After violence in two provinces, the government of Papua New Guinea has sent half its army into the Central Highlands. The deployment of 440 troops is a major commitment, and they face a complicated series of problems.
One set of issues revolves around the big liquefied natural gas project that’s based in Hela Province. While Exxon Mobil started to pump out exports four years ago, local landowners say they’ve never received promised royalties. According to police, angry landowners set fire to earthmoving equipment last week, burned a camp and blockaded an airstrip.
Another set of issues revolves around tribal violence. About 20 people have been killed in and around Tari, the capital of Hela Province, in the past few months.
“At the moment it’s quiet,” Police Commander Thomas Levongo told RNZ Pacific, “but I don’t know, anything could happen anytime.”
Add in local politics. Last week, we reported on rioting in Mendi, the capital of neighboring Southern Highlands province. Supporters of a losing candidate burned an airliner and several buildings.
One reason the army is going in, is that police are outgunned. At a news conference last Friday, Brigadier General Gilbert Toropo confirmed that the M-16s and other assault rifles now in the hands of locals are the army’s own weapons – which he said had “gone missing” from an armory several years ago.
General Toropo said his men would take them back, but use only minimum force, “We are not going to a war zone,” he said, “we are going to our people.”
One more factor. This is the same region hit by a massive earthquake in February that killed at least 150 people, but relief has been limited by landslides that blocked roads, and by all the violence.