Papua New Guinea debates tough bill to stem lawlessness

Papua New Guinea's lawmakers are confronting their biggest domestic problem since the country became independent in 1975. Public concern has been mounting over a deteriorating law-and-order situation coupled with fears that a heavy-handed official response from the Port Moresby government will erode civil liberties.

At the heart of the trouble in Papua New Guinea, Australia's northern neighbor, is urban crime committed by rampaging gangs of unemployed youths, and rural crime involving intertribal violence in the country's Highlands.

Under Australian administration until independence, the mineral-rich - though largely undeveloped - nation of about 3 million Melanesian people has suffered a rapid rise in lawlessness in recent years. World recession and consequent unrealized expectations among the rapidly increasing numbers of young people who have drifted to the bright lights from tribal life styles have exacerbated the problem.

The government wants to enact a new law as a crime-fighting tool but university academics and opposition politicians argue - in a vibrant, democratic , multiparty society - that the peace and good order bill will trample on human freedoms. Prime Minister Michael Somare's administration argues that the legislation is vital.

The bill, which is likely to be passed and which is claimed by its opponents to evoke comparison with police states, provides for permits for processions; curfews, fines, or jail for statements likely to incite ''disaffection, violence , or disobedience of the law''; searches of homes, cars, or people without a warrant; and roadblocks.

Port Moresby sources say tough new laws are being contemplated to curb tribal fighting and that a proposed national intelligence organization bill will, if passed, further increase official surveillance of the public.

Although supporters of civil liberty argue that the new legislative direction is unhealthy, it is true that the administration faces a serious problem on the crime front.

The Royal New Guinea Constabulary acknowledges in its annual report that ''lawlessness and corruption'' will increase ''unless there is a foundation of law and order throughout the nation.''

In the rural highlands, meanwhile, the situation has worsened. And as the police and politicians try to frame laws to deal with violent urban drifters and warlike tribesmen, opponents of the proposed toughening of legislation draw comparisons with nations such as South Africa.

But a government official in Port Moresby, where 40 percent of the population is unemployed, asks: ''What else can we do?''

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