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Papua New Guinea to Australia: Let's Just Be Friends

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Co-authored with Sam Nallen Copley

It is never easy being friends with an ex, and sometimes it's better just to move on. As of March 1, Australians are no longer able to enter their former colony of Papua New Guinea without pre-obtained visas. This policy shift has failed to hit the headlines in the Pacific region which are currently dominated by last month's bloodshed in the Australian-run, Papuan-hosted Detention Facility on Manus Island, in which one man died and many more were injured. A very general question stands out -- what are both countries getting out of their rather strained relationship, and since the colonial breakup almost 40 years ago, is it simply worth the effort?

Papua New Guinea (PNG) was never an easy place to govern. With over 800 languages and the likelihood of "uncontacted" peoples residing deep in its dense rainforests, Papua's current government barely manages to extend its flimsy arm beyond a handful of trading towns and maritime ports dotted around the more clement regions of the country's coastline. Indeed even maintaining a semblance of order in the capital -- Port Moresby -- relies largely on the battalions of private security guards, mostly from the British company G4S, which vastly outnumber the country's police officers. Corruption, witch-burning, and sexual violence are endemic and have led the international community into believing that PNG is one of the few remaining sovereign countries that still requires 'tutelage' of the colonial variety. Offering this tutelage has been made more attractive by the abundance of inland resource wealth such as unharvested timber and agricultural products in addition to the coastal fishing potential in the several seas surrounding the PNG.

A Peculiar Past

The British, who arrived in the 1880s, struggled to get to grips with the place and formally handed it over to the Australians in 1906, who have ever since treated the state like a delinquent younger sibling, but no worse. In fact, the Australians only gradually engaged with PNG and never really attempted to expand the rule of law or the authority of the central state. As such, Australia's tenure in PNG was not witness to any exotic anti-colonial resistance or bloody suppression. In fact, much of Australia's colonial adventures -- particularly into the more remote areas of the Highlands -- only really started in the 1950s, when it already seemed unfashionable to teach black people how to be more white. In turn, autonomy was not such a big deal, especially for those outside the capital, with many Papuans remembering subsequent celebrations of the independence more than the day of the day of liberation itself -- September 16th, 1975.

This form of colonial legacy is quite unusual. Over the centuries, most colonial powers have occupied and occasionally developed foreign territories -- mostly shedding blood en route -- before going on in the post-colonial period to feel rather bad about it. The British, for instance, faced the Indian Mutiny, the Boer Wars and the Chilembwe Uprising as backlashes against their aspirations for global dominance. Recent Prime Ministers Blair, Brown and Cameron have all attempted to atone for these crimes by issuing apologies in Africa and India for British treatment of locals.

As colonialism has always had a light footprint in PNG, the Australians never apologized for their abuses and the continuing, overwhelming presence in their old playground. During the next four decades after independence Australia -- officially at least -- took to the sidelines as its former colony declared war against one of its islands, dabbled in the shady Euro-African mercenary game, grappled with a constitutional crisis and broke away from various inherited cultural-legal norms -- reinstating the death penalty in 1991, for instance. With the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) blaring out of every television, and each roadside-shack boasting Aussie Rules Football posters, it is obvious the former colonizers are still there in force. Indeed even notepads and writing material in the Highland villages -- in which many tribesmen have never even seen a white person -- proudly display 'Donated by the Australian Government' stickers. Canberra also likes to brag about their significant effort put into maintaining the national highway and distributing medicine to over 2,000 health centers. In return, Australian companies -- like the Melbourne branch of Conzinc Rio Tinto, whose copper mining operations triggered the Bougainville Civil War (1988 - 1998) in which 20,000 locals died fighting foreign workers -- get their hands on the juicy resources offered by the country.

Finger Pointing
Despite all this diplomatic and economic effort, Australia has not been able to convince the Papuans, that they are a force for good. Unlike the four-room French Embassy -- which shares a building with law firms and aviation services -- or their American neighbors -- who are tucked in behind the Grand Papua Hotel -- the Australian High Commission stands apart as a bone-white fortress, encircled with barbed wire and thick concrete walls, and so it needs to be. In 2005 the building was surrounded by hundreds of protesters appalled by their Prime Minister's treatment on a trip to Canberra, where he was asked to remove his shoes for security reasons. "We like all foreigners apart from Australians," one roadside betel-nut seller revealed to me in downtown Moresby. A more glaring reason is the ongoing presence of an Australian-run, governed, built and funded detention center for those caught trying to enter Australia illegally -- in which a young Iranian man was killed, and 77 injured in a riot recently -- on Papuan soil. This facility was first opened in 2001 but closed a couple of years later after hosting only one inmate for nearly a year. Shortly after the current Papuan Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, came to office in the summer of 2012, Australia reopened the center-- a policy Tony Abbot's conservative coalition continued after winning the 2013 general election.

There is something rather uncomfortable about a country founded by immigrants, with a shameful race-relations history, shipping off asylum seekers of various dark colors to an island full of blacks. Salt on the wound comes as Canberra stated publicly, "As the individuals and the center are located in PNG territory, it has primary responsibility," blaming the Papuans for the bloodshed they had no role in. O'Neill, who earlier this year apologized publicly for Moresby's role in the Australian sponsored Bougainville War, defended his countrymen, stating, "At no time did the good people of Manus get involved" -- a statement distancing the island's 50,000 citizens, none of whom participated in the riot, from the actions carried out by foreign security firm G4S. Perhaps Australia's treatment of this incident, and lack of acknowledgement of Papuan innocence, has proven to be the last straw.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Papua New Guinea has this month prohibited Australians from receiving visas upon arrival in the country. This has largely been seen as retaliation for Aussie refusal to renegotiate the no-visa-on-arrival policy Papuans face when hoping to travel down-under. Currently, the only two ways for a Papuan to enter Australia are either through a commercial visa center, or to apply online -- a near impossible process in a country in which even many Ambassadorial Compounds have no access to the internet. While O'Neill's new measure suggests he has had enough of Australia's condescending attitude, this ban comes a week after Moresby approved dual citizenship for Australian-Papuans, promoting cooperation between the two nations. Maybe it is time for PNG to work out what it wants.

Although Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade pumped $500 million into PNG last year, they are probably getting more back from their rather questionably-run mining industry. It's also worth bearing in mind that abruptly cutting an annual cash injection to a former-colony just isn't cricket, and the Australians are very unlikely to take such a step so as not to tarnish their increasingly murky international image further.

Maybe an Amiable Break-up is Best?

"Nao em taim bilong lusim ol" (Now it's time to get rid of them), the betel-nut man went on, and perhaps he's right. A break-up however does not necessarily mean tears, and, so long as divorce is handled carefully, there is no reason not to stay friends. Both nations are part of the Commonwealth, support Indonesia's colonization of West Papua and meet up regularly on the rugby pitch. The Papuan PM, O'Neill, whose father was Australian, even has three children studying in Queensland. Interaction between the two nations is a good thing, but it is high time the terms are negotiated rather than dictated.

Papua New Guinea is not an easy place to govern, but it might be worth giving it a shot without constantly trying to hold hands with the ex-governors. With huge amounts of nickel, copper and gold, an emerging coffee industry, an extraordinarily resilient parliamentary democracy and the recent surge in the country's population, Papua New Guinea can afford to flex its muscles and assert more authority in the region, because, if the Australians get too upset, there's always the ever-resource-hungry Chinese -- and perhaps even the Japanese -- to turn to.

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Jason Pack is a Researcher of World History at Cambridge University, President of Libya-Analysis.com, and author of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.

Sam Nallen Copley is a freelance writer covering the Asia-Pacific region. He has lived in Papua New Guinea while conducting ethnographic research for the French Government. He holds degrees from Oxford University and Waseda University in Tokyo.