Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Papua New Guinea careens toward a political implosion

DPA , SYDNEY

Australia is gearing up for what many see as the impending collapse of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the colony it gave independence to 31 years ago and the troubled South Pacific's biggest country.

Prime Minister John Howard, announcing this week that two new battalions would be raised to take the army's strength to 30,000, named PNG as the region's next big security problem.

"Papua New Guinea is a country with a fair degree of instability," Howard said. "I think it's been bad for some time and I think in some respects it's got worse."

In a report published this month, leading Australian charity World Vision described a country going backwards on almost every measure. Rating PNG against 22 other countries in the region, it had the highest proportion of the population with the HIV virus and the lowest proportion, 39 percent, with access to clean water.

"Unlike virtually every other country in the region, the rate of primary school completion has declined, and at under 60 percent is the lowest," the report said.

The country is failing so badly that the UN is mulling a downgrading from "developing country" to a "least developed country" status.

The World Bank, in a report released last year, noted that a greater proportion, 70 percent, of PNG's 5 million population lives in poverty now than 10 years ago.

At the root of the problem is corruption on a mind-boggling scale.

"Since independence, most politicians have regarded the national parliament as a means to amass personal fortunes. Most play the system for what they can get out of it personally. A few have been prosecuted. Even fewer have been imprisoned," said Allan Patience, professor of political science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Straight-out theft by elected officials is commonplace. Last year retiring head of state Sir Salas Atopare freely admitted that he stripped Government House at the end of his six-year term, taking away with him -- curtains, cookers, computers and even his official vehicles.

Sheer wanton venality was again on show in a July parliamentary by-election in Port Moresby, the capital. Even though the winner would have been in the legislature less than a year, candidates spent millions in the hope of winning the seat.

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