With frankness and clarity: Julius Chan reflects on Papua New Guinea

Julius Chan, Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Brisbane, 2016

Sean Jacobs, Pacific Instiute of Public Policy, 28 April 2016

With the United States presidential race heating up, and the ascension of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, there’s an obvious buzz around frank and straight-talking leaders proposing remedies to their national challenges.

And it’s with a similar but slightly more polished candour that Sir Julius Chan – twice Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) – reflects on PNG’s shaky four decades of independence from Australia.

Certainly, it has not been an easy ride for the fast-growing South Pacific nation of eight million. PNG has been pushed to the brink multiple times by a near coup attempt following a decade-long civil war in the Province of Bougainville (1988-1998), and cascading political and economic instability. ‘Whenever there has been a crisis in PNG,’ writes Chan, ‘it is just like the crest of a big, big wave that could destroy everything in its path. But somehow, like a wave, the crisis lands on the shore and recedes.’

Naturally, in the early 1970s as the idea of independence grew, cultural allegiances tugged at the concept of a united Papua and New Guinea (the two territories were jointly administered by Australia). ‘The Tolai people there felt they were superior to the rest of the country,’ writes Chan. The Papua Besena movement, and the Mataungan Association of East New Britain, proved the more vocal pull-away groups, as well as people of Bougainville who ‘identified geographically and ethnically, due to the colour of their skin, as more akin to the Solomon Islands, and had no real desire to continue to be part of Papua New Guinea.’ Even the Johnson Cult of New Hanover, Chan writes, ‘aligned itself with US President Lyndon Johnson and wanted to vote for him and completely break away.’

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