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Tribal clashes in Papua New Guinea have become increasingly deadly

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Papua New Guinea last week, a clash between warring tribes led to the deaths of at least 49 tribesmen. The region has long struggled with tribal violence. The country is home to hundreds of different tribes, and linguistically, it is one of the world's most diverse countries. More than 800 languages are spoken there. In recent years, violence between tribes has turned much more deadly. Tim Swanston is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Papua New Guinea correspondent, and he's here to talk more about this situation. Welcome.

TIM SWANSTON: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So as I mentioned, Papua New Guinea is home to hundreds of tribes. Can you just talk about the root of the tensions among many of them? Like, what are the underlying causes? What are they fighting over?

SWANSTON: It's - look - to be honest, a pretty challenging question to answer. I mean, Papua New Guinea is an incredibly diverse country with a very, very rich and vibrant history and, as you mentioned as well, many different languages, many different cultures. So tracing back, you know, the original origins of some of this tribal fighting can be really difficult to do. But many community leaders often refer to this tribal fighting as a practice that's effectively taken place for time immemorial.

CHANG: And why is that? Why is the violence getting deadlier?

SWANSTON: So it's basically the weapons in which it's been fought with. Of course, you know, Papua New Guinea became an independent country in 1975. It was a former Australian territory. But so much of Papua New Guinea sort of remained unexplored from outsiders until about, say, 100 years ago or so. So tribal fighting was fought with very traditional, customary weapons. You know, we're talking about bows and arrows, bush knives, these sorts of things. But certainly after World Wars as well as also since independence, more firearms have been making their way into Papua New Guinea's highlands. And that's really something that has been able to make these tribal fights far more deadly.

CHANG: And I understand that a lot of these firearms are coming in illegally into the country, right?

SWANSTON: Well, there's a bit of a mix. I mean, there's a lot of firearms that were purchased by PNG Defence as well as also PNG police that appear to have effectively leaked out into tribes and villages. So there's a considerable amount of firearms that appear to have been missing from national stocks and the audits. We're talking M16s, AR15s, you know, American-made weapons that were sold to PNG Defence that have made their way into the hands of communities.

CHANG: I want to step back a little bit because, you know, last May, President Biden was going to become the only sitting U.S. president to ever visit Papua New Guinea. But he had to cancel at the last minute. He said he had to focus on debt limit talks in Washington. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping did visit the country back in 2018. Can you explain what's going on there? Like, why are both China and the U.S. so interested in this country?

SWANSTON: For countries like Australia and the United States, they've got a really clear interest to be partners with Papua New Guinea to assist with domestic problems. And as a result, they'll remain effectively a partner on the international stage. Their concern is that if they don't come in and assist - that countries like China will instead and, as a result, make that country much more susceptible to effectively be an ally of China on the larger stage. That is sort of the broad brushstrokes of kind of the larger competition we're seeing playing out in the Pacific Islands between the United States and China. So we're seeing very heavy investments from both the United States and Australia in PNG's internal security to make sure that they are resourcing and giving it the attention that it deserves, effectively, in that almost hedging game against China.

CHANG: Tim Swanston is the Papua New Guinea correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Thank you very much for adding context to this.

SWANSTON: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.