Tuesday, April 24, 2012

PNG anti-government protest fizzles

By Eoin Blackwell, AAP Papua New Guinea Correspondent

A mass protest against the government of Papua New Guinea by union leaders in the capital, Port Moresby, has failed to materialise, after police said they would not let it go ahead.
Businesses in the capital closed their doors today in preparation for the protest, after Trade Union Congress (PNGTUC) general secretary John Paska said affiliates would protest at the gates of Parliament House from 10am.
He had planned to hand prime minister Peter O'Neill a petition demanding the repeal of two laws aimed at reining in the Supreme Court and parliament's recent vote to suspend the elections by six months.
But by Tuesday afternoon fewer than 500 people gathered to hear speeches in a field near Parliament House, where mostly unarmed police cadets huddled in groups awaiting an angry march from some of the union's 70,000 members.
Mr Paska couldn't have handed Mr O'Neill the petition - there weren't enough of PNG's 109 MPs in parliament to form a quorum, and so it was adjourned until Wednesday.
Student groups couldn't make it, they said, because they had exams.
Comment is being sought from Mr Paska.
Police spokesman Dominic Kakas told AAP the PNGTUC President Michael Malabag had scheduled an appointment to meet with Mr O'Neill this week.
Police had earlier issued a statement saying they would not allow the protest to go ahead.
"We could not let the protests go ahead because we did not think we could ensure public safety," Superintendent Kakas said.
"The protesters have concerns - legitimate concerns - and there are a number of issues to be dealt with.
"But public safety is paramount."
Supt Kakas said police had encouraged union leaders and student groups to organise an appointment with Mr O'Neill, and to plan their protests in advance to ensure public safety.
But he is well aware of the mounting political tension in the capital.
"Everyone out there is waiting for Port Moresby to go off," he said.
A spokesman for Mr O'Neill said he understood a meeting was planned between the PM and PNGTUC president Michael Malabag.
The perimeter of PNG's Parliament House was surrounded by mostly unarmed cadet police, however AAP spotted one officer with what looked like a tear-gas gun.
A flood of emails to public servants and businesses warning of potential violence surrounding the protest has created a strange world of opposites in Port Moresby.
In the city centre, the pot-holed streets are busy with people going about their daily lives amid the persistent, grimy presence of exhaust fumes.
However, many businesses, such as the always packed, open-all-hours Vision City Shopping Centre, in the heart of the government district, was empty on Tuesday morning, and a row of orange uniformed security guards armed with black rubber maces guarded the main gate.
Port Moresby has over the past two months hosted two peaceful protests against the government's passage of the Judicial Conduct bill and the April 2 vote to delay the election.
At both protests there was intense liaison between police and protest leaders.
"We have to be responsible here," shouted one police officer to marching students on March 23.
"The leaders (politicians) are looking for any excuse to delay the elections. We don't want to give them that excuse."
A week later they voted to do just that.

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