The University of PNG students - who have been boycotting classes for three weeks, delivered a petition to the PM and threatened to withdraw from classes en masse - last week issued PM O’Neill a 24-hour ultimatum to stand down and face questioning on a major fraud case he is implicated in. The students are now pondering their next move, which could still include a mass withdrawal from courses.
Last week, NBC reported that groups of protesting students had moved out of the campus - with the verbal consent of the police - to peacfully conduct outreach and awareness raising at various locations within the city. They spoke to a UPNG student leader, Hercules Jim, who explained that students want to educate the public about PNG's economic situation and the reasons for the call for O'Neill's resignation:
"Peter O'Neill must respect the integrity of the office of the prime minister of this nation. Because there are many allegations attached to him, and the people, the university students have lost confidence. That is why we ask him to respect the integrity of the office of the prime minister. Simply, step down and face the full force of law."
In addition to students at the University of PNG, university students in Lae and Madang are also calling for O’Neill to step aside; UPNG student leaders have told media that students at at least five universities are supporting their actions.
OFFICIAL SUPPORT FOR THE STUDENTS
Last week, former Opposition Leader Belden Namah, who brought about the legal action that led to the Supreme Court deeming PM O’Neill’s Manus Asylum Seeker deal with Australia illegal - called on the whole country to rally behind the students [watch footage here].
Their peaceful demonstrations, calling on the PM to respect the rule of law and step down, have been the first anti-O’Neill protests that police haven’t been able to shut down; last week, despite an armed, on-campus police presence, students continued their demonstrations.
Though PM O’Neill has repeatedly denied allegations of fraud and wrongdoing, Mr Namah and many others are calling on O’Neill to legitimately clear his name by stepping aside to face the charges against him. Namah also warned that PNG’s economy faced total collapse unless a new government or prime minister was appointed to reform and take corrective measures to the economy:
"Our corruption index rating has gone over the roof, our economic and financial rating nosedived to negative value, and as an investment destination, we have withered away".
Radio NZ reported Namah as stating that he and his colleagues in opposition had done all they could to defend the constitution and hold the prime minister accountable, but that the people of Papua New Guinea must now take the country back.
In addition to Namah and other O’Neill opponents who have verbally supported the student protests, the National Doctors' Association have also pledged their support for the students who are protesting. Last Friday, they called on the Governor General to dissolve parliament if Mr O'Neill refused to comply with the demands.
Sam Yockopua, National Doctors Association general secretary, said a mass withdrawal of medical students would be a huge set back for the national health system - 158 graduate doctors, dentists, pharmacists and specialist nurses are due to graduate this year alone. Yockopua said they have asked other unions of the public and private sector to align with National Doctors Association and support the students:
"We have called on the parents of the students and the civil society and the general Papua New Guineans to rise up, stand united and support the university students because they are not fighting for their own benefit they are fighting for Papua New Guinea as a whole."
The National Academic Staff Association is also supporting the students’ call for O’Neill to step down and face corruption allegations - and has said that staff will provide remedial teaching for students who have missed classes due to the boycott. Its president, Emmanuel Gorrea, told Em TV that Prime Minister Peter O'Neill should heed the students' call:
"NASA is deeply concerned about the economic mismanagement of the country and the need for prudent financial management of the country's finance. That's what the students are really concerned about. NASA therefore calls on the Prime Minister and the government of Papua New Guinea to accept and take heed of the students' petition and to immediately take action on the matters petitioned by the students."
CRITICISM OF CRIMINAL ELEMENTS, MILITANTS
The protesters themselves have not escaped controversy. The University of Papua New Guinea have condemned what it says is a militant faction of students who have been intimidating other students who want to return to class; and it was the University's Academic Senate that last week called police onto the Port Moresby campus. The University's Public Affairs manager, James Robins, told Radio NZ some protesters have engaged in criminal behaviour:
"Break and enters into offices, we've had the theft of property, the use of weapons to threaten staff and students. In particular one of our pro vice-chancellors was held up with bush knives and his vehicle taken off him."
"The assault of university support staff who do our cleaning, grounds and parks and gardens, the intimidation of students who wish to continue their studies and also the barricading of public thoroughfares.”
Robins also alleged verbal and non-verbal intimidation of students seeking to go to class. In an interview with Pacific Beat, he said the police were aware of the problem and that the perpetrators were known to the university administration. And University vice-chancellor Albert Mellam last week issued a notice saying the campus would be sealed because some students' activities bordered on criminality.
Robins also told Radio NZ that non-students who were joining and encouraging student body protests had nothing to lose, whilst participating students did:
“There are people who are on campus at the moment with the student groups who are maintaining actively that boycott. They are not students. Some of them are ex-students, and the one thing that you must remember is those people - I've got obviously political contacts outside - it matters nothing to them. They are not the ones studying for a degree, they are not the ones who will lose out. You've got people who've got a vested interest in the issues at hand, as many of the people in the country have, but they're utilising the student body to their advantage.”
Despite the claims, there have been no reports of any arrests. Protesting students have dismissed allegations that their protests are driven by a minority group, an outside group or that they are not largely united in their cause. In an interview with Pacific Beat, student leader Christopher Kipalan said the criminal element are not the majority of protesters.
HOLDING FIRM: A NECESSARY SACRIFICE?
Student leader Christopher Kipalan, chairman of the UPNG Forum, told Pacific Beat last Friday that their demand for O’Neill to step aside as PM is in the interest of the millions of voiceless in the country who see Peter O'Neill as undermining the country's legal institutions.
Kipalan also claimed that the big PNG media outlets have underreported the amount of support the students now have. He told Pacific Beat that some six universities and colleges are supporting the University of PNG protesters, in addition to the Papua New Guinea Trade Union Congress [see video here], several NGOs, health worker unions and thousands of citizens (through online support and prayer).
In an impassioned EMTV interview, president of Trade Union Congress Ugwalubu Mowana explained why his organisation is supporting the protesting students:
“They are doing it not for university students; they are doing it for secondary students, primary school students, the elementary students, the babies we have. They are doing this for them. Beacuse the future of decisions today, the future of development or planning today, this is the generation who will face the consequences!”
Mowana, who says he understands the concerns of parents and sponsors of students missing classes, argued that a few weeks of classes is nothing compared to 20 years of suffering later on as a result of poor governance and corruption today. University of PNG SRC President Kenneth Rapa told PM representatives earlier this month much the same - that the protesters were foregoing short term and personal interests for the sake of the future of all Papua New Guineans.
Regardless of peoples’ views on PM O’Neill, what should be emphasised is the tremendous personal risk students are taking - and have already taken - to protest what they see as an urgent overarching threat to democracy and the future of Papua New Guinea. The students are putting their educations and lives on the line to call for the rule of law and an end to high level systemic political corruption and poor governance... in essence, the greater good.
Pacifc Beat’s Richard Eward asked Kipalan whether the support he claims the protesters now have could foment into a national strike. Kipalan responded: “The momentum is starting to grow. It’s just like waves going all over the nation now.” He seemed to indicate a hope that mining industry workers and others would join the cause.
Kipalan maintains that the protesters are ready for anything and prepared to make any sacrifice to ensure O’Neill steps down. We will see in the coming weeks what this means for the students and Papua New Guinea.
Words by Pauline Vetuna.
Image 1 - University of PNG protesters, May 5th 2016. NBC News report.
Image 2 - Gathering of UPNG protesters. Martyn Namarong.
Image 3 - UPNG ladies protesting.
Image 4 - UPNG protesters, May 5th 2016. NBC News report.
Image 5 - Kenneth Rapa, UNG SRC President. NBC News report.
Image 6 - Christopher Kipalan, Student leader. ABC News report.