PNG leader O'Neill tackles corruption, unrest

PNG leader O'Neill tackles corruption, unrest

Sydney (AFP) - Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, whose police opened fire on demonstrating students this week, has been grappling with a developing country once labelled "a dysfunctional blob" ever since he grabbed power in a messy struggle five years ago.

One of his first acts after being sworn in as leader in 2012 was to form an anti-corruption task force to win the confidence of potential foreign investors, with the Pacific nation on the cusp of a resources boom.

But in the impoverished, crime-ridden country, the stench of wrong-doing is never far away and he himself was accused of fraud by the same taskforce in 2014.

O'Neill has refused to comply with a warrant for questioning over claims he authorised millions of dollars in illegal payments from the government to a leading law firm.

His stubborn stance has seen a groundswell of political unrest in recent weeks, which culminated in police opening fire on students planning to protest against him on Wednesday.

Born in 1965 to an Australian father and Papua New Guinean mother, the bespectacled O'Neill had a basic upbringing. But he has gradually climbed the political ladder since being elected to parliament in 2002, following a career as a company director.

He rose to the position of finance minister in veteran leader Sir Michael Somare's government before grabbing power in August 2011 after the office of the prime minister was declared vacant. Somare had gone to Singapore more than three months earlier for heart surgery.

But it was not an easy transition, with Somare, the country's first prime minister after independence in 1975 following almost 60 years of Australian administration, refusing to go and igniting a constitutional crisis.

A Somare government was again sworn in after O'Neill's rise was deemed illegal.

It led to a highly-charged impasse, with O'Neill suspending Governor General Michael Ogio, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, and appointing his own man.

His faction also flew in extra policemen to take control of state assets and he eventually resumed the prime ministership after Ogio rowed back on Somare's appointment, setting off a failed military mutiny.

O'Neill sealed his position when his People's National Congress won elections the following year.

-- Dysfunctional blob -

But it has not been an easy ride, governing a country where many still live tribal, subsistence lives in remote areas, with hundreds of languages spoken.

Crime is endemic, particularly domestic violence against women, while sorcery and cannibalism have both been reported in recent years.

The World Bank warned in 2014 that lawlessness was hampering development and O'Neill has had his hands full trying to exploit a trove of resources including gold, copper and natural gas.

Among the many challenges he faces are the lack of reliable statistics.

Even the population figure is uncertain, with the 7.3 million from the 2011 census largely discredited. O?Neill tells Western diplomats he "feels" 10 million would be about right.

But he has worked hard to make himself a regional player, using the country's resource wealth to build ties in Asia, particularly with Australia -- Papua New Guinea's closest neighbour and chief aid donor.

Confidential cables made public by Wikileaks in 2011 revealed Australian diplomats described Papua New Guinea as a "totally dysfunctional blob", but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was more sympathetic Thursday.

She conceded O'Neill was dealing with "a complex political and legal and social situation".

"It has a wonderful economic opportunity at present with the energy projects in PNG, to have strong economic growth, but we want to ensure that the social political unrest is also able to be managed," she said.

If O'Neill survives the corruption allegations, he will face perhaps his biggest challenge in hosting top world leaders in 2018, when APEC is held in the capital.

"People who come to Port Moresby at these times will have a pleasant surprise," he said recently.

"They will see the country experiencing rapid economic growth and delivering services to our people, with new infrastructure that is starting to work."