There's A Lot More To The PNG Shootings Than One Day Of Violence

Organisers have vowed to continue.

09/06/2016 4:13 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
A Papua New Guinea police officer (L) prevents students from marching from the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 8, 2016.

There's been a long lead-up to the protests in Papua New Guinea's capital that left several students injured after police opened fire on their demonstration.

For the past five weeks university students across the country have boycotted classes over allegations of corruption levelled against Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, as well as concerns over the Pacific Island Nation's waning economy.

But the story goes back further than the past five weeks.

Heavily-armed Papua New Guinea police form a roadblock, preventing students from leaving the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 8, 2016.

In 2014 anti-fraud police announced they wanted to question O'Neill over allegations he authorised millions of dollars in illegal payments to a PNG law firm that was subject to a long running corruption investigation.

After O'Neill refused, police issued a warrant for his arrest which resulted in the anti-corruption task force, Sweep, being starved of funds and the police commissioner retired by cabinet. O'Neill also fought the warrants in court. In April this year a court cleared the way for the investigation to recommence.

O'Neill, from PNG's southern Highlands, came to power in mid 2011 after he and the majority of parliament voted to oust long serving PM Sir Michael Somare in a highly contested decision.

O'Neill promised to reform the country's stagnating economy and promised a steady hand on the tiller as the country negotiated a massive windfall that was expected from PNG's Liquified Natural Gas Project.

The profits have yet to eventuate. The country's economic position has also deteriorated and there is a severe drought caused by El Nino weather patterns in the country's highlands region, which has caused food shortages.

Stringer . / Reuters
A Papua New Guinea police special services division officer (L) talks through a megaphone as students attempt to march from University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 8, 2016.

On Wednesday, University of PNG students planned to march from the campus to parliament to demand O'Neill's resignation, but police blocked them. From here there are conflicting reports: students say the police fired first, O'Neill has said 'agitators' threw rocks.

Social media shows evidence of tear gas, the sound of gun fire and tussles between police and students.

It was initially reported four people had been killed, but the local Post Courier newspaper quoted a hospital official as eight people were shot. Two have since been discharged with a further six in a stable condition, Hospital chief executive officer Grant R Muddle is reported to have said.

In the chaos, businesses in Port Moresby were disrupted and workers sent home early as a precautionary measure, the Post Courier reported.

O'Neill, in a statement, blamed the protesters.

"The facts relayed to me are that a small group of students were violent, threw rocks at police and provoked a response that came in the form of tear gas and warning shots," the statement said.

"The people behind these protests have political agendas. Members of the Opposition have been engaging with students, and have been encouraging them to pursue Opposition demands in relation to (district) funds for Opposition Members and calling on me to step aside."

Tim Wimborne / Reuters
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, pictured here in Sydney in 2012, says a small group of students were violent.

O'Neill enjoys a huge majority in PNG's single house of Parliament, and most MPs depend on him to provide funds for their infrastructure-poor electorates.

Opposition MPs have complained for years that they get fewer of these funds because they've fallen out of favour with the PM.

O'Neill has also tried, and failed, to make it harder for motions of no-confidence, traditionally the bane of PNG governments, to get up in parliament. The opposition has floated four motions of no confidence since October last year.

PNG MP Garry Juffa told SBS news there was a growing feeling O'Neill has to step down.

"This is all happening because the prime minister refuses to go down to the police station and answer a few questions," he said.

"And if he is innocent then he has nothing to worry about and if he is charged then he can go to the courts and it should only be the courts that find him innocent or guilty, not he himself declare that he is innocent."

Protest organisers, meanwhile, have vowed to continue, despite a court order preventing them from doing so.

"The students are not going to give up until and unless the prime minister resigns or surrenders himself to police and is arrested and charged," Student protest leader Noel Anjo told Reuters on Thursday.

"This fight will continue."

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