Student deaths: £1.5m bill for PM

July 6, 2001

A commission of inquiry into the killing of four students by police at the University of Papua New Guinea has been postponed while prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta joins a mourning ceremony with their parents.

Sir Mekere promised the inquiry into last week's campus invasion, when police killed four and wounded 24 other students, 11 critically. The families of the dead students presented a petition to the prime minister last Friday demanding 4 million kina (£1.5 million) in compensation.

The demand is based on a tradition in the Western Highlands provinces. Parents called for a payment of 500,000 kina for each student killed and said both the government and the university's Student Representative Council should pay.

The families believe the SRC was responsible for organising student protests against government plans to privatise many state facilities. Sir Mekere said he had deferred the inquiry until he had been able to consider the demands of the families and had spent time with them "mourning and listening to their views".

University vice-chancellor Les Eastcott said police arrived early Tuesday morning and began firing automatic weapons, shotguns and teargas. The raid appeared to be a response to the earlier burning and looting of shops and attacks on the police barracks.

The violence followed several days of peaceful protests by students, workers and unemployed people worried by privatisation plans. To get a World Bank loan to aid the country's faltering economy, the prime minister was forced last year to guarantee huge public-sector reforms, including selling various state enterprises.

After a five-day sit-in at Sir Mekere's offices, the students gave the prime minister a petition calling for an end to privatisation. Police later broke up the protest and returned the students to their campus.

Professor Eastcott said the students had caused no damage to the university. Staff believed they were all "bedded down" on the Monday night, he said, when police arrived early the next morning and began shooting.

The raid halted Port Moresby. Schools and shops closed, and little public transport operated last week. University classes resumed this week, but schools will not re-open until Monday.

Papua New Guineans have become increasingly concerned at what they believe is the loss of control of their destiny. They see their future in the hands of outsiders such as multinational corporations that exploit the nation's resources with little regard for the land or its traditional custodians.

Professor Eastcott said that after nine months in his post - he had been a pro vice-chancellor at Australia's University of Newcastle - he was having experiences "no Australian vice-chancellor would dream of".

"The irony is that this is a country committed to higher education," he said. "It is a very volatile society and it has its own Melanesian way of resolving problems. If you're running a traditional western organisation, that can cause many difficulties."

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