How to address escalating violence in PNG

Maramuni, Enga Province, PNG (Philip Gibbs)
(Philip Gibbs)

There is currently a serious problem with tribal fighting and gang violence in some of the Highland provinces of Papua New Guinea. In many areas, the violence surrounding the July 2022 election has essentially continued as a series of rolling fights. The most recent violent event to hit the news is a kidnapping of women and girls in Hela Province. They were brutally raped and subjected to other unnamed horrors before being released.

The problem seems so intractable, widespread and repeated that it is hard to know where to begin. The dominant outcome is impunity for perpetrators. Impunity is justified by reference to difficulties of access and transport, of communication, scarcity of government resources, and the considerable firepower of the feuding parties and gang members. All these are truly difficult logistical obstacles.

But, they are less insurmountable obstacles if we stop viewing the incidents as isolated events, and start seeing them as repeated patterns of behaviour. Paying attention to the systemic and cyclical nature of intergroup fighting highlights two much underused resources in the intervention armoury: timing of interventions, and networks with local communities.

In regard to timing, we use as an illustration a tragic recent case in Enga Province that personally affected one of us. William’s father was murdered, along with three other men, when he attended a peace mediation talk between two clans. This gave rise to immense pressure for payback from William’s clan, but there were many level heads within the clan of the deceased who realised that this could trigger an ever-increasing cycle of violence. They put enormous efforts into containing the forces crying out for revenge – channelling their own resources, oratory skills and charisma towards this objective. Against all odds, clan and community leaders managed to stop the violence for 14 days while the haus krai and burial occurred. The immensity of this feat should not be underestimated.

The leaders knew that this temporary peace had an end date; they alone were not strong enough to permanently stop the violence. So they actively sought out the state’s police force to help them and, they hoped, take the burden from their shoulders by arresting the perpetrators of the original four murders. Unfortunately, the police did not intervene as hoped.

The force of those speaking for peace was eventually overwhelmed by those thirsting for war, and cycle after cycle of attack and revenge occurred, drawing in old conflicts from two or three decades ago. It turned out to be one clan who spoke for peace, against 18 others who mobilised for violence. At the height of the conflict, the state finally sent police and military personnel who were on the ground. They were quickly overwhelmed, as by that stage the violence had escalated with the use of high-powered weapons.

We see this pattern repeated again and again. The state only intervenes too late, when the incident has already got out of hand and is beyond its limited resources to contain. The lesson about temporality is clear: interventions need to be made before the escalation of violence occurs, or after the violence has petered out and before the next cycle begins.

How do we know about the timing of these cycles of violence? This is where the other resource in the intervention armoury comes into play – networks with local leaders.

The most significant resource to address such violence in PNG is not the police or the military, it is the actions of local leaders and their communities. We see this in the Enga example above, where clan leaders were able to contain the forces of violence for a period, and also in an earlier Hela kidnapping case, where local communities were instrumental in securing the release of academics and their assistants who had been kidnapped in February. Time after time, it is clan leaders, pastors, youth and women leaders who organise ceasefires, negotiate bel kol (temporary truce), and take public stands against violence.

Local leaders and peacebuilders have levels of understanding and knowledge of the perpetrators and the surrounding context that police and the state lack. They have detailed understanding of the historical background to conflicts, which requires mastery of the local language, cultural traditions, and oral histories of conflict. They also possess a range of non-conventional techniques that allow them to effectively utilise cultural nuances to build peace in ways the state cannot. Local knowledge and local leaders are crucial to finding a solution to conflicts in any society, and are responsible for the most successful interventions and peacebuilding in PNG.

Despite this, they are overlooked and underused in the country’s response framework. To be clear, the state relies upon them, and regularly acknowledges their work, but does not include them as key parties in strategic planning. Even more problematically, their ad hoc reliance but uncertain subsequent support (for example in terms of protection) means that, at the moment, communities and leaders supporting the state often risk placing themselves in an incredibly vulnerable and dangerous situation. The latest Hela kidnapping is a case in point: according to media reports, the women were targeted as a result of helping the state, which did not in turn protect them.

The state is seeking to significantly ramp up its response to such threats of what is now being called “domestic terrorism” through strategies such as amendments to the Criminal Code, and bringing together PNG defence personnel, members of the Special Services Division and police investigators. Currently missing from this approach is reference to strategic engagement with local leaders and peacebuilders, whose participation would give some reassurance that this may not be empty words.

We argue that local leaders and local insights into the temporality of the cycles of violence in the Highlands are two resources that are currently being overlooked in responses to the ongoing violence.

What is urgently required is significant investment in the development of contact points, communication networks and coordination mechanisms with local communities. This should be a key new plank in the government’s strategic response to the escalation of violence in the country, and should also be on the agenda of non-state actors. One mechanism to consider could be to collaboratively engage in peace mapping exercises.

Interactions with non-state actors must be done in ways that prioritise the safety of local leaders. This may mean there is a need to wait for the right moment, to ensure confidentiality to the extent possible, and also to provide dependable and consistent support and backup for those who support the state.

The aim should be for communication in both directions in order to enable responsiveness by the police and defence force to emerging incidents of violence, so they can respond before they get out of control; and for the police to be able to quickly mobilise local leaders, magistrates, councillors and church groups in violence-prone situations to work effectively with the state.

In sum, the pathway forward should be to work strategically with an understanding of the cycles of violence as to when intervention is most likely to be successful, and in respectful and supportive partnership with peacebuilders at the community level.

Miranda Forsyth

Miranda Forsyth is a professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at ANU.

William Kipongi

William Kipongi is a research officer in the National Security and International Relations Research Program at the PNG National Research Institute.

Philip Gibbs

Philip Gibbs is a Catholic priest with the missionary Society of the Divine Word (SVD) and a Professor of Social Research at Divine Word University, Papua New Guinea.


  • On a positive note, the Connect PNG Program will have a potentially positive impact of increasing mobility thereby allowing people to move more freely in search of opportunities. Currently, many are confined to their local areas, competing for limited resources like land to survive. Leading to violence. Another suggestion is to promote intermarriages across the country, aiming to decrease the numerous ethnicities and create a more manageable and homogenous society. People marrying each other in their own localities and does not have enough exposure of others in the entire country/locality and seems to have bias, feeling threatened and insecurity over resources and continue fighting in order to protect their survival.

  • How can we stop this unethical barbaric issue that is affecting the lives of our people in this beautiful nation of ours?
    Hence, it a political issue or a cultural issue or is it something to do with the changing of times and the reality of post-modernism influence?
    Questions will be asked over and over but how can we find a solution to save the next generation from becoming victims of this fighting’s and killings?
    I would rather suggest some principles and practices that can help us consider the right approach towards addressing this issue.
    1- Build inward relationship and try to understand people from different context.
    2-Understanding the ethical value that governs each society.
    3-Create a good network of communication with the people.
    4-Identify ringleaders and build relationships.
    5-Be part of the people and strategize transformative activities inside out.
    6-A long term vision for change needs SMART objectives.
    7-Suspend judgment and create space for accepting immoral behaviors when confronted in
    real situations.
    1- Live a life that will demonstrate the essence of character quality.
    2- Do not speak negatively about a situation but try to find the right approach to address the
    3- Work collaboratively with other stakeholders to address this issues.
    4- Suspend taking sides but practically demonstrate the core value of formulating
    5- Be part of the community in everyway as possible so that we can influence the people we
    live and stay together with.

  • Local leaders only work when fighting subsides. They cannot prevent tribal fights from starting.

    Your idea that local leaders can prevent fights from starting is wrong. Warriors do not adhere to directions or suggestions local leaders.

  • A long term peacebuilding strategy that is mostly overseen is a legal ban of child corporal punishment. According to peace researcher Franz Jedlicka there is a linkage between a widely accepted violence in the families and wars. That is also true regarding violence against women (Valeria Hudson Sex and World Peace). In PNG corporal punishment of children is still allowed.


  • Yes, sadly the State entities are largely disengaged from issues and activities at the community level, and therefore invariably unresponsive and ill-equipped to respond to crises … that said, the scenario is not universally identical across the Highlands let alone the country. Tribal conflicts which were frequent in the eastern provinces in the Highlands, are far less prevalent these days, whereas the reverse seems to be the case in some of the western districts in the Highlands. Also the capacity to limit and offset conflict through local settlements, rather than incessant payback and destruction, seems more prevalent in the Eastern provinces and districts? How deep this goes, how much this entails better or more engaged leadership, how much traditional or cultural influences apply, and/or how far long prevalence of major resource projects and associated expectations and increased income disparities and frustration have influenced the current scenarios are of interest; some are inclined to give up in complete frustration with government, political leaders and agencies, and yet they can be and should be a big part of the solution, if engaged, responsive and pushed into greater accountability, but they and corrupt leaders, who gain public office through fraudulent and sometimes violent means, can also be a major part of the problem. Trying to leave govt out of the dialogue is not the way to go, though it can be very frustrating and there’ll be more constructive outcomes in some cases than others. There are some examples of constructive engagement around the country, with some leaders ready to listen and engage with communities, innovators and reformers. Examples of constructive engagement with positive outcomes are also noticed amongst communities and able to be replicated, to some extent; one often hears questions asked by people from some of the most resource rich provinces and districts, how come resource poorer Chimbu, or parts of Eastern and Western Highlands nowadays have less conflict, and seem to progress so well academically academically and that their Children’s fund isn’t pilfered like some others? Certainly, there are lessons to be learnt from place to place, even if all face issues (like prevention of women voting, let alone being elected), but establishing a level of constructive social capital is critical, which can take a wider community beyond immediate descent into conflict is critical, while credible and accountability leadership and national and local administration and services are fundamental.

    • I endorse this proactive comment about the need for fuller engagement by government and other parties, and the fact that all problems need specific local solutions to be found.
      Furthermore, there is much to be learned from the global literatures on combatting the power of gangs and countering armed insurgencies. Techniques for penetrating and disrupting gangs and addressing the motives/incentives facing insurgents both have long histories which would repay analysis in the PNG context.

  • Christians should fast and pray for God’s intervention. Word of God ; in 2 Chronicles 7: 14, God is saying, if my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their sins and wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land and country. Only God and God alone, God of Peace, can solve these problems. God is a God of impossible, problem where human cannot solve it God can. We need God’s intervention now.

  • Interesting article. I have 2 questions; 1. Have we ever thought where the high powered guns are coming from to be used in the clan battles? 2. Are there internal migration from one province into another? Reasons of migration could be for safety or collecting weapons to fuel escalation of violence from bows and arrows formerly to now high powered guns. Provincial borders especially between Hela, Enga and Sandaun to Indonesian border need to be monitored closely for my 2nd question.

  • Apparently, the lead negotiators are also at risk for being the casualty. The harboring of hostage for ransom is uncommon and just migrated as one of the avenues for money making by this criminal elements. Fighting in the Highlands is like a game orchestrated to gain territorial land, fame and power just to outplay the opponent. Killing lives is the goal and the more lives are killed, the more goals are being scored. If the land or property is acquired during the fighting, there is extra bonus. The victor gain power and dominance while the victim bow out in dismay and re-strategies for the next move. This trend is sniffing its way down to the coast of PNG with escalating violence of killings. For example, in Madang Province, it is seen that beheading and chopping of bodies is the game that determines which group can be fearsome and untouched.

    Killing and violence is an epidemic and has collapsed the moral social cultural of the Melanesian way, which has strong sentiment to mutual problem solving with respect and peace. Cleary, Melanesian ways of problem solving have extinct with replacement of neo-melawesternisation, a hybrid of western influence and Melanesian culture with some instincts.

    Violence and killings is a disease of which it boils from the heart and fuels anger and eventually eats the hearts of the unfortunate who felt that they are uncared, unloved and are unable to secure meaning in their lives. They think of themselves as the victims of the left behinds. May of those have no education, unemployed, and are living in the fringe of remoteness. To make name for themselves to gain recognition, aided with influences of alcohol and drugs, they resort to violence and killings.

    Our villages used to be the place for retiring for holidays or for peace but it is not safe anymore. It is no longer a refuge as home. You can be killed any time when police is not there and hospitals are far away to reach to get treated. Towns and cities are more safer and have easy access to the basic needs and services. You can see why people migrate to towns and cities in search for these.

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