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How Violent Riots Engulfed Papua New Guinea’s Capital

Bullets flew. Stores and warehouses burned. At the edge of the prime minister’s compound, hundreds of protesters tugged at the gates and set a guard booth on fire. Inside, on the 10th floor of the beige building that housed the office of the country’s leader, he was facing calls to respond forcefully, perhaps even ask the former colonial ruler for help.

“We are not calling in the Australians,” Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea told a reporter visiting him in his office. “We can handle this ourselves.”

Last week’s deadly unrest caught officials unaware and left Mr. Marape grappling with a fast-moving crisis. But discontent had been simmering for months in one of the poorest countries in the world. Papua New Guinea has a very large youth population, but few jobs to offer its young people, making economic hardship even more severe.

So when the pay of hundreds of civil servants and police officers was docked — by what the government described as a computer glitch — they walked off their jobs on Jan. 10. Within hours, Port Moresby, the capital, was rocked by a level of violence it had not seen in decades. No official death toll was released, but at least 22 are believed to have died in the unrest, according to reports in the Australian news media.

Mr. Marape insisted the payroll error would be corrected and the missing money restored, dismissing claims that swirled on social media that the pay cut was a clandestine tax increase. By nightfall, he had ordered the military to restore calm in the capital. The following day, he declared a two-week state of emergency in Port Moresby and suspended the Pacific island nation’s chief of police.

During the unrest, telecommunications services in Papua New Guinea suffered outages, according to NetBlocks, a group that monitors internet connectivity, but the causes behind the problem remained unclear.

A fragile peace has now set in. But resources are in short supply, with so many businesses ransacked or incinerated in the riots. It is unclear who will bear the costs of rebuilding, which are estimated at 600 million Papua New Guinean kina, or around $160 million, according to the government, and which are unlikely to be covered by the businesses’ insurance. Members of the military and the police are a visible presence in the capital, some services face reduced opening hours, and restrictions are in place over public gatherings and alcohol use.

In the aftermath of the riots, seven lawmakers have resigned, and rumblings of a mutiny have emerged over Mr. Marape’s handling of the crisis.

The speed with which a pay dispute gave way to violent riots reveals the brittleness of life in Papua New Guinea, said Michael Main, an anthropologist and researcher at Australia National University.

More than 68 percent of the country’s population — estimated between 9 million and 17 million people — was living below the poverty line, on less than $3.65 a day, as of 2017, according to the World Bank.

It is experiencing what is known as a youth bulge, with as much as two-thirds of the population below age 25, according to recent studies. Though there are few reliable official statistics, youth unemployment is rife, experts say.

“We have living within our cities and towns a large population of unemployed, disengaged and disaffected youth with little to no prospect of being productive citizens,” said Christopher Elphick, 39, who owns a furniture and appliances store in Port Moresby. “They have nothing to lose.”

Those who land a job then face obligations to their community, with family members relying on them for help.

The sudden pay cut for the police, who come from various parts of the country and have complex political and clan alliances, ignited a ready tinderbox. “Take away a substantial amount of their pay,” Dr. Main said, “and all of a sudden they are left with the same demands — but even less money.”

In a video posted to social media, James Nomane, one of the members of Parliament who resigned after the unrest broke out, blamed Mr. Marape, the prime minister, for the crisis and called on him to step down.

“The government has failed to address the ‘youth bulge’ issue, we have failed to create opportunities for our people, and we have absolutely failed the nation,” he said, adding, “No blame games, no excuses — the buck stops with the prime minister. He must resign.”

Mr. Marape came to power in 2019, promising that the country, which is impoverished but rich in resources, would be the world’s “richest Black Christian nation” within a decade. He avoided a vote of no confidence in 2020 and won re-election in 2022. In recent months, as both the United States and China vie for influence in the Pacific, Mr. Marape has signed security agreements with the United States and Australia, while also pursuing economic deals with China, the country’s largest trade partner.

Mr. Marape on Monday announced a cabinet reshuffle, suggesting a fracture within his coalition. But while a vote of no confidence is likely, no challenger has so far emerged, and members of the prime minister’s party and the media have mostly rallied around him, said Maholopa Laveil, an economist at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The timing of such a vote remains unclear, but it cannot happen until next month at the earliest. The country’s laws forbid a no-confidence vote within a year and a half after elections.

For now, the government has threatened to shut down social media, citing concerns around “misinformation and disinformation,” according to the telecommunications minister, Timothy Masiu.

It is already “investigating certain social media accounts and following persons of interest,” Mr. Laveil said. “They have the right to freeze accounts, if there’s a credible threat.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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