Students reach out to public in ‘awareness day’ over PNG crisis

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Unitech students with a banner calling on Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to "respect the law" and stand down to let corruption investigations resume unhindered at an earlier demonstration. Image: Loop PNG

By Scott Waide in Lae

More than 3000 students from the University of Technology and the National Polytechnic Institute in Papua New Guinea’s second largest city of Lae travelled in busloads to the Eriku Oval yesterday for a “public awareness” meeting.

Authorisation for the gathering was given after lengthy dialogue between the Lae Metropolitan Superintendent, Anthony Wagambie Jnr, and student leaders.

lae student crowd 500wide
University and polytech students at the “awareness” rally in Lae yesterday, many wearing symbolic black in mourning over Papua New Guinea’s constitution. Image: PNG Blogs

Like the University of Papua New Guinea in the nation’s capital of Port Moresby, the majority of students wore black signifying their protest over what they see as an assault on Papua New Guinea’s constitutional offices.

Each element of this awareness meeting was carefully chosen – the flags for diversity and unity and the female students also were the forefront of this relatively quiet protest.

“My intention in joining this awareness is to take the message to out parents, our uncles and our brothers and sisters so that they will know what we are fighting for,” said Tanya Sawa, one of many young women who voted for a boycott just days ago.

The students were barred from carrying anything defamatory or contemptuous in nature, including placards or slogans that could trigger court proceedings against them.

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They were also barred from walking from the Taraka campus to Eriku for fear that it could trigger a riot.

Police escort
Instead, the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) organised buses to take the students from the university to Eriku with a police escort.

This is the first time since the unrest began that Unitech has reached out to the public.

Student leaders have said this was not a protest but instead an “awareness meeting” to educate the public on national issues affecting the country, and why their call for the prime minister to step aside still stands.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re heading towards an authoritarian state, but I would say what’s happening will affect us for years into the future,” said the president of the Simbu Students’  Association, Lucas Kiak.

The awareness meeting was approved after two weeks of meetings between student leaders and Metropolitan Superintendent Wagambie, who has been personally facilitating discussions to ensure the tensions do not escalate and spill over into violence.

The manner in which the meeting was controlled has also triggered positive reactions in the Lae community, as well as on social media, where Lae police have been praised for their professionalism and restraint.

Scott Waide is the EMTV correspondent in Lae.

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