Several dead in Papua New Guinea after unrest, looting hits main cities

Prime Minister Marape said a payroll system error had cut the salaries of government employees.
Harlyne Joku
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Several dead in Papua New Guinea after unrest, looting hits main cities People run with merchandise as crowds leave shops with looted goods amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby on Jan. 10, 2024.
Andrew Kutan/AFP

Papua New Guinea’s largest cities have been rocked by looting and rioting and at least several people died in the unrest sparked after a purported payroll system glitch cut the salaries of government employees.

Security forces were trying to keep order in the capital Port Moresby and the industrial center of Lae on Thursday after a day of chaos that erupted following a peaceful protest by hundreds of police in the capital. 

A BenarNews reporter witnessed widespread looting, shops and other buildings set on fire while the sounds of gunshots and sirens rang out across Port Moresby suburbs. 

“I want to appeal to citizens to protect our city. The police and public servant grievances are being addressed,” Prime Minister James Marape said in a statement. 

Sam Yockopua, a doctor at Port Moresby General Hospital’s emergency section, said it had recorded seven deaths and 40 injuries. 

Australian broadcaster ABC reported 15 deaths. There was no immediate official confirmation. Videos circulating online showed looting in Lae on Wednesday and security forces trying to restore order.

A man carries a freezer as crowds leave shops with looted goods amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby on Jan. 10, 2024. [Andrew Kutan/AFP]

Papua New Guinea, with more than nine million people, is the most populous Pacific island country and endowed with significant mineral and other resources, but has struggled to develop economically because of corruption, poor infrastructure, frequent tribal violence and a deep level of inequality for women.

It has one police officer for about every 1,800 people, nearly four times less than the level recommended by the United Nations to ensure law and order, according to a Griffith Asia Institute report released earlier this year. The ratio of police to people has declined substantially in the past half century as Papua New Guinea’s population tripled.

Marape’s statement said pay of government employees was mistakenly reduced because a tax-free threshold hadn’t been uploaded into the payroll system. 

Cabinet would meet on Thursday, Marape said in a televised speech, to consider advice from the National Security Advisory Council and decide a way forward.

Mahesh Patel, owner of the CPL group of companies that operates the chain of Stop and Shop supermarkets, said supermarket staff were attacked by looters.

“I would like to tell the culprits that attacked us – what will I say to the hundreds of farmers tomorrow, I will not be buying the produce that they have grown,” he said in a letter to a daily newspaper. 

“What will I tell my medium enterprise suppliers that their orders and income will be reduced, what will I tell my hundreds of staff who work in stores that were burnt down to ashes that have families to feed and educate,” he said. 

Shops, banks and fuel stations were closed in Port Moresby on Thursday.

Marape said the government could offer tax relief to businesses that have suffered losses as a result of the unrest and property destruction.

It was a “dark day” for Port Moresby, said its governor Powes Parkop, who called for police leadership to swiftly regain control of the situation. 

“We cannot afford to allow this turmoil to persist another night or day,” he said.

“To the citizens, I appeal to you to cease the looting and vandalism of properties,” he said. “We are inflicting harm upon ourselves.”


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