A ‘dear forest’ letter to Hilary Clinton

It was a coincidence that the day after I sent my “dear forest’ article to the Post Courier and a day before it was published, the PNG Forest Industries Association (PNGFIA) came out in the other daily on the same subject from the other angle.

While I called on Mrs Hilary Clinton to remind Australian PM Kevin Rudd to keep his 2007 election promise to legislate against import of illegal timber into Australia, the PNGFIA – represented by Rimbunan Hijau (RH) official Gabriel Samol was out again to promote RH’s  timber legality and traceability verification (TLTV) scheme and preaching corporate responsibility by encouraging PNG’s logging industry to uphold standards.

It is clear international markets are demanding compliance to environment standards in a global effort to reduce climate change and the perpetrators of environmental destruction will have no choice but to comply or pack up.

It seems in PNG the “packing up” is beginning with some large logging companies lossing their causes in courts against landowners and landowners refusing to renew their agreements and opting for seeking alternatives like carbon trading.

Interesting in this new global political responsibity, is the letters to the Australia PM by members of both the US Congress and Senate – encouraging Australia to adopt a similar law as the US Lacey Act to end this illegal timber trade.

Where forest countries do not have political will to get logging companies to comply with environment and forest laws, we must count on market countries to stop the import of timber and wood products from illegal and destructive logging.

My thoughts are in Focus Column in today’s Post Courier.

Dorothy Tekwie

Posted in Logging | 1 Comment

GONE BANANAS?

CARGO CULT AS A RELIGIOUS, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHENOMENA have been around in different parts of Melanesia for quite some time now. Names of cultic figures such as John Frum on Tanna Island (Vanuatu); Yaliwan in the Sepik, Yali in Madang, Paliau in Manus and Johnson in New Ireland (PNG); and movements such as the Maasina Rule on Malaita (Solomon Islands) often come to mind quickly. Different explanations have been used to explain their proliferation. Some were responses to colonialism and emerging nationalism, others were seen as the appropriation and modification of Christianity and still others were seen in light of the challenges and promises of capitalist development. These kinds of activities continue to appear with a constant frequency and they summon a particular kind of curiosity about their appearance.

In the recent edition of the Post Courier (10/09/09) we read of yet another kind of these cult activities which appears in the hinterlands of Morobe Province in Papua New Guinea. This time it is described as a ‘banana cult’ whose tenet aspires to a propagative ideal that translates into a belief that if people in the community engage in orgiastic sex in the public, this will bring about an abundance of bananas. We do not have information about the sociological status of banana in this area. That is, whether they are as highly priced as they are amongst the Tolai in East New Britain or as yams are in other parts of Melanesia or if it just forms part of the staple in mundane ordinary life etc.

Since its emergence this particular cult has paraded itself on a moral of self-help and its vehicle of aleviating poverty in the area is sexual indulgence with an orgiastically voyeurish ambiance. This particular cult group and its adherents have threatened to kill people who report its activities to government authorities. However, word has now come out through a village leader who managed to escape his captors and the police are being deployed to arrest those who are allegedly involve in the cult. The village leader who escaped his captors, Titus Namusa, reported that:

Young men and women including married couples are walking around naked and having sex in public places without being ashamed of themselves. The leader told the people that they have not seen any government services and they have resorted to other means to see services trickling down to their doorsteps.

Lack of government presence , an acute symbol of dire degeneration, has answered itself with a counter symbol of propagative regeneration. For all the interpretations one could make out of this curious enterprise, one question remains supreme: who has gone bananas?

Posted in Sorcery and Religion | 1 Comment

State against a nation of landowners

“STATE OWNERSHIP OF MINERALS IS VITAL to the development of PNG as  a nation. State control of resources allows them to be developed for the benefits of all citizens as required by the Constitution”.  Bear in mind here that this is an argument that is coming from no one other than the President of the Papua New Guinea Chamber of Mines and Petroleum, Mr Greg Anderson (Post Courier 25th of August 2009).

Mr Anderson is concerned about proposed ammendments to the Mining Act which will divest the state of its ownership over mining and petroleum resources and transfer it to private ownership. It is not clear from the Post Courier article which category of people  who shall be entitled to ”private ownership” of resources but my hunch is that it would be landowners. If this assumption is in fact correct then, Mr Anderson is gravely concerned that

“the arguments presented for private ownership of resources were grossly misleading and simplistic and will stop any future resource development in PNG….The simple fact is that if a chance is made to mineral ownership, exploration will die, and there will be no new resource developments as the risk profile will be unacceptable to any potential developer. There will be a complete breakdown in the well established, internationally recognised system that underpins resource development in PNG. There will be no benefits for anyone.

The simple fact is that if a change is made to mineral ownership, exploration will die and there will be no new resource developments as the risk profile will be unacceptable to any potential developer. There will be a complete breakdown in the well established, internationally recognised system that underpins resource development in PNG. There will be no benefits for anyone. State ownerhip of minerals is vital to the development of PNG as a nation. State control of resources allows them to be developed for the benefit of all citizens as required by the Constitution. The resources are managed in an effective and orderly manner that is recognised internationally and accepted by the investor. Private ownership of minerals means that a few lucky individuals could expect to become rich at the expense of the rest. Papua New Guinea cannot develop as a nation under these conditions; it would splinter into groups driven by self-interest.

Again it is critical that the Post Courier should have specified who represents the class of private owners. But for the sake of argument, if these were landowners, then the argument Mr Anderson advocates is already in the interest of some private interest. In this regard the State should maintain its hold over such resources so that it could facilitate the exploitation and we know enough from Karl Marx about how the State institutions and bureaucrats serve in that regard.

If it were the landowners, why should we slavishly abide to a common law principle (the State ownership of resources) that doesnt comply with how Melanesians think and relate to land and questions of ownership? What are the philosophical assumptions that should now inform such an ammendment?

Mr Anderson makes a valid argument about the guarantee that a State should provide in such a scale of resource extraction. He also associates the State with orderliness, regulation redistribution of wealth and benefits. Is it not time enough to try out out alternative legislative frameworks that could achieve similar or better results than our present paradigm of State ownership. This is not the first time that this question has been debate. Two prominent Papua New Guinean legal thinkers, Bernard Narokobi and Peter Donigi, have wrestled with these questions in two separate books. It seems the question about State ownership versus a nation of landowners will never be resolved, and if paradigms are meant to be superceded then we live in an epochal moment where the possibility of initiating such a resolve begins with question of landownership in Melanesia

He said an exploration tenement gave the holder the right to explore for minerals or oil and gas which is an expensive and high risk activity.
The explorer’s only security is the tenement and the guarantee provided by the State that the explorer will have the right to develop any discoveries made on the tenement in accordance with requirements and obligations set by the State, Mr Anderson said.
“If any potential explorer believes that the State will not, or cannot, provide this guarantee with an acceptable risk profile then the explorer will not invest exploration dollars.”

Posted in Land and land reform, Mining | 5 Comments

The tussle of private vice and public virtue

PRIVATE VICE AND PUBLIC VIRTUE have been in a tussle for centuries and there seems to be no shortage of venues for the tussle to enlist and stage itself as an issue of public debate. This idiomatic tussle comes into play when matters of public interest appear to be hijacked, subjugated or replaced by some kind of private interest.

The ultimate ends of private interest are often concealed and what is generally gets to be told is how the pursuit of private interest can serve as means to achieve the objectives of public interest. Public figures who are prominent in such decisions are then treated with scorn and suspicion because of the belief that they have compromised public virtue in order to secure and promote some scheme of private interests.

This tussle is now being staged in the heart of Port Moresby where we are likely to see an uproar with concerns over a recent ministerial decision to reclassify and transfer the ownership of a public recreational area to an Asian developer which aims to develop the area into an industrial site of some description. A more detailed account of this issue is reported in The National (30th of June 2009).

The ministerial decision was sponsored by the Minister of Lands and Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Puka Temu. Legal processes are underway to challenge the surprising turn in the minister’s decision to circumvent an earlier decision by the Land’s Tribunal to preserve the Unagi Park as a public recreational space. The  Governor of National Capital District in PNG, Hon. Powes Pakop, has this to say on this issue:

Unagi Park should remain a public reserve for recreational purposes for the benefit of the city’s children and families.

I couldnt believe when I read about the re-classification of this piece of land that we the citizens of Moresby have come to know as Unagi Park in Gordons. The decision of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Lands, Sir Puka Temu, to rezone and transfer the ownership of that land into the hands of some private persons should never ever be accepted period!
Moresby should arise immediately and vehemently oppose this greedy and stupid decision by the Minister. The decision to transfer ownership compromises our right to peace and recreation and we wonder why any legitimate government should be committed to promoting peace and popularity. Far above the ethical issues of public virtues and private vices, the bottom line is that we cannot sit back and watch this public space go to some private interests. The decision must be reversed and thwarted once and for all.
Cities are not just made up of concrete landscapes, free ways and skyscrappers. We need residential and recreational areas. We need parks and pathways, fields and ovals, some of which should be open and free from the enclosures and barricades.Unagi Park is neither like Bisini, Lyod Robson nor the Sir John Guise Stadium which carry an air of exclusivity about them. Unagi Park has a definitive spirit about it. Its characterisitic openess radiates a spirit of freedom and an individuality that encourages conviviality and mutual integration across all kinds of social and cultural boundaries of ethnicity, race, gender and religion.

Early this year I was privileged to attend a workshop hosted by the NCDC as they were thinking about development plans for our city. Our city planners are fully aware of the need to maintain a balance between industrialisation, urbanisation, immigration and the moral and physical health of our population in the city.Recreation is an area of priority that the NCDC has been working hard to develop and consolidate so that it adds a definitive cultural character to our city and its inhabitants.

When I take a view of Unagi Park from my cousin’s house up on Gordon Heights, I often have this peculiar feeling of looking into a play ground that is reminiscent of my village in the Sepik. It is important to be able to still feel that Moresby is your place just like our native villages, hamlets or hauslain. I hate to imagine what I would feel if I see an industrial complex parading itself as the appropriate alternative to a recreational area. In the meantime, I don’t even know what substitute our dear Minister would give us and our children if he were to decimate this public space in a desperate quest for the so-called industrial development.

It is generally held that recreation contributes to the development of our moral and spiritual character and, in this vein, play grounds are a kind of ethical laboratories. They encourage health, nurture self-confidence, inspire creative intrigue and healthy ambitions in sports, and in so doing, playgrounds diminish idleness and the kinds of negativity that are attached to the exclusive character of social and cultural boundaries.

We could go on arguing for or against the Minister’s decision. But at the end of the day, we want to tell the Minister that the Unagi Park has to be retained and properly developed into a public facility for recreational purposes. The NCDC is already developing and maintaining it and the areas within its vicinity. We need to keep this for us now and for our children in the future. Maintaining Unagi Park is a need not a want. Any government that has the interests of its people will acknowledge and act to secure this public need to maintain Unagi Park.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Sorcery: a menacing scourge

ANYONE WATCHING MEDIA REPORTS OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS would not miss accounts of sorcery related violence. For some reasons sorcery allegations and violence associated with such allegations have been on the rise with startling frequency. This menacing threat is rampant throughout many of the island countries of Melanesia and cases have been reported in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Sorcery accusations has given rise to people to fight and kill, steal and destroy.

Lives have been lost, properties destroyed and some have been left homeless because of allegations relating to acts of sorcery. Whether an act of sorcery has been committed is beside the point. What has been happening is that a sorcery accusation is a powerful mover of peoples sensibilities and once such an accusation has been fixed on someone or some group of people, the accusation has the power to legitimise its own course of belief and action. This has caused state governments and policy makers to express great concern about menacing sorcery.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, a leading law academic and now Secretary to the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, Dr Lawrence Kalinoe, has this to say. Problems associated with sorcery

is big and needs consultation from everyone concern….the govrnment has recognised the problems associated with sorcery and has tasked the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC) to conduct a review on the current Sorcery Act and come up with a more effective law in the next 18 months. The proposed legislation would attempt to to justly handle the current problems associated with sorcery. Sorcery is a serious problem and is widely affecting PNG communities hence and the Law and Justice Sector Ministerial Committee has directed the Minister for Attorney General to issue a reference to CLRC to review the Act and come up with a more comprehensive and effective one in the next 18 months.

This is a welcome initiative and we await to see what kind of ammendments would be made to the existing Sorcery Act in Papua New Guinea. I am sure other Melanesian countries would also be doing something similar to issues revolving around the threat of sorcery as a menacing scourge.

I do not know the current terms of references under which the CLRC in Papua New Guinea is undertaking its review. I would be curious if it moves beyond issues of criminality and probe the epistemological nature of evidence that is bound up with practices of sorcery and sorcery accusations. Sorcery is a curious intellectual object because it cuts across the logic of science and magic, faith and belief as well as tradition and modernity and we await to see what can come out of the current review that is being undertaken by the CLRC in Papua New Guinea.

Posted in Sorcery and Religion | Leave a comment

Oligarchy, defeatism and the rule of law

THREE MONTHS AGO IN AUGUST I published an article entitled Cabinets of mendacious Curiosities which offered a commentary on the pscyhology of lying and deceit that is so much part of politics. The article was inspired by prevailing disagreements over the legality of a deal brokered between the PNG Government and a consortium of companies to produce liquified natural gas (LNG) over the next 50 years. The deal promises to bring into PNG an anticipated annual revenue of about K2.76 billion.

The disagreements came to light when the State company, Petromin, was left out from participating in the deal. If Petromin wanted to participate, it must find its own money to purchase its share of equity.  The PNG Government was to be represented by another organisation called Independent Private Business Corporation (IPBC) that comes under the Ministry of Public Enterprises currently governed by Arthur Somare who is also the son of the Prime Minister, Michael Somare.

The decision to appoint IPBC as the representative of the State in the gas deal was made through an executive cabinet decision chaired by the prime minister and promoted by his son who is also a minister in the cabinet. At the time of that cabinet decision, no legislative instrument existed to legitimate the transfer and the management of the State’s equity participation from Petromin to IPBC. Arthur Somare cited economic feasibility as the deciding factor. Stories have emerged that a certain minister exerted political influence to get the billion dollar deal organised even to the extent of retaining state officers to work on in the curious hours of a night.

As a legally constituted entity, Petromin saw its exclusion as unconstitutional and after a series of media campaigns it instituted legal proceedings to force its entry into the gas deal. This caused politicians to go up in arms against Petromin. One minister in particular, Paul Tiensten, who is responsible for National Planning and Government Business, saw Petromin’s legal battle against IPBC as an assault on the prerogatives of the Cabinet. There was no reason for the minister’s outburst except to demonstrate his loyalty and affection for the Somare family.  A truce of sorts was established and Petromin was made to withdraw the case.

IPBC is headed by a Mr Glen Blakes whom we have now learnt that he also manages the private businesses of the Somare family. Undoubtedly the Somare-Blake combination have found favour in powerful places. A legislation is being developed to give legal mandate to IPBC to act as the State representative in the gas deal. The legislation is expected to be passed soon and this will secure the State equity through a bond arrangment financed by an Arab investment company. Arthur Somare and Glen Blake negotiated this bond arrangement.

While the Somare-Temu government is preparing the law to mandate IPBC to represent and execute the State interest in the gas deal, a group of concerned landowners are challenging the constitutional basis of the entire deal. Aside from whether or not the case is prosecuted successfuly, the process of litigation itself will demand that the gas deal is suspended until the legalities are sorted out. So the process must return to where it should have started.

It seem evident that the Somare Government subsribes to a philosophy of defeatism whose moral thrives on using ends to justify the means. An end may be good and virtuous but the means of securing such an end must be held in some measure of proportional alignment. If the LNG project is like building a house, we cannot build a good house under bad weather conditions and using bad materials.  I do not understand why the Somare Government has to overtake procedures by getting their objectives in place first before discovering that it needs to cover its tracks. One thing is clear is that the Somare family is already very rich, wealthy and very powerful. Recent reports of their acquisition of luxurious homes in Australia validates this. However, its style of politics has shown no respect for the rule of law and general good taste. This family has grown rich and powerful from the privileges of political offices it has enjoyed over time since the 1960s but sadly it is also arrogant and indifferent to the interests of common people.

The rule of law is threatened when an oligarchy raises its ugly head. I do not know if an organisation such as the Ombudsman Commission can use its powers to examine the administrative procedures of law-making in particular and the general spirit of democracy based on the separation of powers? The triumph of an oligarchy reveals that the sanctity of the Parliament-as the seat of people’s power-has dwindled into an institution that manufactures and radiates mistrust and suspicion amongst its people.

Constant legal cases that contest the moral and validity of executive decisions attest to the fact that the moral neutrality of Parliament cannot be stabilised because the values it has and should stand for have been overtaken by the executive arm of government that is driven on the whims of an oligarchy. If politics and vested interests accelerate the merging of the separate arms of government, especially the Parliament and the Executive, the ideal of democracy will dissolve into a political climate that glorifies the dictatorship of the rich and powerful.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Co-operation against West Papua?

INDONESIA NEEDS THE MILITARY CO-OPERATION of Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand to preserve peace, stability and security in the region. This is an enduring message that was stressed again last week at a function hosted by Indonesian Ambassador to PNG, Bom Soejanto. The function was organised to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of the Indonesian armed forces. Dignitaries from diplomatic corps and senior members of the PNG disciplinary forces were amongst the attendees who gathered at the Ambassador’s residence in Korobosea (Port Moresby). The news article from The National (20/10/08) privileges the relationship between Indonesia and PNG. Ambassador Soejanto reports that Indonesia and PNG enjoy a mutual policy of military co-operation.

Each party has its own defence attache stationed in each other’s capital city. There have been exchange visits by high ranking officers on both sides. There have been bilateral seminars and information sharing though subject matter and expert change. There are also opportunities for PNGDF members to either study or train in Indonesia. The two countries are also co-operating in joint exercises and patrols and joint exercies and patrols and joint border operations due to a defence cooperations agreement drafted three years ago and the draft plan will be finalised soon

Security and internal stability within the region is of paramount importance and it becomes increasingly so when threats from Islamic fundamentalism abound along with the reports of human trafficking and illegal immigration across international borders. However, Indonesia has a particular vested interest in talking about the military co-operation with Papua New Guinea. It is not a mistaken assumption that Indonesia requires the co-operation of PNG in order to maintain its control over West Papua. No doubt part of the co-operation would mean that PNG continues to acknowledge that West Papua is an integral part of Indonesia.

So long as PNG keeps quiet and ignores what Indonesia is doing to West Papua and its indigenous people, that would be seen as part of the deal to co-operate with Indonesia. What Indonesia imposes and executes upon West Papuans is already legitimised under the terms of the agreement and there is no way PNG could speak on behalf of its Melanesian brothers and sisters. In fact it is always a very sad thing to acknowledge that the PNG Government has never showed any moral concern about the plight and struggles of West Papuans. West Papuan resistance to Indonesia’s presence is seen and taken as a threat to the territorial integrity of Indoensia. Under the terms of such mutual co-operation, PNG must support what Indonesia is doing to West Papua and the Melanesians of West Papua.

I wonder what was going on in the hearts and minds of the PNG security personnel who gathered at the Ambassador’s residence to celebrate 63 years of Indonesia’s military anniversary?  Apart from the cocktails and finger-foods, I wonder what was going in the hearts and minds of those PNG State Officials who attended the ceremony? I wonder whether if the important PNG State Officials would be thinking about what the Indonesian military has done to countless number of West Papuans who have been killed, murdered, raped and disappeared mysteriously in the last 40 years of Indonesia’s military presence in West Papua? But its not only West Papuans by the way. This celebration is happening only a few months after we heard of Indonesia’s military incursions into PNG and their abuse against Papua New Guineans who live in border villages.

So are we celebrating and therefore participate by complicity in what Indonesian military has done to the Melanesians of West Papua in the last 40 years? I read the message from the Indonesian Ambassador with a pint of salt. It appears as a political strategy to neutralise any kind of moral sensitivity towards the campaign for a FREE and INDEPENDENT West Papua. By emphasising mutual regard and co-operation, the message causes Papua New Guinea and other countries in the region to disregard what the Indonesian military has done and continues to do to West Papuans. Indonesian military has inflicted the most brutal and unconceivable atrocities against the Melanesians of West Papua. Except for diplomacy and State morality, there is no reason to celebrate 63 years of Indonesia military hostility because 40 of those years has been spent on a cruel policy of decimating and obliterating the Melanesian peoples of West Papua.

Posted in West Papua | Leave a comment

The spiral of silence

WHEN SILENCE ISN’T GOLDEN! is not just a cute aphorism but is equally a poignant imagery that puts the sonoric into a metaphoric dialogue with the perceptual as if these senses share a unity to which our linguistic habits of thought seem too eager to compartmentalise and segregate. The imagery also invoke its own inversion: if silence could also be golden, one wonders what riches (and problems) will accompany its presence? The phrase silence is not golden comes from a recent editorial viewpoint expressed in the Solomon Star in which the anonymous author casts a methodic doubt over the ”way of silence”. Here the methodical “way of silence” refers not to anything like a shamanic scheme of cognitive insight or a philosophical view of contemplative wisdom but to the field of moral visibility and public accountability.

While bearing in mind the power and eloquence of silence, the Solomon Islander who pens that editorial article argues that at times, keeping silent offers the best possible exit route out of a situation of conflict and doubt but at other times “silence is not the way to go”. If the political theory concerning the spiral of silence means that one’s perception of the distribution of public opinion motivates people to express their political opinions, then the author of that letter was doing just that by questioning why the Solomon Islands government was committing itself to a coveted policy of silence over several pressing issues. Firstly, it appears that the city of Honiara has been subjected to bouts of power cuts in recent weeks but the city residents have got no explanation from the government about this situation. The only explanation the residents of Honiara got was defeaning silence.

In retrospect, the author detects a pattern in successive governments in Solomon Islands to maintain a particular attitude of silence over matters of public importance and fears that the “silences are growing in strength“. The examples cited include the commission of inquiry into the 1991 plane crash in Marau (in eastern Guadacanal) where 15 people died and the recent inquiry into the China town riot of April 2006. Referring to the recent inquiry, the author asks: “Why has the government gone so silent about the findings of the Report and is not sharing its findings with the public?”

This Solomon Isander is not alone in expressing concerns like this about how endless amounts of public money have been used in commissions of inquiries with no conclusive statements or decisive actions taken to address the motivations behind the commission of inquiries in the first place. Instead what people get back is a response characterised by indifference and silence on the part of governments. This is certainly true in Papua New Guinea where numerous inquiries have not seen the light of day. The present Somare government of PNG for instance has been very silent over a number of issues including the clandestine operation that saw Julian Moti being spirited into Solomon Islands in the cover of the night in a decommissioned PNG military airplane. Other issues include the Ekonet deal, the off-shore account in Singapore involving monies earned as royalties from logging exports, the dollar-diplomacy saga involving Taiwan, the purchase of Tolukuma gold mine and the “unconstitutional” basis of the recent gas deal. These are but a sample of scandals that have made controversy synonymous with endemic silence.

All of these cases go to highlight that a pervasive culture of silence has come to characterise the nature of Melanesian state governments to respond to the  legitimate demands of accountability and trusteeship that its citizens rightly deserve to have. Instead the deepening spiral of silence is likely to insert a wedge between the people and the governments with the result that issues of trust and accountability will turn into an administrative project of managing suspicion and mistrust and ultimately governance will become a nightmare of jeopardies. Unless the statecraft is based intrinsically and inevitably on an opposition between the state and its citizens, the admonition behind the imagery of silence is not golden speaks to a problem of disunity between the State and its subjects.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

Crocodile democracy & the tyranny of numbers

the admission

WE ARE WASTING OUR TIME, WE ARE GETTING BIG PAY FOR DOING NOTHING, for virtually doing nothing…. I am challenging each Member of Parliament, are we productive, are we doing anything, yet we want to get more pay, more privileges for ourselves….And I want to tell the people of PNG, we have not had proper debates in Parliament, we have not had enough time to scrutinise the Government of the day, we are wasting our time in Parliament” (Post Courier 25/02/08).

These words were aired earlier this year by Mr. Francis Awesa who is the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Imbongu Open electorate in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. His observations came in light of the hasty manner in which the Somare-Temu government used its numerical strength to bulldoze the passage of a law which legitimised the purchase of Tolukuma Goldmine by the Government-owned company, Petromin. While acknowledging the government’s numerical strength, Mr Awesa is concerned as to “Why they (the Government) are running away from public scrutiny, whether outside… or inside parliament, they should be subject to public scrutiny, NGOs, interest groups should be able to question the Government?” (Post Courier 25/02/08).

These disturbing words of introspection and castigation by Mr Awesa carry a poignant message about the qualitative and numerical disparity between the political and economic excess of politicians and the growing economic strife that plagues ordinary Papua New Guineans who struggle to make ends meet even as their list of electoral expectations, stirred by election promises, await some form of reconciliation. In the corridors of power meanwhile, a catalogue of questions have gone begging after the political sanity of national economic investments. Disgust is regularly expressed over financial and political privileges of some politicians whose arrogance become explicit when they adopt an evasive run-away character of indifference to matters of due process and procedure, debate and deliberation. As numerical supremacy legitimises itself for its own good, accountability turns into an expedient currency of rhetorical convenience.

Without accepting political talk for granted, it is fair to task whether Mr Awesa’s is a genuine voice in the wilderness of Waigani’s politics or are his words symptomatic of a disgruntled MP whose political circumstances happen to locate him in one rather than the other side of the Parliament? Far from entangling Mr Awesa in his own words, these same questions should be asked of other parliamentarians as well as to open and extend the terms of debate implicated in Mr Awesa’s original admission. In this vein we might want to ask the following kinds of questions:

Why are other parlimentarians not in agreement with Mr Awesa and not being able to act in concert with what their conscience hold in agreement? Is Mr Awesa’s statement merely a frustrated admission of numerical defeat, a confirmation of political excess that sanction and inaugurate a defilement and theft of democracy or is it a genuine observation that highlights the constitutional impasse that belies the present regime of guided democracy in PNG? What kind of political conditions should prompt a reasonable politician to denounce and dismiss the excessiveness perhaps even the vanity of a parliamentary career? Why should Mr Awesa’s concern be something so basic and fundamental to a nascent democracy? Why must the idea of democracy exhibit a mathematical or a quantitative dimension that conceals the inner workings of a democracy that is going astray? Is it merely the case that the idea of democracy rest on a paradox involving the philosophical issues of quantity and quality?

Crocodile democracy

In wrestling with these kinds of questions, the following account provides a comparative case about decision making from Kanganamun, a village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea in order to throw a critical light on the debate enunciated by Mr Awesa. The discussion requires some appreciation of the haus tambaran (spirit-house) in a Sepik village life and culture. As an architectural expression of a body politic, the haus tambaran is the seat of traditional government, it’s connection with the notorious initiation ritual makes it an immediate preserve of male pride and domination but it carries a far more complex gender understanding to it.

Kanganamun is located along the middle stretches of the Sepik River and it comes under the adminstrative ambit of the Wosera-Gawi Electorate. The people of Kanganamun speak the Iatmul language which is spoken in three dialects: Nyaura; Parimbe and Woliagwi. Kanganamun speaks the Parimbe dialect. The Iatmul villages are located along the Sepik River in the area that lies between Pagwi to the west and Tambunum to the east. These villages are known throughout the world for their prolific art forms, a gruesome initiation ritual involving body lacerations and very stunning haus tambaran.

The haus tambaran overlook residential houses where women, children and uninitiated men stay. Initiated men  move in between the haus tambaran and the residential house but use the haus tambaran as a place for social gatherings on a daily basis. The haus tambaran is the place where they hold ceremonial debates, conduct initiation rituals and deliberate and make decisions that affect the village. It is where wars are planned and conflicts are generated and resolved. Both residential houses and the haus tambaran are decorated but the aesthetic of the haus tambaran is elaborated to a point where it inspires awe and admiration and strikes fear into the minds of those who look at it or go close to it.

By virtue of their personal names and esoteric mythology, every Iatmul haus tambaran is a “woman” but is architecturally composed of male and female elements. Such an androgynous composition is based on an analogy derived from the way in which people are understood as being composed of male and female parts. Being part male and female (or androgynous) means that in different and alternating episodic moments in the life of the village, one of the androgynous part of the haus tambaran will be given prominence while the other part is left implicit.

There are times when the haus tambaran will become distinctively male and at other times it will appear as female. For example when initiated men are summoned with the sound of garamut rhythms to congregate in the haus tambaran for a meeting, the situation is often described as a “father calling his sons”. Relations between men gives the haus tambaran a male imagery of a “father calling his sons”. On other oaccsions such as when men’s initiation are carried out, the androgynous composition becomes very explicit. The front part of the haus tambaran is regarded both as the ”crocodile’s nest” which is jealously guarded occupied by “female men” who are the symbolic mothers of the initiates that are kept in there. The back part of the haus tambaran is occupied by the “symbolic fathers” of the initiates. Relations among men within the initiatory complex and relations with women who are involved in the ritual from the outside feminises the haus tambaran with a womb and a nest where male crocodiles are hatched and nursed. These are just two examples to describe the episodic alternation of the gender which the haus tambaran takes on from time to time.

A haus tambaran is also considered symbolically as an architectural crocodile. Sometimes this metaphoric crocodile appears to be still and quiet, at other times it sanctions feats of dramatic rage and attacks its adversaries with vengeance. Whether it is active or passive, its heart beat keeps on pumping for one is always a crocodile. Everyone in a Iatmul village will be affiliated with a particular haus tambaran. There are two kinds of haus tambaran and people will belong to either of them. The crocodile is the animal that is integral to the cosmological imagination  of the Iatmul people. In this cosmological scheme, all the village people are, in essence, miniaturised versions of the primal crocodile.

In one haus tambaran, the clans that occupy its front part are the ”head of the crocodile”. Clans that are sitted in the back part of the haus tambaran are the “tail of the crocodile”. The axial positions of the front and the back of the haus tambaran are idiomatically defined through an analogy imported from the present system of parliamentary democracy in PNG. Thus the clans that have their sitting platforms in the front are considered to be the “government” and are credited with the executive privilege of sharing and distribution. The clans located at the back of the haus tambaran are regarded as the “opposition”, they do not have powers to share and distribute goods that come into the haus tambaran . However, they have the right to challenge and scrutinise clans in the front for the exercise of their prerogatives.

Clans at the back cannot usurp the prerogatives of those in the front. However, while they have executive powers, the clans in the front cannot pursue any notion of collective interest or objective without consultation, dialogue and debate with those clans at the back of the haus tambaran. This is because the front and the back are head and tail of the same crocodile. This imagery of organic totality means that if the head of the crocodile moves, its tail will also follow. The head and tail do not travel in opposite directions. For this to be possible, the body of the crocodile has to be dismembered.

In sociological terms, a fission of some proportion would have interferred with the organic unity of the crocodile’s body that would cause the head or tail clans to move out and reconstitute itself elsewhere with the same organisational configuration. Each time a clan or a village does so, it always reconfigure itself into the head and tail of the crocodile. This is because there is always a head and a tail and in the head (opposition within unity) and a tail and head in the tail (unity within opposition) of the crocodile.  This is how Iatmul villages have been formed and reformed over the last millenia and this general cosmological process of unity and opposition continues on today. Despite its cruel aggression, the crocodile is a crafty social and ecological engineer. It is never a hasty routine for a crocodile to pursue its objectives because it always drag itself on land and propels itself under water with its tail following the head. With these images in mind, we consider the following story.

Postponing a decision over Takaripi lagoon

In 2007, I returned for a short fieldtrip to Kanganamun. During that time I came across concerns expressed by several men in the village about a particular fishing lagoon. This lagoon is currently the subject of a competing claim of ownership between Kanganamun and a brother-village called Maringe. Clans of the haus tambaran (namely Wolimbi) that I am adopted into have four (4) fishing lagoons found within their territory. The clans in the other two haus tambaran (Minjimbit and Kosimbi) in Kanganamun do not have a fishing lagoon nearby. One of the fishing lagoos nearby was created in the 1950s through diverting the course of the Sepik River. For this, the men of Minjimbit and Kosimbi clans have been seeking to have access to fish in that lagoon on account that their grandfathers and fathers have worked towards creating that lagoon. But their attempts have been denied by clans of Wolimbi.

Kanganamun is now in a dispute with its brother-village, Maringe, over the ownership of Takiripi lagoon. This lagoon is located close to Maringe and few people from Wolimbi clans in Kanganamun have used that lagoon and it has often been used Maringe villagers. Because of its distance, women of Wolimbi clans in Kanganamun do not go fishing there. When Kanganamun women do go fishing there sometimes, they often find that fish are stolen from their nets or their nets were vandalised or stolen and they blame Maringe villagers for this. Because they do not use that lagoon often, some men of Wolimbi clans thought that they should allow their fellow villages of the Kosimbi and Minjimbit clans to go and fish there. In that way they could protect it from being taken over by Maringe village and at the same provide a means of subsistence to their fellow villagers who do not have a fishing lagoon nearby. This particular group of Wolimbi men argue that it doesnt seem right and fair that they should prevent their own village people (from Kosimbi and Minjimbit clans) to go fishing in Takaripi and yet do nothing to stop Maringe villagers who frequent the lagoon.

Dissension has inserted itself into the deliberations of the men of Wolimbi clans and an affirmative decision has been postponed since. I carried out a private survey and spoke with almost all the men of the Wolimbi haus tambaran. This survey revealed that 5 out of 31 households were opposed to the idea of allowing clans of Kosimbi and Minjimbit to go and fish at Takaripi. Men from the remaining 26 households were in favour. When decisions such as this are to be made, it is first deliberated at length and debated by initiated men who represent their clans in the haus tambaran.

Women who belong to these clans do make known their views which are often taken seriously. Although they do not go and talk inside the haus tambaran, they participate in this process through their fathers and initiated brothers. Forexample, in a conversation with a family (a man, his two initiated sons, his wife and marriageable daughter), the unmarried daughter issued the following warning:

“Who says we will allow those people to go to Takaripi. No way! I am talking here. They will have to kill me first. If they go, they will get my axe. I will smash their canoes and cut-cut their fishing nets”.

After speaking privately with these men, I was surprised to find that the 5 households that opposed the idea of granting access, have only 6 initiated men who are entitled to talk and debate in the haus tambaran. In the remaining 26 households, we have 29 initiated men who could talk. Despite the overwelming numerical support for granting access to the clans of Kosimbi and Minjimbit, the clans of Wolimbi haus tambaran were unable to make that decision in favour of access. When this numerical discrepancy was probed, one of my interlocutors (who was in favour of access) employed the service of two kinds of analogy by juxtaposing the image of canoe and a crocodile to explain the discrepancy.

“The canoe cannot go anywhere if those in the front are paddling in the oppsite direction to those at the back. Those at the back of the canoe are in the steer, they give direction. Those in the front are supplementing the propulsion that drives the canoe”.

A a decision is akin with movement that is cordinated with some sense of pupose, direction and often a range of possible outcomes. The image of propelling a canoe thats cuts its passage across the surface of water recalls the moment when a decision retraces itself in its movement from thought into action. Someone has to make a decision or is compelled to initiate action and even a crocodile decides its own movement.

“All of the initiated men in the village are like a crocodile. They need to come together as if there were one crocodile in order for the crocodile to do something, to take action. If they stay one-one and remain disjointed this way, nothing is going to happen”.

The privilege of being in the front of a haus tambaran, the demands of being in control from the back of the canoe, the power to be the head of the crocodile or having the sanction of numerical strength  hardly provide the criteria that persuades the crocodile to move. One cannot speak about the inner morality, fecundity or the political unity of a haus tambaran as a seat of government or a body politic without an overwhelming consensus. If a decision has to be established, if the crocodile has to move in some way, its limbs have to work in unison with its head and tail. This is crocodile democracy!

If we extend the insights of Kanganamun village to a setting in contemporary scene in national life, we will find a very disturbing anti-crocodilean logic at work in the National Parliament of PNG. And this is happening at a point in time when the head of the present government is someone no less than the great Sana of Murik Lakes on the Sepik River and who is not unfamiliar with the logic of crocodile democracy.

If the National Parliament has model itself on the familiar Sepik haus tambaran, what is threatening about the contemporary crocodile is the way in which it is severed itself into the artificial components of a parliamentary democracy that defines itself primarily through the strength of its individual parts which remain as parts that are not equivalent to a whole as an organic totality. The ancient metaphoric crocodile disavows being persuaded by the tyranny of numerical strength.

Mr Awesa is right to complain that the numerical strength of the current PNG Government has taken on the character of an unaccountable tyrant who conceal himself in the guise of parliamentary democracy. Mr Awesa was of the opinion that an effective means of disarming this tyrant from spreading and immersing his tentacles of democractic idiocy is to dissolve the Parliament and convene a fresh national election (Post Courier 25/02/08). Given that in the PNGs constitution, the Head of State can only act on advice from the National Executive Council (cabinet of ministers). Mr. Awesa’s suggestion is not only unrealistic but if pursued the suggestion will still be entangled with the same tentacles that it is seeking to free itself from. The problem of numbers and democracy will endure even if the Parliament was dissolved. The ultimate philosophical issue that this discussion brings up is the intimacy between number and democracy. Rather than severing itself as a numerically powerful government that dictates a weak opposition, how can we have a democracy that keeps an image of totality that moves with the coordination of the head and tail of a crocodile?

Posted in Melanesian Philosophy | 2 Comments

Cabinets of mendacious curiosities

“THE DEAL IS FLAWED”…. “NO, ITS OKAY”… ” IT WAS RUSHED”! Flawed, okay and rushed are the three kinds of adjectival phrases that captioned front-page news about a recent deal cut between companies and the Government of PNG to develop liquified natural gas (LNG) in the country. The development of LNG project is organised with a consortium of companies and the government. The original agreement underlying the terms of the cosortium was signed 3 months ago on the 23rd of May. The Government of PNG was represented by its Head of State, Sir Paulias Matane, the Minister for Petroleum, Hon. William Duma while the joint venture participants came from Exxon Mobil, Oil Search, Santos, Nippon Oil, MRDC and Eda Oil.

The original news article in May mentioned that the agreement was sealed with a K38 billion financial package to kick start the project which would run for the next 40-50 years. However, a recent article in the Post Courier subtracted K8 billion from the figure originally provided by The National. In May, The National reported that the project was expected to bring an expected revenue of K130 billion. [In current exchange rate PGK130 billion would be equivalent to €37.3 billion (Euros); A$63.7 billion (Australian); £29.8 billion (British Pound) and US$55.1 billion (American)] This is a very significant  commercial development that is expected to bring PNG about K2.76 billion per year.

Given that this project involves a huge amount of money, why should a leading company executive and the Deputy Prime Minister give conflicting legal interpretations about the deal? The recent article in the Post Courier throws suspicion over certain aspects of the deal and carries the general insinuation that the deal is flawed. By extension, the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement could either be seen as an innocuous lie, a misinformed deception or a decorative misrepresentation whose veracity is located somewhere between half-truth, half-lie and outright lie.

Legality aside, the controversy brings to light not just the moral and semantic distance between truth and falsity or the analytic method by which one could execute to separate truth from falsity but to put it simply, one cannot lie if truth never exist in the first instance. The controversy reveals that lying is indispensable and integral to the art of politics and that truth itself is not a universally cherised value, rather it is contingent, highly malleable and convenient. When circumstances demand the imposition of truth this sets into motion particular pathologies to come into play sometimes with a spirit of vengeance and at other times it induces psychological disabilities to come into force.

One of the ministers who was interviewed by the press was mindful of political retaliation that might ensue as a result of him talking about the deal in the open. When the notorious Sandline Affair was prosecuted in a leadership tribunal in 1998, one of the alleged brokers of the deal, Benias Sabumei, had a temporary loss of memory in the Court room while he was under scrutinty. This self-induced mental state of amnesia made him withhold more specific details about the Sandline deal.

Towards the end of last year, the Post Courier carried stories about how the Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, was implicated in a “deep sea fishing deal”. The Prime Minister flatly denied his involvement and explained that his role in that fishing company was that of a trustee acting  on behalf of the Independent State of PNG. His denials were made in a place no less than the National Parliament during an exchange that took place inside the Parliament. Subsequent investigations by the Post Courier revealed that the Prime Minister misled the Parliament and lied to the people of PNG about his involvement in that fishing company.

Rehearsing these news items is not an exercise to open a colosal can of worms or to simply sit back and let loose the cabinets of mendacious curiosities for the sake of rhetorical stimulation. If truth and lie exist, their existence are proportionate to the the weight and consequence they dispense. Truth and lie  operate in an elastic conceptual economy in which their magnitude expands and contracts depending upon the conditions and status of those who dispense it. If lie is as incestuous as a contagion that spreads its influence as an epidemic, imagine the contamination it will impose on public office? If the mendacity of those who have sworn to hold public trust and confidence parade itself as the public face of politics, will there still be room for integrity to show itself as a public virtue?

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments