Papua New Guinea has long harbored ambitions of becoming the 11th member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Theoretically it’s closer, culturally and geographically, to the Pacific islands to its east and, historically and financially, tied to Australia in the south.
But the benefits of being part of a trading bloc that accommodates 500 million people whose economies have enjoyed unprecedented growth and live on its back door are all too obvious. ASEAN knows this, and approaches by Port Moresby have been met with a polite ’no thanks, not yet.’
Some commentators have suggested racism (and a dislike of blacks) stands behind the rebuff. It’s an argument I doubt, though. Racism is alive and flourishing in Southeast Asia, no doubt, and at a level that makes old fashioned prejudices in the West appear relatively mild.
Nevertheless, at an official level, Papua New Guinea’s isolation from ASEAN has more to do with the behavior of its people as opposed to the color of their skin.
About 15 years ago, ASEAN was sharply criticized for allowing Cambodia, Laos and Burma into the trading bloc. The three were seen as either ill-equipped, corrupt or morally bankrupt. Those criticisms were probably justified, but with the benefit of hindsight, Cambodia and Laos are now much better places because of their admission, despite their flaws.
Burma is showing some signs of finally opening up. The bait has been Naypyidaw’s desire to exercise its right to chair the prestigious annual ASEAN summit in 2014.
In short, ASEAN has had its hands full with difficult countries for more than a decade, and the inclusion of Papua New Guinea, which has held special observer status since 1976, was simply seen as too much.
Times have since changed, ASEAN has evolved into a formidable political institution, and perhaps the bloc should re-visit Papua New Guinea’s application.
The problem remains the country itself. Its taste for violence is notorious, though difficult to quantify as summed-up by the U.S. government in its travel advice on the country:
“Although reliable statistics are difficult or impossible to obtain, violent crimes is a serious threat in many areas of Papua New Guinea. The visitor can minimize the potential to become a victim of crime by taking appropriate precautions…Persons who plan to stay in PNG for more than a week or two should get in touch with the embassy or long-time residents for additional guidance.”
The latest ethnic clashes erupted in Lae over the past week and have left nine people dead and businesses closed. Riots also left 1,000 people homeless. A state of emergency has been imposed as gangs went on a rampage and attacked each other with iron bars and bush knives.
There are just 4,800 national police in a country of four million people. Tribal communities prefer village justice to the rule of law. As the U.S. Embassy noted, response times by the police are measured in hours, not minutes.
In the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index released last week, Papua New Guinea sits at 153, three spots below Burma and 14 places behind Cambodia and Laos.
Norway and Australia finished first and second respectively. Singapore was the best ASEAN performer at 26, Brunei followed at 33 and Malaysia on 61. The survey is far from absolute. However, its results, coupled with the latest round of violence in Lae, simply reinforce stereotypes and perceptions that Papua New Guinea must break with the past if it is to join the Southeast Asian trading bloc.