COMPENSATION: THE FUTURE STRANGLED BY THE PAST

Editorial

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Sept. 1) - Five hundred primary school students are at home near Bulolo this morning.

Their school was allegedly descended upon by 40 armed men from a nearby village and much of it was burned to the ground.

This was apparently the result of an argument between a young villager and a student over a mango.

The villager's father apparently intervened on behalf of his son, the brawl escalated, and the remaining students and the people of two villages became involved.

The village father was allegedly killed in the incident.

Compensation of K50,000 was demanded for the dead man, the school managed only K1,500, and the invasion and destruction of much of the school followed.

If any reader is looking for convincing evidence of the lunacy of compensation, look no further.

500 school children are out of school.

On the basis of this story, the father appears to have been the victim of a childish argument.

If that is true, it is indeed a tragedy.

Communities have to learn how to settle such trivial disputes in an amicable and permanent way. There can be no excuse for the substantial population of two villages and the student body of a large school to have become involved.

But that is a separate issue.

The sum of K50,000 is a huge sum in the context, and one that could not possibly have been met by the school, its students or their parents.

Nor should it have been.

If the father died as a result of the brawl, then it is a straightforward matter for the police.

Suspected guilty parties should be apprehended and brought before the courts. That is the just way of dealing with what may have been deliberate murder.

It is also the only legal way.

Cash compensation demands of this type bear no resemblance to traditional custom, nor to traditional ways of settling disputes.

The whole concept of community compensation may well be deeply rooted in our communities, but it was an intricate and complex process, involving the exchange and acceptance of obligations

The money-making growth industry of cash compensation, like any other noxious weed, should be uprooted before it poisons the whole nation.

The courts are there.

They have been there for a long time.

They and they alone should be responsible for hearing matters such as this, and determining what compensation is to be paid, if any.

We suffer from the belief that any traditional custom, no matter how warped and twisted by 21st century greed, must be wholly acceptable in contemporary PNG.

Far from it - there are hundreds of examples of such customs acting as real obstacles cluttering the road PNG must travel to become a just and moral nation.

Court sentences should be handed down to those guilty of the murder, to those who attacked the school and set fire to it, and to those who incited their people to attack the school because K50,000 was not forthcoming.

By all means add a ceremony involving the aggressors and the defendants.

Bring them together in a supervised dialogue, one that must be the responsibility of the local member of Parliament.

And let there be token compensation paid, a symbol that the matter is dead and buried, and will not resurface in the future.

Wherever we turn we see the results of the ravages of compensation.

Consider the landowners who hastily plant fast growing fruit trees or other crops on the easements of dilapidated roads shortly to be cleared and widened, then bellow for compensation when these lately-planted shrubs must be uprooted.

Or the mountain-top owners who have never had any plans for their stony outcrops, who demand hefty compensation as a sort of guarantee - often broken - that they will do no damage to the sensitive telephonic, vulcanological or civil aviation equipment installed there.

And countless other demands, some grave, some blackly comic, that are familiar to us all.

The mounting compensation toll has already claimed many overseas grants and financial aid packages.

Are we to stand-by while irate villagers burn down our hard-won schools and deprive their own and others children of an education?

And all in the name of a disputed mango.

September 1, 2003

The National: www.thenational.com.pg/

 

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