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Saturday 11 June 2016 | Published in Regional


Unrest simmering around Papua New Guinea

PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Students in Papua New Guinea say they are traumatised by a police shooting this week and are now considering a mass withdrawal from universities around the country.

Around 40 people, mostly students, were reported to have been hospitalised with injuries, including four who are in a critical but stable condition.

There have been reports of ongoing unrest in the PNG Highlands as people reacted angrily to the police reaction students who were trying to march to parliament.

At least three inquiries into the mass shooting have been ordered, but PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the protests have not changed his position on the students’ concerns.

The violence shocked and angered many Papua New Guineans, and the unrest that was contained in Port Moresby has spread to the volatile Highlands region.

Police commissioner Gari Baki said students in the city of Mount Hagen had mounted a surprise attack on a police station and government buildings.

There were also reports of roadblocks along the Highlands Highway, PNG’s longest road, which links several cities and larger towns.

University students in Lae, the country’s second-largest city, also confronted police before being dispersed.

In Port Moresby, Christopher Kipalan, one of the student leaders from the University of Papua New Guinea, said he no longer felt safe as a citizen.

“There is no rule of law. People are treated as animals,” he said.

Kipalan was at the front of the crowd when the police stopped the student march.

“They opened fire twice, a warning shot and then thousands of bullets were fired right into the students,” he said. “They were aiming at the students and they were shooting.”

On the day of the shooting, many students said they believed in their cause and wanted to continue some form of protest. But Kipalan said they were now scared, and considering a mass withdrawal from universities around the country.

“The students are traumatised and they are all over the place – I don’t think they will come back,” he said.

The violence came after weeks of protests and has refocused attention on calls for O’Neill to resign and submit to a police interview over corruption allegations.

But O’Neill has stood firm, saying the government was not “stopping anybody from expressing their rights to speak or freedom of choice”.

“But do it while respecting others’ rights,” O’Neill said.

“Others rights include my rights as an individual and a citizen of this country.”

The PNG government and the police have both promised investigations into the shootings.

PNG’s Ombudsman Commission, an independent body with the power to sanction government employees and elected representatives, has also announced an inquiry.

The University and the government earlier wanted classes resumed by next week, so students can finish the semester that has been disrupted by the boycotts.

But now, according to the president of the Students Representative Council, Kenneth Rapa, with police remaining on the Waigani campus, students are fearful.

“If the police can go right into the campus and shoot them, it’s unsafe for them to stay in the campus anymore, so most of the students have left the campus already,” said Rapa.

“After what has happened on Wednesday, how could you expect the students to go back to class right after they’ve been traumatised and some students have been hospitalised?”

Following the unrest, the UPNG’s acting chancellor, Nicholas Mann, told local media the university had obtained a court order which effectively disallows students from continuing protest action.

Rapa, who understood that police had been seeking his arrest, said the student council would abide by the court rules, but that they were considering legal options.

The council however would leave it to students to decide as individuals whether they wanted to return to class.

Rapa denied claims that students had been funded or influenced by outsiders. - PNC