by Michael Main

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.

Reports from the first patrols into Huli territory during the early 1950s frame encounters with fighting and warfare in terms of the central aims of the Australian administration, which included the cessation of warfare and the establishment of the rule of law. Patrol officers would explain to the locals that fighting was unacceptable to the governing administration and that those caught fighting were to be chased down and punished. These accounts include the response of the locals who would invariably agree that fighting was a bad thing and express their desire to have it cease. Terrell reports of fighting during a patrol into Huli territory from Kutubu:

Inter-group warfare is by no means extinct in the area covered… The attitude of the Government towards fighting was expressed wherever opportunity availed, and though the men solemnly agreed that without fighting life would be more prosperous, it appears that there is little chance of stopping this warfare before the country off the beaten track has been patrolled more extensively. 1

Terrell’s use of the word “prosperous” is prescient. Later missionaries were to explain that fighting is in contravention of the Christian way of life and contrary to the will of God. 2 But fighting is simply a miserable way to exist and highly disruptive of life’s potential. Terrell uses the word “extinct” in a way that reveals the intention of the Australian administration to socially engineer fundamental changes to the conduct of life in the Papua New Guinea highlands. I wish to argue that whilst the early patrol officers did encounter a situation of tribal fighting that was endemic, they also encountered a population that understood fighting in terms of its historical context and who reflected upon their own history so that events, including fighting events, were changed into historical representations. 3 This shift from what Hegel describes as “original history” to “reflective history” was assumed by Hegel to mark a boundary at the birth of the modern world. This view has strongly influenced subsequent attempts to define modernity and colours much ethnographic writing about encounters with modernity in PNG. The Hegelian view has filtered through Levi-Strauss’s division of “historical humanity” and an “original humanity” that was without history 4 to Sahlins’ historicised characterisation of western society as one that “responds transformationally to events”. 5 Any representation of tribal fighting or inter-clan warfare that is blind to the reflective historicism in pre-contact PNG highlands makes the same error of misrepresentation of primitive societies that the modernists insisted upon since Hegel. This approach is found at the core of historical policy efforts to deal with fighting in the PNG highlands. Early efforts of the new PNG government point to the continued existence of kin groups in the highlands as being at the basis of social division and therefore conflict. 6 Upon presenting the PNG Law Reform Commission’s Interim Report on Domestic Violence to parliament in 1985 PNG’s, Minister for Justice stated:

We must not allow ourselves to remain slaves to those traditions which prevent us from making Papua New Guinea into the kind of Christian country that we all want it to become. Payback killings, tribal fighting and cannibalism were also once custom, but past governments, and the law, have already gone a long way towards reducing the problems that these customs once caused. 7

This view equates violence with culture and uses shame as a vehicle for cultural change. If pre-contact culture is viewed as a largely static, ahistorical form of living and violence is part of that culture, then continued attachment to those traditions is easily perceived as a form of cultural bondage. This view is still pervasive among many academics and policy makers. Reilly writes that parts of PNG are reverting “to a Hobbesian struggle for meagre resources.” 8 While Roscoe is right to critique the imposition of western categories of crime and war, his equation of pre-contact inter-group violence with our own legitimisation of inter- state warfare results in the view that when acts of violence “perpetrated against a neighbouring sovereignty – a neighbouring clan, village, or tribe – as ambush, open battle, or invasion, the same undertaking was considered an act of war, of courage and glory.” 9 In order to dismantle the opposition between primitive and modern it should not be necessary to glorify warfare in any context. Analytical approaches to the theorisation of warfare that are removed from the lived experience of war produce dangerously narrow understandings of the social and historical context of conflict even as its conduct is presented as an always contemporary and unreified experience. Warfare must be understood in terms of trauma and suffering. Warfare is experience rather than form and its method is the delivery of pain and death. It is, as Robert Fisk writes, “the total failure of the human spirit.” 10 Yet the acultural human spirit does not tell us much about the social context of conflict that is vital for any understanding of how and why such conflict occurs.

A neat way around the vexed question of the link between violence and culture is to avoid the question altogether. This was the approach taken by Lisette Josephides in the PNG Law Reform Commission report referred to above. In her introductory remarks regarding violence in Kewa society she states: “I employ no methodological or ethnographic shifts from ‘before’ to ‘after’, since traditional and modern conditions are now inextricably wedded to the ‘present’, which is what concerns me here.” 11 This is certainly the approach adopted by development agencies such as the UNHRC when tasked with the problem of finding ways to reduce or eliminate tribal violence. 12 The focus on contemporary issues approach to understanding violence among the Huli population is common throughout the literature. Kopi, et al. takes the reverse attitude towards traditional ways and point to a decline in traditional forms of leadership and dispute resolution as being partly responsible for a resurgence in tribal fighting since the 1980s. 13 Matthew Allen posits that post-colonial conflict throughout Melanesia, including specifically the Hides oil and gas fields, is defined by conflict over extractable resources. 14 Allen even provides a functionalist account of pre- colonial tribal conflict as a method for “communities to avoid disintegration and to reproduce themselves over time.” The functionalist myth flies in the face of the early experience of patrol officers who encountered populations that were clearly desirous of any change that would bring about lasting peace.

These are clear examples of the problem of marrying common conceptions of culture with the realities of culturally mediated violence. This is also a stark example, as illustrated by Marilyn Strathern, of the excess that is created when cultural relativism is made an aim, rather than a method of understanding. 15 Laurence Goldman takes a hybrid approach to this problem in pointing out that “conflict is normal, but, equally, undesirable.” 16 As much could be said about any human society and the global tragedies of the human spirit. Goldman warns against the “bystander apathy” that can occur when “confronted with the cultural truism” of the legitimation of fighting in the prosecution of disputes. 17 This is closer to the approach I take in this chapter, although I go further towards the dismantlement of perceived notions of legitimation. What gets left out in accounts of tribal fighting in the highlands of PNG is the reality of trauma. Goldman illuminates the linguistic connection in Huli between compensation for death and injury caused as a result of fighting and “healing rites” associated with illness and ailment. 18 But there is more to this than the functional need to satiate grievance and prevent reprisal. Huli compensation rites incorporate the reality of suffering and juristically express empathy and the acknowledgement of the lived experience of pain. Early patrol officers encountered populations that were reflective towards their own suffering and who understood encounters with conflict as individualised events with specific historical legacy and context. It is hardly surprising that when these patrol officers expressed the intention of the administration to eliminate fighting and then demonstrated their ability to do so, their presence and actions were met with enthusiasm and approval. W.D. Wren writes:

It should be stressed here that a strictly neutral attitude was adopted to all disputes since the patrol’s freedom of movement depended upon such. Its good offices were always available and a constant stream of advice on the need to cease fighting was poured out the whole time. Not unnaturally there seems to be a genuine wish for fighting to be ended. However with peace established comes inter movement and an increase in sickness. This leads to charges of sorcery which leads to a desire to recommence the fighting all over again. Therein lies the rub. 19

W.D. Wren’s report of his patrol into the southern part of the Komo basin is revealing of early approaches that, no doubt through necessity, refrained from enforcing the peace but began by spreading word of the administration’s intentions. These early reports are littered with accounts of various fights and the patrol officers clearly struggled to put together an accurate record of who was fighting whom where and why. Importantly the above account provides an insight into the restrictions of movement that fighting imposed on large sections of the population. A report of my own observations of fighting during 2016 and its impact on the lives of people in the Komo valley may have resulted in much the same wording as quoted above, with the exception that I never heard of anyone being killed as a result of a sorcery accusation. Armed fighters in a state of war expressed a universal desire for a permanent end to the practice of fighting. There are many who have spent their entire lives confined within particular areas lest they be killed for straying into enemy territory. When Moses Komengi, who runs the Young Ambassadors for Peace NGO in Tari, came to Komo to bring members of a warring clan to his peace workshop near Hoyebia in Tari, the young men he collected had never ventured towards Tari in their lives. School children are often displaced for months or even years and attendance at the mission-run schools in the Komo valley was often devastated by conflict. At the end of 2015 the Catholic primary school at Komo registered over 400 students. Outbreaks of fighting over the Christmas break resulted in between 125 and 130 students returning to school for the 2016 year.

There are many ways to write about episodes of fighting and my intention in this chapter is to provide some insight into the lived reality of conflict that incorporates fighting as historically informed praxis as well as the experience of conflict as an immediate and particular event that has as its modus the delivery of suffering and trauma. This chapter also seeks a new way of understanding Huli conflict as a phenomenon that is both materially motivated and has history as its prime subject.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 213-219.)

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurence Goldman)

  1. C.E.T Terrell, “Lake Kutubu Patrol Report No. 5 1952/53,” (Patrol reports [microform], Port Moresby: National Archives of Papua New Guinea1952), 4-5. []
  2. This is also a contemporary approach and will be elaborated upon later in this chapter. []
  3. Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 1. []
  4. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 248. []
  5. Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 220. []
  6. P Paney et al., “Report of the Committee Investigating Tribal fighting in the Highlands,” (Port Moresby: Government of Papua New Guinea, 1973), 4. []
  7. Tony Bais, “Statement by the Minister for Justice, Law Reform Commission’s Interim Report on Domestic Violence,” Held NRI. []
  8. Benjamin Reilly, “Conflict in Papua New Guinea,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 49, no. 1 (2008). []
  9. Paul Roscoe, “Crime and “Tribal” Warfare in Contemporary Papua New Guinea,” in Globalization and Culture Change in the Pacific Islands, ed. Victoria Lockwood (New Jersey: Pearson, 2004), 69. []
  10. Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), xxi []
  11. Lisette Josephides, “The Politics of Violence in Kewa Society (Southern Highlands),” in Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea, ed. Susan Toft (Port Moresby: Law Reform Commission of Papua New Guinea, Monograph No. 3, 1985), 92. []
  12. 15UNHRC, “United Nations in Papua New Guinea Joint Report for the Universal Periodic Review of Papua New Guinea,” (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2011). The UN’s stated approach is to base all their programmes on “international human rights standards” with an emphasis on the “accountability, equality, empowerment and participation of all people.”, 2. []
  13. Michelle Kopi et al., “Insecurity in the Southern Highlands: The Nature, Triggers and Consequences of Violence in Hela Region,” State Society and Governance in Melanesia, Discussion Paper 2011/3 (The Australian National University, 2011). []
  14. M.G. Allen, “Melanesia’s violent environments: Towards a political ecology of conflict in the western Pacific,” Geoforum 44 (2013). []
  15. Marilyn Strathern, The Relation: Issues in Complexity and Scale (Cambridge: Prickly Pear Press, 1995), 25. []
  16. Laurence Goldman, “‘Hoo-Ha in Huli’: Considerations on commotion and community 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), 69. []
  17. Ibid., 70. []
  18. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 193. []
  19. E.D. Wren, “Lake Kutubu Patrol Report No. 11 1952/53,” (page not numbered). []

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