Pride and struggles in Papua New Guinea as independence day nears

Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby
Pride and struggles in Papua New Guinea as independence day nears This file photo shows a performer in traditional clothing and makeup waits for the start of a welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.

The excitement is palpable in Papua New Guinea’s capital as the most populous Pacific island nation prepares to celebrate 48 years of independence on Saturday.

It is the time of year when the red, black and gold colors of the nation’s flag and the national emblem, the bird of paradise, are proudly worn by people from all corners of society. 

Already, small traders in Port Moresby and other towns have set up stalls to sell independence paraphernalia and clothing and earn some income. 

The story of Papua New Guinea’s peacefully won independence from colonial power Australia evokes pride and is treasured and repeated by many. The independence anniversary is also a time when people discuss whether Papua New Guinea has made any progress since Sept. 16, 1975.

Yabole James was selling bilum bags that she makes herself and colorful patriotic clothing on a roadside in Port Moresby on Wednesday. 

The mother of three from Enga province said she believes she’ll have good sales because of Independence Day and it will help her and her children meet the rising cost of living.

“I want the government to lower the price of food,” she said.

Yabole James sells colorful patriotic clothing on a sidewalk in Port Moresby on Sept. 13, 2023 to earn income for herself and her three children ahead of Papua New Guinea’s 48th anniversary of independence from Australia. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

A small incident on a Port Moresby bus earlier this week also was typical of the hustle needed to get by in the capital, which has swelled in population over the years due to the influx of people from the highlands, many trying to escape even worse poverty in remote regions and tribal violence.

“Pay up, the price of fuel has risen,” shouted the bus fare collector after several men got on and offered only half the fare.

The men refused to get off, further agitating the fare enforcer who continued to shout.

It’s the government fault that the cost of fuel, food and everything else is up, some of the passengers chimed in. 

We’re all feeling the pinch, they said.

The passengers’ intervention defused the situation and the men each paid one kina (28 cents) instead of two.

“Sadly as a nation we have been struggling,” said opposition leader Joseph Lelang in his statement for Independence Day.

“Prices of food and fuel, of housing and joblessness are affecting all of us. Businesses are closing down, many rural villages still miss out on basic services,” he said.

Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island nations, treated for years as a backwater in international affairs, have recently become a focus of geopolitical attention that reflects rivalry for influence in the region between China and the United States.

But the perennial concerns in Papua New Guinea are unchanged. Among them are the lack of basic infrastructure such as roads and electricity, spasms of lethal tribal violence and the lack of benefit people get from the exploitation of the country’s endowments of forests, gold, gas and other resources by foreign conglomerates.

A video of naked and mutilated corpses dragged behind a utility vehicle on a highway in the highlands circulated widely online last month and showed the aftermath of one of the recent clashes in Enga province, according to police. They blamed local political and business elites for fueling conflicts with hired gunmen.

A man looks at bags decorated in the colors of Papua New Guinea’s flag at a stall in Port Moresby on Sept. 13, 2023 ahead of the country’s 48th anniversary of independence from Australia. [Harlyne Joku/BenarNews]

Papua New Guinea has “regressed drastically since independence,” said Vincent Manukayasi, director of the nongovernmental organization PNG Trust.

“It is time to relook at the system of governance and either amend it to work for us or throw it out and introduce a more suitable system,” he said.

Papua New Guinea’s government has declared Friday a public holiday and instructed departments to decorate their offices in national flag colors. It will mark the independence anniversary on Saturday with an official program of events.

Prime Minister James Marape, who has faced the brunt of criticism of the government’s recent performance, is expected to make a speech following a flag raising ceremony. 

Enga’s governor, Peter Ipatas, earlier this week pointed to greater local ownership of the country’s valuable resources as a way out of the conflicts that have stemmed from resource exploitation. 

Canada’s Barrick Gold, which is one of the world’s largest gold producers, and its Chinese partner, plan to reopen Enga’s Porgera gold mine, which has a long record of human rights abuses, this year. 

They are doing so with a reduced stake in the mine of less than half. Papua New Guinea interests including the national and provincial governments and landowners own the majority under changes pushed through in the past several years.

“Now is the time to improve the conditions of the agreements of the past,” Ipatas said in a statement.


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