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Papua New Guinea
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Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta's plan to revive Papua New Guinea's flagging economy by selling state assets and trimming the size of the army ran into widespread resistance in 2001. Dozens of soldiers mutinied for 12 days in March, and students mounted a week-long anti-government rally in June that ended with police killing four protesters. The June protests highlighted fear of job losses if state firms are sold and concern that the resource-rich but impoverished country's assets will be sold to foreigners. Although he faces parliamentary elections in 2002, Morauta pledged to push ahead with privatization. He said the sales would help pay off public debt, boost economic growth, and create jobs in a country beset by rising crime, soaring population growth, and staggeringly high unemployment.
Meanwhile, the government and rebels on Bougainville Island reached an agreement in August that formally ended a twelve-year secessionist conflict and granted autonomy to the island. Tough negotiations lie ahead on disarming guerrillas and fleshing out details of the autonomy plan.
This South Pacific country, consisting of the eastern part of New Guinea and some 600 smaller islands, achieved independence from Australia in 1975. Heavily dependent on natural resources, the young nation was plunged into crisis in late 1988 after miners and landowners on Bougainville Island began guerrilla attacks against the Australian- owned Panguna copper mine. The mine had provided 40 percent of the country's export revenues. The rebels demanded compensation and profit sharing. Located 560 miles northeast of the capital, Post Moresby, Bougainville is the largest island of the Solomons group. The islanders have cultural and linguistic ties to residents of the neighboring Solomon Islands. By 1990, the rebels were waging a low-grade secessionist struggle under the newly formed Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
A short-lived ceasefire on the island broke down in 1996, when gunmen assassinated Theodore Miriung, the head of a government-installed transitional administration on Bougainville. Renewed fighting brought down the government of Sir Julius Chan, who resigned in 1997 following a public outcry over a $27 million government contract with London-based Sandline International to provide mercenaries to aid the army on Bougainville. An anti-incumbent mood dominated the June 1997 elections, as voters swept Chan and 54 other members of parliament out of office. During the campaign, many citizens complained that official corruption and rising crime were keeping Papua New Guinea impoverished despite its abundance of minerals, forests, fisheries, and other natural resources. Bill Skate, a former opposition leader, formed a coalition government that July.
Like its predecessors, Skate's government faced widespread allegations of corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement. Skate resigned in July 1999 rather than face a vote of confidence he was certain to lose. He was replaced by Morauta, the head of the People's Democratic Movement (PDM) party and a former central bank chief.
In a major breakthrough, Morauta's government and rebel leaders on Bougainville reached an accord in March 2000 calling for autonomy and possible independence for the island. Prime Minister Morauta and Bougainville leader Joseph Kabui followed up by signing a formal peace agreement in August 2001 calling for autonomy to be phased in gradually and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. The accords were made possible by an easing of tensions on Bougainville following a 1998 ceasefire there brokered by Australia and New Zealand.
The March 2001 army mutiny ended with the rebel soldiers surrendering their weapons after Morauta, 55, agreed to shelve a plan to cut the armed forces by half, to 1,900 soldiers, to save money. Angered by the proposal, the rebels had sought Morauta's resignation, the expulsion of foreign military advisors, and the scrapping of reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Just three months later, police on June 26 shot dead four protesters while dispersing some 3,000 peaceful demonstrators in Port Moresby. The student-led rally was against Morauta's plan to sell stakes in Air Niugini, the national airline, PNG Banking Corp, the country's largest commercial bank, and other state-owned firms. Despite the unrest, the World Bank released a $20 million aid package linked to the reforms.
In a setback to the government's efforts to boost revenues, plans are behind schedule for a $3.5 billion pipeline to transport gas from Papua New Guinea's southern highlands to the Australian state of Queensland. Some 40 percent of Papua New Guinea's working-age population is unemployed, and the country's annual population growth rate of 2.3 percent on average in recent years is one of the world's highest.
Citizens of Papua New Guinea can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1975 constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and the cabinet. Parliament has 89 at-large members and 20 who represent the 19 provinces and Port Moresby. All are elected for five-year terms. A governor-general serves as head of state and represents the British monarchy.
Elections are free but are usually marred by some fraud and sporadic violence. Since independence, most governments have been made up of unstable coalitions and no prime minister has served a full term. Although most seats are chosen in singlemember, simple-plurality districts, Papua New Guinea has bucked the trend toward a two-party system that such electoral districts tend to produce in other countries. Thirteen parties won seats in the 1997 elections.
Amid a severe urban crime problem, Papua New Guinea's ill-equipped and poorly trained police force has committed grave rights abuses. "Criminal suspects, including those not carrying guns and only suspected of non-violent crimes, are frequently shot dead by police, sometimes in disputed circumstances," the London-based Amnesty International said in July. Moreover, some officers have been charged with raping female detainees. In addition, police often carry out searches and raids without obtaining warrants, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Papua New Guinea's human rights record in 2000. The government has prosecuted some officers for abuse, the report added. A 1998 Australian National University survey ranked Papua New Guinea's urban crime problem among the most severe in the world.
In the rugged highlands, police have in recent years burned homes to punish communities suspected of harboring criminals or of taking part in tribal warfare. Fighting between rival clans near the southern highlands town of Mendi in December killed at least 11 people, Radio New Zealand reported.
Papua New Guinea's judiciary is independent, and defendants receive fair trials. However, because the judiciary has few resources and the crime rate is high, suspects often spend long periods in detention, in some cases up to two years. Prisons are overcrowded, have crumbling facilities, and provide inmates with poor basic services, the U.S. State Department report said.
The army, army-backed paramilitary groups, and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army have been accused of extrajudicial killings and the torture of civilians and fighters during the Bougainville conflict. By some estimates, during the war at least 20,000 civilians and fighters died, mostly as the result of malnutrition and disease.
The private press reports vigorously on alleged official corruption and police abuse and other sensitive matters. Radio is a key source of information given Papua New Guinea's low literacy rate and remote reaches. The state-run National Broadcasting Corporation's two radio networks suffer from inadequate funding and deteriorating equipment. The private NAU-FM network serves Port Moresby and is expanding into other areas. The sole television service, EM-TV, is privately owned and reaches mostly the capital and provincial centers.
Citing concerns of spectator violence, police rarely give approval for demonstrations. Despite limited resources, nongovernmental groups are active and outspoken. Among the most prominent is the International and Community Rights Advocacy Forum, which works on human rights and environmental issues.
While some women are in leadership roles in business, the professions, and the civil service, women continue to be underrepresented in government and politics. They also face significant, unofficial discrimination in education and employment, according to the U.S. State Department report. The report also said that rape and domestic violence continue to be serious problems. Authorities, however, prosecute few such cases. This is in part because most tribal communities view domestic violence as a private matter, while some settle rape cases by having the accused give money or goods to the victim's family.
Papua New Guinea's trade unions are independent, and workers routinely bargain collectively. The government poorly enforces laws on minimum wages, working hours, and benefits, the U.S. State Department report said. The International Labor Organization has criticized a law allowing the government to strike down arbitration agreements or wage awards not considered to be in the national interest. Roughly half of the 250,000 wage earners in the formal economy are unionized.
Papua New Guinea's leaders face the challenge of nation-building in a society where roughly 1,000 tribes speak more than 800 distinct languages, and where extreme social and economic disparities exist between the cities and isolated highlands. Some 85 percent of the population live in remote villages and engage in subsistence and small-scale agriculture.