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  • Papua New Guinea
  • James Stiefvater (bio)

After the 2017 general elections dominated the headlines, the major event to capture the spotlight in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2018 was the country’s hosting of the quadrennial summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec). Indeed, the apec meetings garnered large amounts of attention within Papua New Guinea while also attracting international scrutiny into the country’s role as host as well as conditions across the country generally. The apec meetings led to a fresh look into Papua New Guinea by foreign media outlets and acted as a microcosm of international relationships between China and other powers. To a certain degree, Chinese relations with Pacific Island states were on display, but events showing tensions between China and the United States became the main talking points as they were scrutinized by analysts and journalists from across the globe. While the critically important apec summit and related events raised many issues, many other significant happenings highlighted internal challenges to governance, including emergency responses to natural disasters in the form of earthquake relief and resettlement of victims of volcanic activity, continuing strife in the wake of the 2017 elections, accusations of corruption at various levels, upticks in various diseases, devolution of powers to provinces via an as-yet-undefined form of special autonomy, preparation for the referendum on Bougainville, land and development projects, and the long-standing saga of those seeking asylum in Australia but waylaid on Manus Island for the sixth year.

Among the many challenges to face the people and government of Papua New Guinea, perhaps none had a broader reach than the handful of natural disasters that affected citizens from almost all regions in one form or another. The largest and most destructive of these was the magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck in February and wrought devastation across the interior. The Highlands region was especially hard hit, as subsequent landslides buried homes and villages, cut off access roads, and damaged airstrips in many communities already considered isolated. Equally dangerous [End Page 544] to the initial quake were the numerous aftershocks that continued to shake the mountainous regions for at least a month. The destructive effects of the tremors were not limited to just the areas that felt them; sedimentation due to landslides muddied drinking water and damaged or killed food sources in downstream communities, especially those in Gulf Province. Census information for the area is hard to collect, making an exact death toll difficult to extrapolate, but most estimates show a loss of life of at least 180 individuals. Offers of aid and relief from international sources came quickly, with Australia and New Zealand leading the charge. In a show of solidarity, young people in Indonesia’s colonial provinces in West New Guinea took up a collection, but the organizers were promptly arrested. The logistics of distributing aid relief across the breadth of destruction—which spanned the Hela, Southern Highlands, Western, Enga, and West Sepik provinces—would present a challenge to any nation, but by August, Emergency Controller Bill Hamblin told Radio New Zealand’s Johnny Blades in an interview that efforts had started to transition from relief to recovery (rnz 2018f).

Also posing a challenge to those in disaster response positions were volcanic eruptions on the islands of Kadovar and Manam, both situated on the northern coast. Eruptions on both islands necessitated large-scale evacuations and brought promises from the government for permanent resettlement of residents. Such events on Manam are not new, with a large portion of the population having been resettled after several eruptions in the past, including a 2004 event that led to the displacement of more than nine thousand people. In the aftermath of the 2018 eruption, delayed responses from the government appear to have created an atmosphere of mistrust as residents waited for assistance. Local chief Paul Maburau told reporters that “it’s all talk and no action,” citing that the government had set aside us$922,000 for the resettlement of the islanders but that ‘“no one seems to know where the money has gone” (rnz 2018e).

Although the general elections were completed in 2017, controversy regarding their final outcomes continued in 2018...