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By James Apa Gumuno

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, April 18) – The former governor of Western Highlands Province and Catholic priest Father Robert Lak died early last Thursday morning at the Mt Hagen General Hospital in Papua New Guinea.

[PIR editor’s note: Western Highlands Province is located in the central part of Papua New Guinea’s mainland peninsula.]

The hospital’s director of medical services Dr. Peter Bamne said the cause of Lak’s death was unknown, but unconfirmed reports said he died of a heart attack and that he was taken to the hospital from his Wurip village in the Anglimp South Waghi district complaining of chest and stomach pains late last Wednesday.

The death of the much loved but sometimes controversial priest comes as shocking and sad news for many people in Western Highlands and neighboring provinces.

Provincial deputy governor and council president of Hagen rural local level government Wai Rapa, who worked closely with Lak when he was governor between 1997 and 2002, described him as "a unique leader."

"He was a true leader, and humble," Mr. Rapa said. "He spoke few words but did a lot of action. His thoughts were always for and with the people during the good times and the bad times," he said.

Lak’s death would create a significant gap in the nation’s leadership, he said.

"He is not only a loss to his Nopbat tribe but to people throughout Western Highlands and the surrounding provinces and the country as a whole," said Mr. Rapa.

During his time as governor, Lak delivered many services to people in areas like health, education, women’s services, law and order and infrastructure developments, Rapa said.

He placed great emphasis on things like the expansion of electricity in rural and remote areas, which had brought real benefit to people.

He developed a women’s credit scheme to increase family living standards, which was currently reaping real gains.

Father Nick De Groot from the Papua New Guinea Catholic Bishops’ Conference Secretariat said Fr. Lak was ordained as a priest for Mt Hagen in 1981 and served several years in the diocese before becoming the Catholic chaplain at University of Papua New Guinea, a position he held for many years.

Lak contested the seat of Western Highlands in the 1997 national election and ousted former governor and Prime Minister Paias Wingti.

While suspended, at one time, from carrying out public church services, Lak always remained a close friend to his bishops and fellow priests.

April 19, 2006

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