Politics

1997 – That turbulent, defining year for Papua New Guinea

The 1990s were turbulent years in Papua New Guinea.  

In the first quarter of 1997,  word came out that the government of Sir Julius Chan  was in talks with a British security contractor,  Tim Spicer. The plan was bring in South African  mercenaries to end the decade long  Bougainville crisis.

By the latter part of the decade, it was estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 people had died in the decade long civil war. The protracted conflict, left the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) largely depleted,  demoralized and badly in need of  rebuilding.

The was determined to proceed with the hefty security contract.

After news broke in Australia, the NCD Governor and opposition MP, Bill Skate, became  the strongest of the  political voices against the Sandline contract.  Behind the scenes, NGO groups led by the Melanesian Solidarity Group (MELSOL)  formed an alliance other stakeholders and politicians.

At  Murray Barracks, PNGDF Commander, Jerry Singirok,  issued instructions for Sandline mercenaries to be disarmed and arrested.  

Singirok then went to NBC radio and called for the Prime Minister to step aside.

Prime Minister Chan, then announced the sacking of Singirok.  But over the following days, the tense situation escalated. Students at the University of Papua New Guinea boycotted class and marched to parliament.  In other parts of  Port Moresby, riots broke out and police were called in to disperse rioters with teargas.

Eventually, the mercenaries were publicly humiliated expelled from the country.

1997 was election year, with Sandline still fresh in the mind of voters,  key political leaders lost their seats including Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan.  His deputy, Chris Haiveta survived the elections. 

When parliament met, Bill Skate, was voted into office as Prime Minister. But Skate’s term in office was plagued with a host of problems economic and political. This included allegations of bribery and corruption. 

The Skate  had taken over at a time when political allegiances were as  fluid and unpredictable or far worse than the decade of the 1980s. Anti-Sandline observers were angered that he chose Chris Haiveta later in term to become  Deputy Prime Minister.

When Bill Skate came to power, the country’s  cash flow had been severely starved  by 10 years of war on Bougainville. The  country was also struggling with a severe drought and the water levels at the Fly River river had dropped so much that barges were left stranded.   Mining operations had to be suspended and staff were sent home.  

Those problems were further  compounded with controversies  surrounding the political and economic  decisions at the time.

One of those decisions was to employ former World Bank Head of PNG and consultant,  Dr. Pirouz Hamidian Rad, on a seven  million kina contract. The Opposition was furious. They traded blows both inside and outside of Parliament. 

Hamidian Rad developed the 1999 budget with recommendations to  cut funding to important sectors like education, health, law enforcement. 

On an even grander scale, the controversies reached outside of PNG’s Boundaries. The government attempts  to give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in hope for funding support, fell through after it was revealed publicly.

Things got out of control even more.

It was outside the old Jackson’s airport terminal, in 1997 that Prime Minister Bill Skate, publicly and unceremoniously sacked his deputy, Chis Haiveta. 

The Prime minister had just returned from an overseas meeting.  While he was away,  an associate, Mujo Sefa,  released videos of him boasting about alleged crimes. Sefa, also filmed Defense  Minister appearing to receive cash bribes.

When the Mujo Sefa tapes were broadcast on Australian Television,  the Prime Minster underestimated the impact of  the news.  At the airport, the PM tried to downplay the news. But when prompted during questions, he announced the sacking of his Deputy, Chris Haiveta and Coalition partner Andrew Baing.

Coalition MP’s immediate withdrew their support.  With Haiveta gone from cabinet, Pangu split into two camps.  Faced with immense pressure from  within his own ranks and from the Opposition, Skate resigned, paving way for the election of  a new Prime Minister.

After a lot of political wrangling in the weeks leading up to Bill Skate’s resignation as Prime Minister, Coalition leaders including John Pundari had made a decision to back Sir Mekere Morauta as Prime Minister.

All this has now become part of the  tapestry of Papua New Guinea’s rich, yet troublesome  and sometimes infuriating political history.

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Acknowledgements:  In 1997, John Eggins, led a team of young largely inexperienced journalists, camera operators and producers in the coverage of the Sandline Riots.  The late Jerry Ginua (journalist)  Titi Gabi (journalist)  Sincha Dimara (Producer)  and Francis Benny (Cameraman) were the most senior at the time. Benny Malaisa was trapped inside Parliament with politicians including the Grand Chief when soldiers laid seige to the house. Cameraman, Wari Ila, filmed soldiers outside NBC.  Jerry Kuasi was there during the action. I also make a special mention of Fr. Zdzislaw Mlak, my mentor and teacher whose invaluable camera and editing skills in Sandline (and the Aitape Tsunami a year later) documented important pieces of PNG history.

The ABC/PVM  camera crew led by Andrew Johnson and Sean Dorney  had perhaps the most experienced cameramen, Peter Dip, Joe Sabbath and a few others.  The most senior journalists at the NBC, the Post Courier and the National guided the flow of coverage in the months and years  that followed.  Most have left. Some have passed on. Their sole aim was to be as truthful and balanced (despite the threats and instability) so that Papua New Guinea would be informed enough to make the right choices and not go down the path of a nationwide civil unrest. Much respect to them all!

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