Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

by Michael Main

In March 2016 I met with Matthew Kanua, former agriculture advisor to the Somare Government, who was in Tari coordinating the United Church Partnership’s “Taim Hangre” program for drought impact assessment and relief during the 2015-2016 experience of drought and frost across large swathes of the PNG highlands. Kanua had been based in Tari during the 1980s as part of his government role and had witnessed with dismay the changes that had taken place in the decades since. Kanua was most interested in my research and spoke of the Tari valley during the 1980s as a place of great beauty, of welcome and friendly relations, and above all peace. “At some point, something has caused this society to fall apart” Kanua explained as he spoke of the need for a researcher such as myself to try to find out why. Although Kanua’s rose-coloured view of 1980s Huli society clearly belies a well-documented resurgence in tribal fighting elsewhere in the highlands since the early 1970s, it is clear that his view is also shared by those members of the local population who were of adult age during that time. The summary of violent disputes that broke out across the PNG highlands in the period 1970-75 provided by James Sinclair does not mention Tari or any place in the Tari and Komo basins. 1

The post-colonial history of Hela does not offer any tidy answers to this question or provide a clear line between before and after the perceived fall. What is clear, however, is that there was a fall and there does exist an historical pivot that marks a distinction between the legacy of a “pax Australiana” and the current period of rolling war. For the people of Hela this pivot is clearly marked by the introduction of guns. The 1980s were witness to the last large-scale battles that were fought with bow and arrow. According to Moses Komengi the last of these battles in the Tari area was fought in 1989 over a land dispute between the Kola and Kikita clans. 2

The battle occurred between the Hoyebia area and Kikita village north of the Tari township. An attempt was made to burn down the mission station at Hoyebia and the Kikita clan was pushed back towards their own village. Guns were relatively late to arrive in what is now Hela Province. Andrew Strathern even describes the Kopiago area as existing in a “time warp” compared with other parts of the highlands as he highlights the “striking… absence of severe, large-scale armed conflicts between clans, such as have been commonplace in Hagen since the early 1970s…”. 3 The highlands fighting that inspired Michael Somare to form a committee to investigate the problem in 1972 resulted in two highlands tours, neither of which visited Huli territory. 4 Violence, warfare, tribal fighting, or whatever name it is given, of the kind that is perceived as a national emergency worthy of state intervention is materially different from conflict that may be classed as pre-gun. As Strathern remarked in the context of the 1992 elections “the most highly developed areas, such as Mount Hagen, are among those that have the greatest problems of violence.” 5 The 1992 elections mark something of a turning point for Huli society in that this was the era when the entry of guns began to change the nature of conflict, and the experience of life, for every member of that society.

“1992 election was the cause of all of this” exclaimed Euralia, my Tari host who is a prominent business woman and board member of the Tari hospital. Euralia was referring to the subsequent and ongoing current period of violence that has held Hela Province in a state of fear, misery and trauma. In 1992, the Southern Highlands Provincial seat was won by Dick Mune from Nipa at a time when the province was
beginning to realise its vast mineral, oil and gas wealth. An account of this period is given by Haley and May that describes tensions in Southern Highlands Province prior to the official declaration of Hela Province in 2012. 6

The exploitation of these resources and in particular the gold rush at Mt Kare was the genesis of renewed efforts to carve out the new province of Hela. The election of Dick Mune with 25% of the vote in a highly-contested field, 7 sowed the seeds of distrust between the population of Hela and other parts of SHP. In July 1992, an armed group held up the vehicle transporting ballot boxes for the seat of Komo-Margarima. This incident is described by Sinclair Dinnen as a case of police-organised corruption that involved police from Mt Hagen breaking into the transport compound in Tari and stealing the transport vehicle containing ballot boxes that were under orders to be transported to Mendi by plane. 8 Such activity was a long way from the last pitched battles fought with bow and arrow in 1989 and 1990 and it is arguable that events such as this marked a turning point for Huli society as a whole. The violence that stemmed from this period is given certain consideration by Haley and May in an attempt to provide a cultural context, presumably for a situation that a western readership might struggle to comprehend: “Conflict per se is not considered inimical to social order. Rather, what is important is the way people engage with, handle, and control conflict in a particular context.” 9 This is a perspective that I believe deserves to be challenged. Based on my fieldwork experience I would argue that conflict per se is considered inimical to social order. In fact, conflict may well be defined as the collapse of social order. One way that Huli define conflict is at the moment when ordered talk (la) turns into disordered talk (lai). 10

Goldman reveals that Huli disputes “are perceived as deviations from the straight (tiga), something “knotted””, and that ““knots” are associated with the presence of trouble or disorder.” 11 The desire on the part of scholars to incorporate conflict within an alternate state of order is an attempt to impose nobility on a set of behaviours that might otherwise be read as savage. Pre-contact highlands societies did not exist in an unwavering state of social order only to be disrupted by the interventions of the modern world anymore than they existed in a Hobbesian state of nature. More importantly, however, is that this type of sym-pathetic interpretation of violent conflict so common to the literature is a distinctly patriarchal point of view. It reveals nothing about the experience of women or non-fighting men and children and elevates the practice of the powerful to a platform from where their actions are able to speak for society as a whole. A consistently overlooked aspect of tribal fighting is the fact that those who are actually doing the fighting represent only a small minority of the population. The violent social disruption that is the experience of war is the tyranny of the fighting minority. Victims of tribal fighting include women, children, non-fighting men, and men who have little choice but to participate in conflict they would rather avoid. In the aftermath of the Mt Kare gold rush a Huli woman from Tari named Janet Koriama created the Hela Council of Women. According to Koriama the Southern Highlanders had been hiding the fact of Hela’s resources to keep for themselves, a fact that was revealed to the people of Hela as a result of the gold found at Mt Kare. Such opinion was widespread and had its counterpart in the attitudes of neighbouring Duna society who felt that Huli people were keen to take all the resources for themselves to the exclusion of other Hela descendants who also held cosmological rights to the Southern Highlands’ resources. 12 In forming the Hela Council of Women Koriama was seeking a political avenue for the promotion of Hela women’s rights in a climate of opposition to political rule out of Mendi. When a Huli man Andersen Agiru won the seat from Dick Mune in 1997 Koriama considered disbanding the Hela Council of Women in the belief that the rights of Huli women were in reliable hands. Tensions between Huli and Nipa descended into extraordinary levels of violence in 1999 when Dick Mune was killed as his car drove off the Highlands Highway not far from Nipa station. Mune’s death was blamed on the Taris and the resulting siege of Tari by the Nipa population marks what is arguably the worst period in several centuries of recalled Huli history. Euralia Tagobe and Janet Koriama recalled that time together in conversation: 13

Euralia: They stopped all the vehicles, the trucks going. If passengers went in they were attacked, robbed and raped.
Janet: They raped a woman, Catherine here, and one of my women too, Margaret. I just watched with my eyes raping them.
E: Yeah all the Huli. Those travelling on the PMV, the big Dynas travelling up. They couldn’t suffer any more so they just said okay let’s suicide and go.

J: But we went for a meeting, a provincial council of women’s meeting. And then we were together in the bus. We couldn’t help it, so how can I help it? Hiding faces and sitting down.
E: So many young girls raped. We had to hide our face and sit down. I don’t know why but they couldn’t rape us, for myself. But all these people here, so many happened.
J: Yeah so many happened.
E: Many of our boys died on the road attacked by the Southern Highlanders, especially the Nipas.
J: Starting from the airport to half way to Margarima.
E: The Nipas were attacking us. While Tari headquater was Mendi and everyone has to go to Mendi for banking, everything. All the public servants here it’s hard to get out. Our bank was robbed and closed down. And they never wanted to give us a bank again.

Some women in Tari became so frustrated with the situation that they chose to take what they referred to as suicide trips along the highway. At that time, some women began to use HIV as a weapon of war, a phenomenon that continues and was occurring during the time of my fieldwork. HIV positive women travelling on PMVs began to offer themselves up to be rape victims. This was for the double purpose of protecting uninfected women from being raped and potentially contracting the disease as well as the deliberate spread of HIV to their enemies. As a weapon the tactic is effective, with one man admitting to me that he had been infected in this way. This particular act of war is a modern version of tomia where a man would pay a young female clan member to have sex with his enemy while she was menstruating. 14 Menstrual blood was considered to be the most powerful form of poison, which is a concept that is not removed from the destructive agency of AIDS. Warfare since the 1990s has been devastating for Huli women, an issue that I explore in more depth below. Importantly, what became clear from my interviews and observations is that warfare needs to not be accommodated in terms of the modern expression of a pre-existing social order. The overwhelming response to the question of how warfare is different today from the past is not surprisingly the use of firearms. But the history of social and political change in Hela suggests the discovery and exploitation of mineral resources has resulted in changes to the way tribal differences are comprehended and negotiated. Political contest has become a higher-stakes game as the prospect of vast amounts of mineral
wealth looms with the potential to transform people’s lives. Power has become inseparable from wealth, where previously certain forms of knowledge were the most important sources of power, and guns became the logical resort for the means of asserting and defending political interests.

(An extract from Talk Never Dies: An Analysis of Disputes Among the Huli. A thesis submitted by Laurence R. Goldman for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University College, London. February, 1982., p.219-226)

  1. James Sinclair, Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, 435- 48. []
  2. Moses Komengi (pers. comm.) Moses Komengi’s brother, James Komengi participated in that fight as a young boy with the role of collecting spent arrows. James was shot in the torso and came close to dying but recovered and went on to achieve a scholarship to the National High School in Goroka. []
  3. Andrew Strathern, “Violence and Political Change in Papua New Guinea,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Politics, tradition and change in the Pacific 149, no. 4 (1993), 732. []
  4. James Sinclair, Middle Kingdom: A Colonial History of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, 441. []
  5. Andrew Strathern, “Violence and Political Change in Papua New Guinea,” 733. []
  6. Nicole Haley and Ronald May, “Introduction: Roots of conflict in the Southern Highlands,” in Conflict and Resource Development in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, ed. Nicole Haley and Ronald May (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2007), 10. []
  7. Terence Wood, Papua New Guinea election results 1972-2012 (Canberra: The Development Policy Centre, 2017). []
  8. Sinclair Dinnen, “Fighting and Votes: Violence, Security and the 1992 National Elections in Papua
    New Guinea,” Current Issues Crim. Just., 5 (1993), 149. []
  9. Nicole Haley and Ronald May, “Introduction: Roots of conflict in the Southern Highlands,” 3. []
  10. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 11. The word for argument, lai, “is a contracted form of lai ha – ‘to finish saying’.” []
  11. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 150. []
  12. Nicole Haley, “Cosmology, Morality and Resource Development: SHP election outcomes and move to establish a separate Hela Province,” in Conflict and Resource Development in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, ed. Nicole Haley and Ronald May (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2007), 61. []
  13. The names used in this interview text are pseudonyms. The events described occurred in public, are widely known, and are part of the story of the lives of Huli women during that time. Janet and Euralia wanted me to understand and record these events. I did not speak to those who were raped and therefore did not receive permission to use their names. []
  14. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 145. []

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