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As Papua New Guinea vows a ‘return to normalcy’ after deadly riots and looting, will chaos mar its US, China ties?

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Marape was due in Davos, Switzerland, this weekend to speak to a gathering of global leaders and businesspeople. Instead, he is firmly grounded at home, dousing an unpredictable domestic crisis.

Here’s what we know so far, as Papua New Guinea faces its greatest unrest in a generation.

This screen grab from shows people carrying items as crowds leave shops with looted goods amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby. Photo: AFP

What happened?

Following an apparent computer “glitch”, civil servants – including the nation’s overstretched and underpaid police – found an extra US$100 tax had been deducted from their pay cheques.

By Wednesday, police and other civil servants staged a wildcat strike in protest. Some among the national police command stood down and flash mobs spurred into action by the lack of police – and revved up by social media – began looting and burning buildings across Port Moresby.
Shopkeepers, including Chinese business owners, shot back as protesters even attacked the prime minister’s office in a night of bloody chaos, which spread to some towns across the island.

To quell the snowballing violence, the prime minister declared a two-week state of emergency in the capital on Thursday evening. But with shops incinerated, a food and fuel crunch looms – meaning security services are on high alert to prevent more looting.

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Chinese businesses attacked, nationals injured in Papua New Guinea labour riots

Chinese businesses attacked, nationals injured in Papua New Guinea labour riots

Who is James Marape?

Marape, 52, came to power in 2019 for greater democracy and to build a proud “Black Christian Nation”.

He has been a lawmaker since 2007 and says his political journey is inspired by his youthful lessons for peace in the clan-violence torn New Guinea Highlands, where the Huli national ethnic majority dominate.

A devout Seventh-day Adventist and Huli, he has tried to walk the tightrope between eastern and western powers, signing defence deals with the West and engaging mainland China, Taiwan and Japan to help bolster the economy of his nation of 10 million people.

What’s next?

The security crisis appears to be turning into a political one.

Former prime minister Peter O’Neill has called for Marape to resign, and six MPs have left his coalition, with questions about his longevity arising, even though he has a “supermajority” of MPs.

Marape has suspended three other key heads of departments – as well as the police commissioner – pending a probe into how the rioting started. He has also put 1,000 soldiers on standby to keep the peace and insists he is focused on the country “returning to normalcy”.

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“We have 104 members – the biggest ever assembly of coalition in our nation’s history,” Marape told reporters on Friday. “For me to lose even 10, even 20 [coalition members], I can live with that.”

The army will be working with police on patrols for the next two weeks to ensure stability, and further security measures are expected over coming days.

Papua New Guinea’s police force is notoriously underfunded and private security is the largest employer on the island, indicating the unstable concoction of politics, gang culture and poverty Marape must contend with over the coming days.

A damaged shop amid a state of unrest in Port Moresby. Photo: AFP

What’s at stake?

Both the United States and China will be watching Papua New Guinea’s descent into chaos closely, experts say.

Marape has balanced security deals with Washington and Canberra, while signing investment deals with Beijing, whose nationals run multiple businesses in Port Moresby.
While violence is commonplace in the nation’s highlands, there has not been a political crisis of this magnitude since the late 1990s. Yet across the Pacific, violent flare-ups were seen recently in the Solomon Islands, where its Chinatown was burned in 2021. Vanuatu has also seen ethnic tensions with Chinese over ownership of shops in the capital of Port Vila.

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While Papua New Guinea is resource-rich, around 40 per cent of its people live in poverty, with high rates of violence especially aimed at women and girls. Wider unrest is likely to damage the economy and leave the most vulnerable exposed to gang violence.

But more urgently, the destruction and looting of grocery stores in Port Moresby has increased food insecurity, with supplies forecast to be running low over the weekend and early next week.

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