As Papua New Guinea – one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse nations – prepares for national elections from June 24 to July 8, authorities are calling for peace and calm. Historically, tensions during polling, vote counting and the announcement of winners has erupted into widespread violence, but the phenomenon is not limited to election periods in this south-western Pacific island country. “Increased access to high-powered guns such as military style M16s and homemade shotguns, and the breakdown of traditional rules of warfare, has amplified the effects of violence, resulting in dozens – if not hundreds – of violent deaths and thousands of displacements each year, especially in the Highlands. We are seeing wounds that one would see in war zones,” says International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) chief official in PNG, Mark Kessler.
The country is divided into four regions – Highlands, Islands, Momase and Papua Region, which comprises 20 provinces, Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) and National Capital District (NCD). Tribal fighting is more prevalent in the Highlands, where it is easy to hire guns and pay people to fight.
“The economic boom from natural resource extractions and the Liquid Natural Gas project has led to an influx of money in the Highlands, but there is no flourishing economy for people to invest their money,” notes Kessler. “So, when people have money, especially men, they buy weapons as it gives them power, or they engage in the marijuana trade.”