PAPUA NEW GUINEA – The tension between university students in Papua New Guinea and police remains high, as students debate whether to return to class this week.
Authorities are saying the situation is now under control after police opened fire on a student protest march at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) on Wednesday.
Four people are reportedly in a Port Moresby hospital receiving treatment from gunshot wounds – three UPNG students and a 16-year-old high school student, who was shot in the leg.
All are said to be in a stable condition.
The students want Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to step down and address corruption charges. But O’Neill has repeatedly said he will not re-sign.
“I have exercised my constitutional right that I can challenge the issues the police are taking,” he said.
“The constitution allows me to challenge that but it is not stopping any investigation whatsoever and we are quite happy to face any investiga-tion, any challenges that are before us. I want to urge our citizens and of course our students –let the judiciary, who have been mandated by the constitution, do their job.”
The government has announced an investigation into the shooting, as did the police and the PNG Ombudsman Commission.
Former attorney-general and now Opposition MP Kerenga Kua questioned the effectiveness of those inquiries, in particular the police force in-vestigating its own members.
Kua told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat there needed to be an independent investigation, with fair and balanced terms of reference applying to all sides in the ongoing conflict.
“The police behaviour has to be investigated, the government’s behaviour and directions and the police minister’s directions to the police force – people from the opposition, from the student body and from the universities, all of this has to be investigated and a team of policemen alone will not do a fair job,” he said.
Kua said the opposition had also instructed lawyers to file court proceedings to order the recall of parliament to address the issues behind the student protests.
He said a recall would allow a vote of no confidence in O’Neill to go ahead before July 24.
He said with both the students and the prime minister entrenched in their positions, the no-confidence vote was the only way to resolve the standoff in a legal way.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea has offered to be a neutral mediator between the parties involved in last week’s violence.
Father Victor Roche of the Catholic Bishops Conference urged the students, the government, the opposition and the police to adopt what he called “the Melanesian way’” to avoid more violence.
That would involve the parties sitting together discussing non-violent ways forward.
The students were ordered to return to class by this Tuesday.
But some said they were afraid that last Wednesday’s violence would be repeated, and it was unclear how many would return and finish their interrupted semester.
The chair of Transparency International in Papua New Guinea says the authorities’ reaction to police opening fire on protesting students last week is disgraceful, and leaves him with little confidence that things will change.
After the shootings, O’Neill, the police commissioner Gary Baki, and the university’s vice chancellor sought to deflect the blame onto the stu-dents, who they said aggravated the incident through their actions.
But the chair of Transparency PNG, Lawrence Stephens, said regardless of students’ actions, there was no excuse for the police behaviour.
Stephens said last week’s incident was yet another case of the disciplined forces acting with impunity.
“They continue to cause us great shame, and great destruction to life, and damage to individuals.”
“They do so justifiably because you very rarely find that anybody is seriously held accountable. You don’t find any of our political office hold-ers prepared to take responsibility for the decisions that they are ultimately responsible for, they look for other people to blame.”
A 2005 inquiry into the police force came up with 244 recommendations to address issues of disci-pline, the use of high-powered weapons, and the need for a police ombudsman. None of those recommendations were ever adopted by the government. - PNC sources