What’s Next for Papua New Guinea After Violent Start to 2024?

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What’s Next for Papua New Guinea After Violent Start to 2024?

2024 has already tested Papua New Guinea, with deadly unrest in the capital and tribal fighting in the highlands. Where do matters currently stand for the government of James Marape?

What’s Next for Papua New Guinea After Violent Start to 2024?
Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

The fallout continues from the spate of deadly unrest in the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, and other urban centers on January 10, prompting the declaration of a state of emergency. Then on February 18, scores of people were killed in tribal fighting in the highland province of Enga. These incidents continue to strongly reverberate through local communities, the nation, and a region confronting escalating geopolitical tensions.

These eruptions of unrest have raised many questions. What have these incidents revealed, what fallout have they caused, and where do matters currently stand? What is the way forward for Papua New Guinea and how can the international community, particularly the United States, lend support?

The January 10 riots impacted the political leadership of Prime Minister James Marape. In the wake of the riots, his political opponents began maneuvering to bring a no-confidence vote intended to topple his leadership. Marape fended off criticism and insisted he had the numbers to retain his position without great political cost to either himself or his PANGU party.

The stakes were enhanced by Marape’s address to the Australian Parliament on February 8. His statesman-like turn in Canberra reflected a strong, competent leader, an image intended to weaken the political moves afoot back home. Not inconsequentially, the event also showed Australia’s investment in Marape as a partner and friend presiding over a unique bilateral relationship that Australia wants to further tighten.

But the eruption of violence in the highland province of Enga on February 18 bolstered the parliamentary moves against Marape. These tribal killings shone additional unflattering light on the central government’s shortcomings, not least its inability to maintain basic levels of security and control within the nation’s borders.

After successfully flexing his parliamentary advantage through a non-binding vote on PNG becoming a Christian nation, on February 22 Marape outplayed his opponents, led by the MP Alan Bird, who were pushing for a no-confidence vote, by suspending parliament until May. 

How threatened is Marape’s leadership, and therefore the political stability of the nation, and what can be expected on that front over the coming months?

While there were defections on the government back benches in February, Marape’s core party and coalition partners remain loyal to him. While parliament is suspended, Marape will work to consolidate his position. His main way of doing this will be through the distribution of resources to districts and provinces. That, it is expected, will translate into the political fealty of the members of parliament whose constituencies are recipients of this largesse.

Any legal challenges to Marape’s move to suspend parliament are unlikely to get traction due to the limited jurisdiction of courts over this matter. If Bird is to have any political gains, he will need to shatter Marape’s consolidation efforts, incentivize defections against Marape, and change the make-up of key committees, like the Government Business Parliamentary Committee, currently populated by Marape loyalists. Bird’s political objective of unseating Marape seems to be a longshot.

The security of Marape’s leadership will also depend on his ability to use the parliamentary hiatus to address critical issues like the acute shortage of fuel, which became apparent not long after the Enga killings, and will exacerbate the social and economic issues that sparked the January 10 riots. Marape’s government has invoked an essential services order to get fuel reserves flowing. Deputy Prime Minister John Rosso has been tasked with bringing alternative suppliers after the leading supplier, Puma, ceased operations due to corruption charges, which precipitated this crisis. Also, business support packages are being made available to keep the economy afloat. In the highlands, the government has become more visible as threats of revenge killings have been made. All of this shows that Marape and his government have been given opportunities to fix issues. The onus is now on them to do so, and quickly.

Policing is perhaps the most consequential issue for PNG. It is also the issue that invites the direct intervention of external actors into PNG’s domestic troubles. Following the January 10 riots, China advanced an offer first made in September 2023 to assist with “training, equipment and surveillance technology” of the local police force, PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko revealed. There are also reports that Chinese businesses in Port Moresby that contracted armed private security were left alone by rioters, and some of these private security agents were allegedly responsible for some of the riot deaths. 

Since the post-riot offer from China came to light, Marape reassured anxious partners, not the least Australia and the United States, that his government does not intend to accept the offer. Indeed, Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, went so far as to assert that there should be “no role” for China in policing Pacific Islands, following recent reports of China working with Kiribati on “community policing and a crime database program.” 

This creates a dilemma for Australia, as there is clearly a great need for the bolstering of security in its nearest neighbor, and Australia will need to fill the void. Yet the infusion of high-powered weapons into the ancient tribal dispute-resolution methods has increased the lethality of these conflicts, which have endured despite multiple interventions over the years. The politics of revenge will very likely see more violence, which creates a dilemma for an Australian government loath to put any Australian Federal Police in harm’s way.  

There is a significant risk that PNG’s internal security dynamics will begin to have a great power competition overlay. One scenario is China competing in PNG police and military training, despite the Marape government stepping away from that possibility at present. The other possibility is a Wagner-type organization emerging to provide private security. The use of private security to protect lives and property in the January 10 riots was an object lesson in the effectiveness of the personalized security method.

How can the United States help? One way is to expand support for organizations like Advancing PNG – a woman-led peacemaking organization that is making headway in reducing and averting community violence. Continuing to invest in the women who lead these organizations and their ideas is vital. Other ways are to deploy resources to cut off the supply of weapons and drugs that destabilize communities and wreak havoc on many levels. Another is investing in education and economic opportunities for PNG’s youth.

All investments that build PNG have a geopolitical payoff, both short and long term, as the stability and well-being of Papua New Guinea is critical for the Indo-Pacific region. 2024 has already tested Papua New Guinea, and the coming months will see additional challenges that will have far-reaching local and regional impacts.