Papua New Guinea: Fresh outbreak of looting after January riots left 16 dead

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Two weeks after widespread riots and unrest that killed 16 people, Papua New Guinea has seen a fresh outbreak of looting in scenes branded “total anarchy” by a local newspaper.

The Port Moresby warehouse of Brian Bell, the country’s main whitegoods and electrical retailer, was ransacked for the second time on Thursday by hundreds of looters who descended in the early hours of the morning and broke open the gates.

Photos published by the Post Courier newspaper showed police standing idly by outside the warehouse, with the scenes branded “a shameful act of insanity”.

“The police were there and they did nothing at all,” said Todagia Kelola, editor of the Post Courier.

Locals say they fear the further breakdown of law and order in the impoverished nation after the most recent outbreak of civil unrest, which could flare up yet again later this month when Prime Minister James Marape is expected to face another attempt to topple him from power via vote of no confidence in parliament.

“This country is in serious trouble,” one said.

“All leadership has departed. Now the cops just allow whatever they want. I fear if something does not change very soon, PNG is f**ked.”

Violence first broke out in the capital Port Moresby on January 10 after a group of soldiers, police officers and prison guards went on strike after noticing unexplained deductions in their pay.

“When the police decided to stand down from duties, the public in Port Moresby took advantage, started looting and burning down some businesses,” Kelola said.

He said skyrocketing inflation had caused the tinderbox situation. A 10 kilogram bag of rice, the main staple in Papua New Guinea, a year or two ago would have cost around 32 kina ($13) but was now 54 kina ($22).

“That’s just too much,” Kelola said. “With inflation being so high, goods have just skyrocketed. We have had widespread financial [hardship] and then when these police officers decided to stand down, I think that’s where it just [exploded].”

With disgruntled citizens joining the fray, the unrest soon spread to the city of Lae about 300 kilometres to the north.

Angry crowds smashed windows, pillaged shops and set buildings ablaze.

Port Moresby General Hospital said it was inundated by “waves of casualties”, including 30 people with gunshot wounds, six others with “bush knife” lacerations, and five people with burns.

Police and health officials later said at least 16 people had been killed across the two cities.

Prime Minister Marape declared a 14-day state of emergency for the capital, declaring that rioters would “pay the price” for the outbreaks of “lawlessness” as troops patrolled the streets and 1000 soldiers were placed on standby to bolster security.

Papua New Guinea, a country of nearly 12 million on Australia’s northern doorstep, has experienced previous outbreaks of riots and looting, including in 2009 when hundreds of locals targeted Chinese-owned businesses in Port Moresby and Lae.

But Kelola said the January 10 unrest was the worst in his memory.

“This one, the police force, the agency that is seen to be the protector, they just stood down,” he said.

Kelola added that there was “no unrest” currently and that Thursday’s mass looting of the Brian Bell warehouse appeared to have been an “isolated incident”.

Questions over whether riots have been stirred up by political factions linger.

“In previous years there were riots, and after investigations were carried out there was enough evidence to show it was politically motivated,” he said.

But Kelola said in his opinion it did appear the police stand-down was “genuinely” caused by the pay issue.

“When they got their pay packets, their first of 2024, some of them realised 60 kina ($24) or 100 kina ($41) has been cut,” he said.

Following the rioting, Mr Marape conceded security forces had a “genuine cause of concern”, and his government swiftly promised to fix what it described as a payroll “glitch”.

But he warned that “lawlessness and recklessness” would not be tolerated.

“Shops have opened, fuel stations have opened, public transportation is open,” Port Moresby resident Maho Laveil told AFP last month, two days after the riots.

“People are moving again. There’s been a sense of peace. There’s an increased level of police and military around the city. I think the risk is at night.”

Mr Marape told reporters last month that it was “not the first time members of our disciplinary forces have gone rogue”, referencing a 2018 pay dispute that ended with security staff smashing up the country’s parliament.

“I want to indicate to our country enough is enough,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

AFPTV footage during the chaos last month showed looters in the capital dashing into stores through smashed glass windows, stuffing stolen goods into cardboard boxes, plastic buckets and shopping trolleys.

One man was seen lugging an entire chest freezer away on his shoulders.

Buildings and cars were set alight, AFPTV footage showed, stirring up thick plumes of black smoke that hung over the worst-hit parts of the city.

City Pharmacy Limited, one of Papua New Guinea’s largest retail chains, said prescription medicines had been stolen from its ransacked stores.

“We urge the public not to buy these products,” the company said in a statement. “If anybody uses these products, it will be at your own risk.”

It also made an “urgent appeal” for Port Moresby residents to return stolen shopping trolleys.

The US Embassy in Port Moresby said shots were fired near its compound as police tried to “disperse groups of looters”.

China’s Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with Papua New Guinea’s government, following reports that some rioters had targeted Chinese-owned businesses.

This week, Australia and Papua New Guinea announced a new four-year deal that will see millions of dollars ploughed into the pacific nation’s police force.

Canberra will spend about $25 million on renovating and expanding police barracks and housing, according to the deal revealed late on Wednesday.

The investment represents a bid to help the beleaguered police force, while cementing longstanding security ties that appear increasingly fragile.

The announcement came just days after it emerged that China had offered to train and equip Papua New Guinea’s thinly stretched police force — which currently numbers just a few thousand officers.

Police stations are often dilapidated, with paint peeling from the walls and overwhelmed officers lacking even basic supplies.

Beijing’s offer raised the prospect of Chinese security personnel deploying to a country just a few dozen kilometres off Australia’s northern coast — something that would sound alarm bells in Canberra.

Australia is by far Papua New Guinea’s largest donor, but Chinese firms have made solid inroads into markets in the impoverished but resource-rich nation.

“PNG and Australian police are working more closely today than at any other time in our bilateral history,” Papua New Guinea’s Police Commissioner David Manning said, hailing the “traditional bilateral” partnership with Australia.

Mr Marape is due to visit Australia and address parliament on February 8.

Kelola said the Prime Minister would shortly after that face another attempt to topple him when Papua New Guinea’s parliament sits on February 12.

Mr Marape’s home province of Hela in the northwest is home to the major Australian-backed liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.

“I’m not trying to predict anything but if maybe people from his province are not happy [with the outcome of the vote] it might trigger something,” Kelola said.

“The Prime Minister himself came out openly in the media urging people just to allow the politicians to make the decision and not take anything into their own hands. He’s never done that before.”

While the government is currently saying it is confident it has the numbers to stave off the vote, several ministers have defected in recent days.

“PNG is the land of the unexpected,” Kelola added.

— with AFP