Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mass looting - a new pastime in Papua New Guinea

Letters from Port Moresby

Written by By Alfredo P. Hernandez   


HERE IN MY second home Papua New Guinea, organized mass looting has become a national pastime among the “raskols” (criminals), the jobless and the marginalized.
It comes second only to betel nut chewing, a longtime enshrined national pastime, which unfortunately, has become a national disgrace in its own right.
Already a perceived livelihood just like hunting, looting first evolved from the occasional plunder arising from broken-down vehicles – usually cargo trucks -- along the highways in the Highlands, something never heard of in this part of the world until the late 1980s when the living was still easy.
My late father, a first-rate gasoline-and-diesel engine mechanic, had often told me proudly that he could stay three days and two nights along the highlands highway fixing a disabled hauler trucks with precious goods. But he came home, as always, in one piece, and with his truck and its contents intact.
But this scenario of peace and security in this part of this world of green wilderness had been turned upside down with the collapse of the Bougainville gold mines during the late 1980s, sending to the streets thousands of Papua New Guineans jobless while their families were going foodless.
From then on until some seven years ago, the government had been in great financial crisis, unable to attend to the most basic economic demand which was job. So, the people had to fend for themselves, while waiting for some promised economic reprieve from their government. It never came.
So in this part of the highlands along these highways, the villagers in their desperation struck a new source of livelihood, just like striking gold and oil.
At first, only the village thieves plucked the goods from the stalled haulers and sold them at the village or in town. But as the time went by, the virus of “easy money” had contaminated the entire village populace.
When they sneezed, they expelled this virus, and this was caught by the next village sitting on either side of the highway. And the nasty chain reaction moved on, until the disease had become pandemic, crossing borders far and wide, rivaling the now-dreaded swine flu.
Soon enough, every looting incident that would take place along the highways saw the entire village ganging up on the helpless trucking crew, helping themselves to the goods found inside the containers.
And it did not happen just once. It happened for as many times as there were vehicles breaking down along the highway, and these included private vehicles and public buses called PMVs.
There was an incident just two or three years ago when a cargo truck laden with the local beer products conked out along the dreaded highlands highway.
In matters of few minutes, the entire village population was upon the disabled container truck, fighting over for the possession of more than a thousand cartons of beer after prying open the padlocked steel doors.
Then, there was drinking frenzy the whole day as the entire village reeked of liquor. When the police arrived shortly after noon, they scrambled to arrest the culprits. They failed.
The reason: They could not find any evidence of looting against the blind drunk thieves who actually made up the entire village population. The hauling company’s executives and the beer owners could not believe what they heard.
HAVING LIVED in this country for more than 15 years, I am almost convinced that most, if not all, of villages along the highland highways cutting through the Southern Highlands Province, the Eastern Highlands Province and neighboring highlands provinces are a sleeping giant of a looter just waiting for their DLS to get activated, just like in a computer program, such as the “spell-check”. When you had misspelled a word, the default “spell-check” program pops to correct the spelling.
By the way, DLS means “default looters syndrome”, a variation of what I called in this column three years ago – DRS -- or “default raskol syndrome”.
And the one thing that could kick this syndrome into action is an unfortunate vehicle with goods getting disabled along the highway. It’s an opportunity enough to wake up a sleepy village population and throw them into hooliganism and thievery.
That looting could take place as a matter of course in highlands’ notorious spots is no longer surprising. Here in Port Moresby, it has become an ordinary scene, taking place even in places were it is witnessed by many.
Sometime ago, two of the country’s prominent media persons – the first a former music broadcaster and the other a former newspaper editor – were victims of separate looting incidents after they had a car crash off the road.
While they were pinned down inside their vehicles with serious injuries, a group of men hurriedly came, searched their pockets and the inside of the car for valuables and took off with the loot, satisfied that they had their keep for the day. Clearly, the DLS/DRS embedded in them worked perfectly.
OF LATE, HOWEVER, the people’ disease has been elevated to a much higher plane. Now, they have concocted something political in nature to justify looting to the bewilderment and chagrin of the entire nation, and to the disgust and amusement of the expatriates’ community.
Getting themselves assembled into a big mass at the public square, whether it’s in Port Moresby or in the highlands, they call out the battle cry “Down with the Asians … send them home …” (Asians are supposed to mean “Chinese traders”). But under their breath, they whisper among themselves: “Have rally, we’ll loot …”
And so the fun begins.
Denouncing what they claimed as non-English speaking Chinese traders for “taking over” small business activities supposedly “reserved” for Papua New Guineans, the would-be looters would then move in for the kill with impunity.
Chinese stores that had the mistake of ignoring such mass agitation to take precautions were the biggest losers: the thousands or so of people bulldozed into the stores and helped themselves to whatever there was for the taking – cash in the tills, “ukay-ukay RTWs”, canned tuna, sardines and meat, kitchen wares, foodstuff, toilet paper and more -- fleeing the premises only after they had been emptied and in ruins.
Over the last several weeks, this had been the spectacle that became a staple of PNG newspapers. This economic carnage triggered strong condemnation from the civilized society, especially in Port Moresby, while the police tried their best to contain the lawlessness and arrest the so-called looting agitators, who were believed to be from anti-Asians NGOs (no-good organizations).
Government officials could only shake their heads not knowing what lip-servicing statement to issue out to appease the beleaguered public.
And so, the wholesale looting went on and had gone overboard in Port Moresby and in major urban centers like Lae city and Madang province in the northern coast of PNG, in Kainantu and Goroka in Eastern Highlands, and in neighboring provinces of Western Highlands and East Sepik.
ALL THIS BOILS down to one thing: The economics of the stomach.
When the stomach grumbles for food, the brain cannot function properly especially when it has to process ideas that require the owner to decide between what is good and what is not, or between   a difficult task and one offering an easy way out.
Oftentimes, an undernourished brain tends to fall into a trap of taking the path of least resistance since it is most easy to comprehend, easy to understand, but at the same time remains clueless whether or not it is the right thing to do.
Hunger has been with the marginalized sector of the PNG society for most of their lives seven days a week, characterized by two barest meals a day – one in the morning and one at nightfall.
Or sometimes, just supper would make do. In between – lunch – is another story for most of the families, knowing that skipping lunch cooking for their favorite betel nuts (buai), or catnapping from noon till 4pm, would help make food last longer for another day or two.
When the people amassed at public squares and were agitated -- yes, agitated -- to denounce Asians doing business they were made to believe had been stolen from them, they actually had a very little understanding, or none at all, of the whole affair.
Or the true agenda of the rally leader-agitators.
What they can comprehend at that very moment was that inside those stores are cash boxes and shelves loaded with food and other goodies that could solve their hunger – and all these are for the taking.
The marginalized sector have been poisoned with the absurd idea that the hardworking Chinese traders have been stealing from them right under their nose – that is by running businesses like variety stores, fast-foods shops, repair shops and a lot more of small-and-medium size enterprises.
Their leaders, or the instigators, have convinced the poor, unschooled villagers, that such economic activities are restricted to Papua New Guineans alone.
Which means no foreigners could venture into these areas, let alone Chinese, without violating the law. Under this law, economic activities exclusive to the locals have been listed and defined.
But such legislation was repelled a few years ago because there were no takers. The supposed beneficiaries never took advantage of it.
It was replaced with a new one in which Papua New Guineans could invest into what has been called as the “informal sector”, the counterpart of the Philippines’ underground economy in which the players could do anything that would generate income legally without having to pay government taxes.
But despite this opportunity, they never took advantage of it fully, settling only to selling cooked food, vegetables and fruits, used (or stolen) clothing and betel nuts (buai) along roadsides and in certain designated areas.
And now they begin to hate Asian traders. They see them raked in good money from their efforts while catering to the needs of communities from Port Moresby to urban centers in the highlands region, down to the coastal areas like the industrial center of Lae and the tuna canning town of Madang.
“That money could have been ours,” as the locals would claim, envious over the success of the Chinese in running their retail trade.
But Papua New Guineans never tried to understand why these present-day traders, who could be third generation, fluent pidgin-speaking Chinese whose ancestors first came to this country just after WWII, persisted and succeeded in their enterprises.
One simple answer is that the locals, even before, never ventured into where the Chinese have been successful – retail trading. Just think about this: If the Chinese did not invest, did not create and develop the market and did not pursue their trade, would there be such businesses flourishing in those areas where the looting became pervasive?
I doubt it.
Question: How come these looters are still in their hand-to-mouth existence until now? How come they are not engaged in such trade for which they have become envious of when they had been given the chance to do so long, long time ago?
The answer is simple: They have no capital with which to start a trade store (variety store). One reason is that lending institutions remained uncomfortable in giving them capital.
And even if they got bank loans, they don’t have the so-called business acumen – for which Chinese across the globe have been known – to stay in business for long and make money.
In my home country the Philippines, a Chinese store could be found even in the remotest part of the province, flourishing as it conducted its business in peace.
The Chinese retailers have been a part of the national landscape even before the first Spaniards came to the Philippines towards the middle of the 1500s, and even before the Americans invaded the country at the break of the 1900.
And the Filipino community respected them for what they did and what they still do these days, and for being industrious and contented despite the little profit made from every item they sold.
It is the same industry that made PNG Chinese successful. And the locals want to grab their exploits by asking the PNG government to drive them out of the country and deliver the business to them in a silver platter.
What? How stupid could they get!
How about investing in the same line of business and compete head-on with the Chinese? I can already predict the result: Locals doing this won’t survive.
Here’s a story: Many years ago, a Filipino entrepreneur was running a successful trade business here in Port Moresby, which was a partnership with a Papua New Guinean. The “Pinoy” had worked hard over the years to make the business make money.
Now, this PNG partner saw that there was a lot of moolah flowing into the business and the cash flow was first rate. So, he decided to buy out the Filipino, as he wanted to run the business himself, and wanted the money all to himself.
In six months’ time, the business folded up and the PNG guy asked his ex-partner back. No way, said the Pinoy, who went on to put up another business that later flourished through sheer industry and business acumen.
NOW, THE SPATE of organized mass looting in strategic parts of the country finally shook up the government hierarchy who wanted to know exactly what was going on with their citizens.
Now, a so-called bipartisan parliamentary committee wants to probe the recent anti-Asian protest and massive looting that hit parts of PNG. And maybe to do something about this before it further gets out of hand.
Well, the lawmakers are doing this “in aid of legislation”, a worn-out phrase in the Philippine Congress that usually ended up to nothing. Maybe they would move to legislate something to discourage looting, an offspring of hunger.
But can they outlaw looting and hunger?
They don’t have to look far for the cause of such opportunists’ unrest. It is right here staring at them. It is called poverty. It’s been here since PNG became a nation in September 1975. And today, year 2009, it’s more evident, pervasive and in living color.
When people are hungry although there’s food, which however, remains beyond their reach, what could be the best option but to take an already accepted option in PNG -- that social norm to survive: looting.
How the PNG government would legislate against this anomaly is yet again another perceived grandiose parliamentary debacle in the making.
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