Papua New Guinea and the Jasmine Revolution

University of PNG student, Nou Vada, examines the roots of the Jasmine revolution that is sweeping across Africa and the Middle East and ponders what it might mean for Papua New Guinea where many of the same frustrations and discontent are clearly visable.

By Nou Vada

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old Tunisian vegetable seller, set himself on fire outside a Government hall out of frustration at his country’s oppressive system of Government (a government that at the culmination of Bouazizi’s disdain toward it had by its authoritarian authority – the same that had suppressed political aggravators and radical-minded revolutionaries alike for over three decades past – taken the poor man’s wooden vegetable cart) no one in the world – least of all Bouazizi, who I think acted in a state of mind more personally frustrated than political or revolutionary  – expected this self-immolation would spark the downfall off the Tunisian Government and then the Egyptian Government.

As I write, the Governments of Yemen, Iran, Jordan, Libya and the wider brotherhood of authoritarian Middle-Eastern Governments and even the freedom suppressor extraordinaire, the People’s Republic of China are bracing themselves for a stubborn uprising of the masses as was seen in the 3 week popular siege of Egypt that saw the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign. Indeed in some of the countries I’ve named the push for revolution is well underway. The question I ponder now and justifiably so given the conditions many of us, the ordinary tax-paying citizens of Papua New Guinea have found ourselves in is this: What if Mohamed Bouazizi was a buai seller at 4 mile bus stop?

It’s an interesting thought. Bouazizi would probably be living in a squatter settlement. He’d probably wear ‘cut jeans’. Probably ‘Loose bum’ and a rugby league jersey with a pair of slippers on. The cosmetics, as unimportant as they are to this discussion are easy stereotype projections of ‘batamahn Mohamed’ or ‘Momex’ – that is, the hypothetical Papua New Guinean Mohamed Bouazizi.

Papua New Guinea has its own share of horror movie occurrences daily. Just last week there was an article about a man who had eaten a baby alive. But as desensitized to stories of inhuman human suffering as we have found ourselves to be in contemporary Papua New Guinea (many thanks of course to our daily newspapers’ dedicated attention to graphic descriptive detail but not necessarily basic grammar and spelling), the image of a simple Papua New Guinean man, bullied out of his income and his dignity, setting himself on fire at Tabari Place, or outside Lagatoi Haus where the NCDC City Rangers who like to beat on buai sellers are based, or even at the steps of our magnificent House of Parliament at Waigani should surely strike a chord or a raw nerve to anyone reading this and seeing the image of the man on fire as it does with me.

It’s not the gore of the image that strikes. No image of an act of self-immolation can be brashly termed as a metaphor but the reason why the idea of the image is moving is because in some real way it is exactly that – a metaphor. Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire out of anger at the absence of good civics and ethics in his own government and how he had suffered and humiliated enough. It struck a chord with everyday Tunisians. It moved them into action. It toppled the country’s repressive regime. There was a higher meaning to his singular act of frustration. This higher meaning resonated with Tunisians everywhere.

It has become almost clichéd to call Papua New Guinea a land of contradictions. But I think this is true nevertheless. We claim to be something but turn around and do something else. It is said we have one of the most beautifully written constitutions in the world. Our constitution is also one of the longest (according to Associate Professor Eric Kwa at the UPNG School of Law, we’ve got the longest in the world since the inclusion of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Constitution) and the most descriptive. But with all its bells and whistles and attention to detail it has been reduced to an expandable little book by our Parliamentarians, some of whom were the ones who wrote the constitution and others who once zealously guarded its power as Justices in the courts of this country.

It’s amazing that in the affair of the Governor-General election of 2010, Parliament voted to discard the parliamentary voting system established by the constitution. It is interesting further that the Justice Minister, a decorated legalist who was at one time the Chief-Justice of Papua New Guinea failed to advice government on basic constitutional principles like ‘Don’t Mess with the Constitution’. The Parliament, and in particular the Speaker had breached Section 88(2) of the Constitution which requires that every decision of the Parliament to nominate a person for appointment as Governor-General be made by a simple majority vote, in an exhaustive secret ballot conducted in accordance with an Organic Law, including where a person proposed for nomination has been approved for appointment for a second term. Parliament did not have an exhaustive secret ballot. In fact, no one else besides the host of EMTV’s Chit Chat was considered for the vote.

Were these events a preview to the future governance of Papua New Guinea? This has apparently been the norm in Tunisia and Egypt under the regimes of Sidi Bouzid and Hosni Mubarak. The absurdity here is that Papua New Guinea is a constitutional democracy. One of the key hallmarks of the Jasmine Revolution is the call for Constitutional reform. Obviously the constitutions of these countries under the Jasmine Revolution (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran) are made in a way to ensure the success and continuity of the repressive regimes in power. Papua New Guinea’s constitution on the other hand guarantees that all power rests in the People through elected leaders. It further sets out the rules of election of these leaders in the constitution and in Organic Laws of the country. Everything seems to work in favour of the people. But then exactly because of this, as seen in the matter of the Governor-General, nothing ever works out for the People.

I discussed the prospects of prolonged strikes by the masses against the Government of the day with one of my friends, a third year Business Management student from Nipa in the Southern Highlands over a drink of Coffee Punch. He had an interesting take on the idea of the Jasmine Revolution in Papua New Guinea. He said there was something called Papua New Guinean nature – this is basically the same as saying the Melanesian way. The ability of Papua New Guineans to see beyond their own potential progress, beyond the everyday injustices they experience, beyond the sad state of affairs they experience out of some generic ‘big man’ respect for our National Leaders. My friend reasoned that there were just too many ethnicity barriers to unite the masses against the government. A foul word against Sir Michael, he explained was a foul word against the tens of thousands of People from his ethnic group living in Port Moresby.

I have to admit, there was great truth in my friend’s rationale. Maybe Papua New Guinean nature is what we need to be emancipated from or this just a Mission Impossible. The next day my sober mind pondered again about this. At the end I think Papua New Guinean nature is real. Nevertheless the human condition and human experience dictates that it can only go so far. We are living in the new Golden Age of Papua New Guinea at a crossroad. The big LNG bomb is already proving some of the social theories we have of ourselves. Imagine my amazement last year when I heard there was a tribal conflict – not in the Highlands – but in the motuan coastline between Boera and porebada villagers; so much for the cliché of Motuans as a peace loving and submissive race of people.

The fighting between the villagers resulted in the death of a couple of youths and an almost month long temporary extinction of Boera Village. The cause of the conflict was ‘gardening rights’ to a piece of land. Of course that particular garden land is a part of the LNG project’s development area. As strange as that whole motuan tribal war saga was, I think it put things in perspective for me with the whole issue of Papua New Guinean nature. Papua New Guinea nature, as coined by my friend from Nipa is real. But when there is so much at stake for everyday people, Human nature sets in. The God-given instinct for emancipation surfaces very visibly. We saw this in Tunisia. We saw this in Egypt. We’re seeing it across the Arab World and the developing world. At some point in time the level of corruption in Papua New Guinea’s government will become unbearable. Is this point yet to be reached or have we gone past that point already. One thing’s for sure; that fateful point is a point of no return. All we need now is an image that defines our frustration. It doesn’t have to be a burning man as it was for the Tunisians. It doesn’t have to be Wikileaks’ leaked US diplomatic cables that speak of corruption as was the case in Egypt. It doesn’t have to be elaborately set out Facebook pages and blogs. It just has to be an image that defines our disdain. The Jasmine Revolution in Papua New Guinea will be a test of our will as the People who own all the power of governance and who have entrusted this power to an established Government and who have been violated by the government we created. Papua New Guinea is a young country. Its citizens deserve better than what they’ve got right now. The Jasmine Revolution is closer than we think. It might take great political will. It might take thousands of Kina in logistics and personnel. It might just take the actions of a simple Buai Seller.

Rest in Peace Mohamed Bouazizi March 29, 1984 – January 4, 2011

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”- Edward Munch



Thanks for liking my article. Apart from a few missed question marks and some abrupt sentences i think ive done pretty well for a teenage political commentator. Cheers mate!

Fresh, fair and strong. Creative, non-starry-eyed.

I hope this year the pen will be mightier than the sword...

Thanks Kal El! I know you never liked the corporate pigs of metropolis.. You were always Smallville's country-bumpkin!

Moamar Gadhafi is the next piece on this chess board... maybe when someone as immovable as he is falls to the Jasmine Revolution we can appreciate the proximity of possibility.. the possibility of an intellectual uprising. Hibiscus Revolution we'll call it! Im not a fan of Ernesto Che Guevara but i have to say "Hasta La Victoria Si Empre!!!!"

Great article (understatement of course)....tyrants and dictators, one after the other, dressed in a liberal suit, complimented with a democratic smile. We fall for it everytime. But do I smell a revolution? Meh, not for a while. Our problems are considered menial by those experienced elsewhere. I suggest we take the higher road of constructivism, and shake the hand of the oppressor and thank him for showing us exactly what not to do and have him judged by the system he abused. We want freedom with justice not anarchy. But I understand you speak of intervention, before it all gets out of hand. Yeah? ACT Now! before we don't have hands to shake with.

And remember, violence never solves anything. If we oppress the oppressor, then what does that make us? Or maybe that's just my semi-optimistic dream. Keep em coming bro. God bless, viva la revolution!

I agree with you, Saint

Iv tried not to sound too 'i-dont-kill-ants-i'm gandhi' starry-eyed but at the same time not sound too 'at-all-costs' radical. Thanks for reading the article

I enjoyed reading your article. It is informed, thoughtful and direct.

There is one sentence that disturbs me, perhaps the crux of what you write - "One thing’s for sure; that fateful point is a point of no return. All we need now is an image that defines our frustration."

We burned a mother of two at a settlement in Lae last week on suspicion of socery. No one has reacted to that horrific crime. Except maybe the highlands family will do payback killing. Same old...

Methinks that burning man will not work in PNG. That image worked elsewhere because of common shared beliefs and values among different classess of people.

We need to know what every Papua New Guinean really cares about.

So, what do we value?

Do we all really value and care about our constitution?

Do we all really value and care what happens in the mining camps, the logging camps, the customs and immigrations offices, rural villages who don't get government services?

Then before looking for leaders, ask ourselves, what am I gonna do about it today?

I agree with you completely Icarus!

As for the burning man hypothesis and where it stands - well you couldve quoted a little further to capture my rationale here. Allow me then:

"It doesn’t have to be a burning man as it was for the Tunisians. It doesn’t have to be Wikileaks’ leaked US diplomatic cables that speak of corruption as was the case in Egypt. It doesn’t have to be elaborately set out Facebook pages and blogs. It just has to be an image that defines our disdain."

I for one think it will be something like the assasination of a true leader sanctioned by other leaders.
The whole affair of true Sam Basil allegedly being given death threats by Father-and-son Somare... You catch my drift, right?

Our cultural aspects seem to be the root cause of our problems and sadly many people run to culture (for eg., what comes off as modern-day corruption) to resolve. Theoretically - you steal - you get thrown into the main holding room. And we just need smart people to think this through.

In saying this of course (and as my name suggests), I have always thought that people in the workforce need to be more pro-active and approach employment (formal and informal) as good as how those 7-eleven shops are run in Brisbane. Especially the ones in POM (come on, your called Port Moresby CBD on wikipedia!). I think people need to learn the value of earning (in the most strictest sense) to sustain their own lives rather than wastim taim long tingim brata na susa - this is the very beginning of corruption. I'm not saying we lose our religion/culture and become secular madmen, but if you think of it, we do too much Heboga-hisi and have too many poromans and poromeris in our lives that we do everything with them sometime compromising our own! Change is good - drop the culture, pick up the spade. Only then i think, we will value our few minutes at the ballots alone and vote not necessarily intelligent but smart and proactive people.

To all who are leaders/managers who are reading this, I encourage that you should educate your staff equally as you are informed of these issues. As you make it your job to say that your customer is always right and is an asset - when recruiting or toolbox meeting, take the time to explain to them why we we pay taxes to the govt. After all, as the number of tax-aware people increase, the more we will have a voice. And one day my friend, our disdain will be defined!

You know your name kind of reminds me of that Coldplay song that goes something like "it was a cold and wet december when the banks became cathedrals and the Fox became God"

True. Tax is a burden. Thats why the bearers of tax are said to carry the tax burden in Economics. The days more Papua New Guineans paying 2-digit percentages of tax increases greatly are the days we will see a popular uprising against corruption at arms length.

Paying tax to a corrupt government is a type of self-immolation on its own

Burdens - all the more reason the capable of the working class should be putting this into casual conversations. Given the poor living standards we are in (pay, food, fuel – correct me if there is regulators/legislation on these) and the much talked about LNG and some new flashy buildings in pom cbd, you'd be surprised to find that some, if not majority of the workforce know where this "deduction" goes to and but do not know what it is meant for. (And mind you, you'd find some you wouldn't expect to fall into this majority!). This is a grey area and is an irrelevant area for business houses as opposed to the aggressively voiced Safety Health & Environment(let alone HIV/AIDS), superannuation, women's rights etc, etc. Except where fiscal, the impression you get on tax is, 'well…I don’t know…’

We already are in the burdened situation (me with my overcharged payslips and a good writer like yourself at a govt-owned college that needs equipment). Hopefully, our voice can change this!

I made a comment about Gaddhafi.. It is almost about to pass