PEACE ARK OR GEOPOLITICS?

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This little orange customer rewards card sums up what I see as one of the greatest cultural challenges facing PNG. I’ll tell you why. I went for a coffee with a friend the other day. I ordered mine and then he ordered his and I said that I would pay for both of them. But the lady behind the counter must have missed that part of the order. We sat there for a while and my coffee arrived but five minutes later there was still no sign of my friend’s coffee. So he enquired about it and it turned out that they hadn’t made it. I checked my receipt and sure enough, it wasn’t on there; I hadn’t paid for it, so the message never connected and the coffee never came.

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What was weird about it was that when I paid for my coffee, I gave the lady my loyalty card, she stamped it, but only once. So I gave it back to her and said, “I bought two coffees”. She took my card back and added TWO more stamps. So she gave me a bonus stamp. She didn’t have to do that. What she should have said was, “No you didn’t. Actually, you only paid for one. Would you like another coffee?” But rather than risk an argument, she thought it was just easier to give me two more stamps that I didn’t deserve. It’s an example of the extreme avoidance of conflict that one experiences in PNG. I read about this concept that prevails in PNG culture of the “Big Man” whose rule must never be challenged. These poor people must have been taught from an early age to never speak out against anyone in authority. As a result, people are quite often not at all assertive when they have every right to be. It’s really sad and I think it comes at a huge cost to the people of PNG.

 

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I went out to Sogeri again the other day for a relaxing weekend. That place is amazing. It doesn’t feel like I’m in PNG at all.

Ark Peace (21)On the way back we had a little incident. I mentioned in a previous post how local villagers “fix” potholes by filling them with dirt (which washes away in a day or two), and then demand money from motorists. Well, as we were driving back from Sogeri, some of these friendly villagers didn’t like the fact that my friend didn’t stop to pay them a road repair donation. So they threw rocks at his car and smashed the window. There is a name for that – it’s called extortion and people go to prison for it where I come from. Everything is more expensive here and finding the right window for a used car can be time and consuming and very costly. I think I would have preferred that they just left the pot holes, thank you very much.

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There was a tragic light aircraft accident in PNG a few weeks ago. PNG is a notoriously difficult environment for flying because of the mountainous terrain and low cloud cover. Many pilots have died over the years because navigating through the mountain passes without radar can be treacherous. In this most recent crash, an Australian pilot, his co-pilot – a woman from PNG (female pilots are very rare here) – and two passengers were killed. But this guy in the photo survived, allegedly thanks to the intervention of his god. This kind of assertion really grinds my gears. The god in question apparently found four people unworthy of saving and yet spared this fellow because he’s a Catholic Priest? Four people with a high level of education and skills are dead but the guy who tells children to behave or they’ll burn in hell for eternity gets to live? On what possible grounds can someone make a claim like that? To presume to understand the almighty and speak to what motivates a supreme being in such situations. Something doesn’t sit well with me about that picture somehow.  And to see it plastered across the front page of the paper is an affront.

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With Independence Day last month came a whole range of marketing products in stores. My favourite though was these “Freedom Cookies”. Celebrate throwing off the shackles of Imperial oppression by eating a brown, yellow and pink cookies.

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There have been some interesting newspaper articles of late – especially around Independence Day.

One of the most frustrating things about life in the post-colonial developing world is watching governments direct resources away from fundamentals like policing, health care, and education and towards policies driven by social values rather than basic human needs. I found this particularly difficult to watch in Afghanistan, where the desperate human needs were overlooked while the government funded the department of “Vice and Virtue” to tell people how to be better Muslims. If for no other reason, the separation of religion and state is critical to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money.

Crime continues to be a major challenge facing PNG, but I have come up with an idea for improving safety in Port Moresby. PNG has a very limited number of police available (the UN recommends 1 police officer for every 400 citizens, while PNG has one for every 1,200 citizens). I suggest that we use 6 of them to police known crime hot spots.  There are about 6 places around town that everyone knows are a constant risk due to carjacking. So my idea is put a cop on the street corners of each of the hot spots.  Crime would reduce overnight.

But that’s not what the they’re going to do. Instead, here is what the police did this week:

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This is because politicians know that little old ladies who vote and go to church are deeply troubled by the evils of pornography and drugs. They believe that these things cause crime. Maybe they do to some extent. But one would think that anyone can see that a guy who managed to get his hands on a big stack of old playboys and a bunch of weed is probably not going to be much of a threat to anyone for a while. In fact he most likely won’t leave his own bedroom for two whole weeks and then emerge with bloodshot eyes and a smile on his face.

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The Chinese government recently sent a hospital ship to PNG to offer free medical care to the people of PNG. The ship they sent is known as Peace Ark. It is a Type 920 Hospital Ship that is part of the Chinese Navy.

Sending a medical ship to provide free treatment is a generous gesture, not doubt. But lets’ take a quick look at the political context of this altruistic act.

Over the past 20 years, Chinese manufacturing has expanded to the point where half the junk in our homes is now made in China. Companies fled high taxes in Europe and North America to jump on the cheap labour bandwagon, and in doing so, handed China a massive economic boost. China is now the second largest economy in the world. And the West allowed this to happen primarily because the cheap Chinese imported goods kept inflation under control in their own economies, making economic management that much easier for Western leaders.

Chinese Island Construction

And while you were busy watching B-Grade movies on your $40 blu-ray player over the last week or so, the geopolitical landscape shifted considerably. The Chinese Government was busy with (apart from deciding whether to crush democratic protests in Hong Kong) building an air force base on what was, until recently, just an innocent reef in the South China Sea. They have literally created an island in order to build an unsinkable aircraft carrier right in the middle of a disputed zone.

The Chinese Government has decided that it owns the whole of the South China sea. This is the equivalent of the biggest kid in the kindergarten claiming that he owns all the toys in the classroom and threatening to beat up anyone who disagrees with him.South_china-sea - Nine Dash Line

So is it possible that, while PNG is not in the disputed zone, the Chinese sent Peace Ark as part of a bigger plan that maybe has nothing to do with peace?

And why does a little country like PNG receive attention from the big players in a political game thousands of kilometres away? Because they want to project their influence in the region. Flex their newfound military muscles, and justify their large naval budgets. Because they want access to new markets for their business enterprises and potentially to the vast natural resource wealth of developing countries like Papua New Guinea.

Nevertheless, the medical help is real and it is very gratefully received by the people of PNG.

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In fact, the free medical care from the Chinese navy was in such demand that people were lined up around the block like teenagers queuing to buy “One Direction” tickets.

Ark Peace (50)Now it’s not that PNG doesn’t have medical care available. In fact, medical care here is free. But the standard varies enormously. There was an article in the paper this week about how someone broke into the place where exam papers were being stored and the answers to upcoming Year 12 exams were available for sale on street corners. The simple fact is that qualifications in developing countries are undermined by corruption. There’s nothing prejudiced about questioning the capabilities of someone who graduated from a system where the answers and grades are bought and sold to the highest bidder. It’s just another example of the tremendous cost borne by the people of nations with high levels of corruption.

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So the reality is that there are some excellent locally-trained doctors in PNG and then there are some who are terrible.

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And so people vote with their feet. They would rather spend an entire day lining up in the hot sun, away from work or whatever else they normally do during the day, to get Chinese medical help, than throw themselves at the mercy of the PNG medical system.

Ark Peace (51)The service was so popular that the long queues extended around the block and were visible from my house a few kilometres away. Think about that next time you’re in a doctor’s waiting room complaining that you’ve been waiting 45 minutes and that the magazines are all from 1993 and the pages are sticky. Some people have an even less pleasant wait for a doctor than you do.

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The lucky people who were selected for treatment were ferried to the hospital ship in small buses. They then had another wait in the sun before being allowed on board for treatment.

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The Peace Ark stayed for a few days and in that time they treated nearly 5,000 patients. Oh and by the way, a teacher was dragged off a public bus and murdered in the highlands. The people from his village blocked the road until the other village gave up the murderers. They have now been arrested. Now back to the Chinese Navy visit.

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They also performed nearly 50 surgeries. One assumes that a Chinese medical ship practices modern medicine based on actual science and isn’t handing out potions made from the ground up horn of a nearly-extinct rhinoceros species. No doubt the level of care is not as high as we would expect in Australia or Canada. Nevertheless, for the people who received treatment, it was a vastly better option to what they would normally have in PNG, and they were extremely grateful.

Ark Peace (48) All good things must come to an end and the Chinese left a couple of weeks ago with much fanfare.

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I watched the ship take sail. I liked the helicopter on the deck.

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Off they went – no doubt to help out the next country with a flailing medical system and a pile of natural resources just waiting to be exploited.

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No sooner had the Chinese navy left and a new naval presence arrived in Port Moresby – the Japanese. They sent these three warships (and I read in the paper there was a fourth somewhere around).

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They have cool helicopters too. I love helicopters.

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As the Rising Sun flags flew over Port Moresby, the Japanese negotiated a deal to set up some kind of military base here, it was reported in the paper this week.

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While the Chinese sent medical aid, the Japanese sent training ships. Now I’m no professor, but I did observe that they seemed to have big guns for training ships.

 Sailors

The sailors were allowed some shore leave and they explored the city in Mini-buses. I was at the supermarket and it was overrun with very smartly draped Japanese sailors in their full dress uniforms.

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But as all of these geopolitical machinations take place in their backyard, the average Papua New Guinean is content just to sit on the dock and watch the tide come in. Ark Peace (39)

I went to the “Jam Session” at the Yacht Club the other day. It’s a chance for musicians to get together and make some noise for a bit of fun. I got up and played a few songs.

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This story has to be filed under the “only in PNG” category. This woman from the Western Highlands was gardening when an Eagle swooped down and tried to steal her small pig. The eagle sunk its claws into the pig but then struggled to lift it off the ground. The quick-thinking woman grabbed a large string bag and threw it over the eagle capturing it. The poor pig didn’t make it though, and since the pig was worth 500 kina ($200), the woman decided that she would take the eagle to market and sell it for 500 kina to make up for her lost pig.

Until next postcard….

 

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