties (of the 1.25% of the value of the minerals paid to the administration) should be paid to the village land owners. Further disputes over the administration’s compulsory acquisition of land for the development of mine and port facilities resulted in the formation of Napidakoe Navitu, an association of local language groups which negotiated greatly improved terms for the land-owners.


In 1972 in the first elections the Pangu Party came to power in a coalition government under the leadership of Michael Somare. This government appointed a Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) to draw up a constitution for the newly independent Papua New Guinea. The CPC found that there should be decentralization of power to the new provincial level and that villagers should have real control over local affairs and a framework within which their rights and interests could be protected.

In the run up to independence set for September 1975, two movements announced their secession from PNG. The first was a Papuan separatist movement which announced its independence from PNG in January 1975. Papua, at least in part linked by a lingua franca called motu, claimed that it was less developed than the interior areas and had received less than its fair share of government spending. The government ignored the movement, which in any case had confused objectives and no real ethnic basis, and it seemed to fade away. Papuans in turn were resented by the more conservative Highlanders, largely operating through the United Party.

The Bougainville secession movement

A more serious challenge came from the revival of the Bougainville separatist movement. The copper mine was by far the largest foreign exchange earner for the PNG government and therefore it was determined to hold onto it, especially after it appeared that Australian budgetary aid would be cut after independence. In December 1972 the murder of two Bougainvilleans by highlanders hardened secessionist feelings, which had previously considered the options of joining the then British Solomons or forming a federation with other islanders. The secessionist movement came to a head two weeks before PNG independence when the former District Commissioner, supported by an MP and the local Roman Catholic Church, declared unilateral independence as the Republic of the North Solomons. Neither the PNG government nor Australia recognized the new republic, but after PNG independence, talks between the two sides began. The national government, under Somare, agreed on revitalized proposals for decentralization in provincial government and further concessions were made on royalties, while the Bougainville leaders withdrew their more radical demands, and in August 1975 signed an Agreement (the North Solomons Agreement) which marked their return to membership of PNG. Within the agreement was recognition of the principles of decentralization at the national, provincial and local levels, and for the need for provincial governments to have certain exclusive areas in legislation and taxation.

Early in 1977 an Organic Law on Provincial Government was passed. The act embodied full details of devolution, and after Bougainville had been granted full provincial government status in 1977, other provinces rapidly followed. To date it has appeared that this has not damaged national unity (in many ways a new and foreign concept) and no one provincial government has been able to determine policy or dominate others.

In Bougainville itself local dissatisfaction with the policies of the administration was never really resolved. The main cause was the presence and exploitation of the giant Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) mine. The Nasioi people felt continuing resentment against the low level of royalties accruing to themselves, especially as the renegotiation of 1974 mainly benefited the provincial government. The mine has had devastating environmental effects; roads have torn through the jungles, almost 8,000 acres is used as the mine site and dump and the ore waste is emptied into a nearby river, polluting the sea. Although the mine employs local people, ethnic tensions arise from the presence of mainlanders who stay in the area after their contracts expire.

In late 1988 the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), led by a former employee of the mine, was formed. Despite being poorly equipped it appeared to benefit initially from strong local support and successfully launched attacks on the mine and its employees, culminating in an attack on the BCL’s electricity supply in May 1989 which resulted in the closure of the mine. After the failure of negotiations, the central government declared a State of Emergency and brought in 1,600 non-Bougainvillian troops, who have killed rebels, burnt villages and forcibly relocated hundreds of villagers to detention centres on the coast. The Deputy Premier of the province was himself beaten by police. In mid-September BRA militants murdered the Provincial Minister of Commerce, a move which led to the postponement of a US$300 million landowner’s package due to be signed on September 12,1989.

The Highlanders

There have always been potential sources of friction between the peoples of the coastal lowlands and those of the high valleys in the interior. At the time of independence, some Highlanders were considered backward and conservative, and some of their leaders urged the Australian government to delay independence in order to allow them to catch up with coastal groups. To a large extent these fears have been alleviated as more Highland peoples have been drawn into the political system of parliamentary government at central and provincial levels, partly through the adoption of the traditional system of the rule of “big men”. In 1985 Paias Wingti became the first Prime Minister from the Highlands. The rise in the prices of coffee and other highland commodities, grown substantially on small plots and marketed by local organizations, has encouraged highland enterprise and initiative, while the continuing development of the Highlands Highway to the coast and air services elsewhere has drawn the Highlanders into national life. However, economic and social changes have also produced strains. In some areas land shortages have developed and thousands of young Highland men migrate to coastal cities where their lack of education and urban skills has led many into crime and anti-social behaviour. There are occasional clashes between Highlanders and coastal peoples; states of emergency were declared in Port Moresby in 1986 and in Lae and the Eastern Highlands in 1987 and clashes took place in Port Moresby in 1989. Traditional, inter-tribal warfare remains a regular feature of dispute settlements in the Highlands. Such conflicts are resolved by a mixture of military and police intervention, administrative measures and traditional conciliation and compensation.

The future

Apart from the continuing secessionist movement in Bougainville, PNG has not been faced with long-term ethnic unrest but rather with civil unrest as a result of social changes and economic factors. In some ways there have been encouraging moves towards greater unity. An indigenous lingua franca has emerged in Pidgin, sometimes called neo-Melanesian, which is a combination of English, Malay and local vocabulary and Melanesian grammar, and which exists alongside the other lingua franca of motu. Over one million Papua New Gui-neans speak Pidgin today and it is the main language in the country’s national parliament. A national paper, Wantok (”One Talk”), is published in Pidgin. There is great national pride in the role played by the PNG army in the transition to independence of the Melanesian state of Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides). There has been a growing sense of PNG’s role in support of the Kanaks of New Caledonia and leadership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional grouping. PNG remains a lively parliamentary democracy with political allegiances based on shifting factional or personality-based alliances, rather than ethnic or ideological ones. The human rights record is generally a good one. PNG’s future well-being rests on its ability to reconcile the rising expectations of its young population, to channel mining revenues into productive sectors and to manage the volatile relationship with its giant neighbour Indonesia.

(See also )