Papua New Guinea has descended into chaos after days of violent demonstrations and riots in the capital Port Moresby and the country’s second largest city, Lae. Protestors originally took to the streets over grievances with police pay and working conditions, but the situation quickly spiraled out of control into widespread looting, arson, and violence resulting in at least 16 deaths.
On January 11th, hundreds of police officers in Port Moresby went on strike over unpaid allowances owed to them by the government. With police forces withdrawn, riots and looting broke out across the city, described by locals as “the worst violence witnessed in the capital for decades.” Gangs ransacked shops and businesses, residents reported continuous gunfire, and over 50 properties were set on fire.
State of Emergency Announced
In response to the escalating violence and deteriorating security situation, Prime Minister James Marape announced a 14-day state of emergency for Port Moresby on January 12th. This gives authorities expanded powers, including limitations on freedom of movement and assembly rights.
The Papua New Guinea Defense Force has been deployed to the streets to restore order alongside a “skeleton crew” of remaining police forces. However, instability persists with ongoing incidents of violence, and residents report fear at leaving their homes as armed looters continue to roam freely. The situation remains “dire and unpredictable” according to government officials.
Violence Spreads to Second Largest City
Meanwhile, copycat mobs ransacked shops and stoned cars in Lae after calls on social media to emulate the Port Moresby demonstrations. This second largest city has seen major disruptions with reports of fires at a market, university, and port facility.
Lae Chamber of Commerce president John Byrne stated, “Shops and commercial premises around the city have closed their doors due to fear of more violence, arson and looting.”
With two major cities now under states of emergency, diplomats have warned the wider stability of the country could be threatened if order isn’t swiftly restored.
Lead Up to the Chaos
The root cause of the riots lies in long-held resentment amongst frontline workers, especially police, over low and unpaid wages which have plunged many into hardship. PNG is experiencing massive inflation, and the cost of living has soared beyond the meager public sector salaries.
Doctors and nurses recently held strikes over similar grievances regarding missed pay which disrupted healthcare services. Critics have blasted the Marape government for failing to address labor issues and presiding over economic mismanagement.
Opposition leader Joe Tonde says that the crisis is “another sad chapter in the story of failure that is this current government,” accusing leadership of ignoring “many warning signs” leading up to the deadly clashes.
What Happens Next?
With two PNG cities under military control and residents still reeling from days of anarchy, analysts say rebuilding social stability won’t be quick or easy.
“The damage is not just physical, the trauma of recent days will linger for weeks and months,” warns political commentator Paul Pharoah.
Continued economic frustrations mean the ingredients remain for further possible flare ups. The Marape government is under intense scrutiny to address worker pay complaints and tackle corruption to restore confidence.
Neighboring Australia and China also urged the PNG government to safeguard investments and citizens. Many Chinese shops were targeted in the riots across Port Moresby.
Diplomats will be watching closely how Marape’s administration handles the ongoing crisis. Mishandling risks not just more internal unrest, but fractures in external partnerships. This turbulence comes at a difficult time for PNG which faces rising debts, inflation, and recession risks.
Ultimately the future direction of the Pacific nation hangs in the balance amidst warnings that urgent reforms are required to put PNG back on course after a violent start to 2024.
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