The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 11) - Candidates from the Hela region and their supporters who are responsible for keeping the ballot boxes containing votes for the Hela people in Tari must now heed the call of justice and allow the boxes to be taken into Mendi for counting.

[PIR editor’s note: Hela is a region in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands. A long unresolved issue in Hela is its desire to be established as a separate province. ]

Since polling ended last week in that province, 253 ballot boxes have been held in Tari, in defiance of a clear direction by the Electoral Commission for boxes to be brought to the provincial headquarters, Mendi. The boxes contained over 200,000 votes for people in Komo, Magarima, Tari, Pori, Awi, Koroba, and Lake Kopiago. It is such a big number it is sufficient to affect the outcome of an election if these votes are not counted at all.

We are told a handful of candidates and their supporters have used force, or have threatened to use force, to prevent the boxes from being moved from Tari, with a section of the crowd allegedly making remarks that they are prepared to put their lives on the line for the boxes.

It is accepted that the proud people of Hela have been pushing for a province of their own for as long as the country has been independent. Majority of the Hela people have been disappointed of late that the seventh Parliament has been unable to address this issue before the 2007 general election. The Hela region is home to many of PNG’s hydrocarbon projects, which is generating a large portion of revenue for PNG’s budget. People there are law-abiding citizens who are proud of the Huli tradition.

The region has supplied businessmen and women, professionals, and leaders of all walks of life. One of Hela’s favorite son was Andrew Andaijah, a man widely respected throughout the province, who led as Premier of the Southern Highlands in the late 1970s.

Andaijah, who died in a tragic plane crash in 1980, was a uniting force for a very diverse province. He stood for the rule of law, for unity, for a violence-free society, for wealth to be enjoyed and shared equally. When he died in that plane crash in Tari Gap, the province mourned. In his honor, the Oval office in Tari is named after him, the very oval which thousands are gathering everyday to "protect" their ballot boxes. These people and those candidates they are listening to must by now have heard the decision of PNG’s National Court.

The court has ruled that it is the Electoral Commission that has the final say on where counting of votes should take place, and in this case, the Commission has chosen Mendi.

Justice Mark Sevua went on to remark that, despite prediction by doomsayers, elections in Southern Highlands and many other parts of PNG, especially the highlands region, have been peaceful. Counting of votes for other electorate in the Southern Highlands province was progressing well in Mendi, with no reports of violence or foul play. There is nothing in evidence to suggest that this would change with the arrival of the ballot boxes from the Hela region.

In fact, security and election officials, including Professor John Nonggorr, have assured those candidates in Tari that security would be tight. Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen made it clear yesterday he has no intention of changing his mind. The people of the province have so far conducted themselves in an excellent manner, and one incident should not be allowed to change the whole picture.

To deny the boxes’ safe passage into Mendi for counting is to deny the majority of the people of Hela their right to be heard, their right to elect a government, their right to services and improvement to their lives. They cannot be denied this right. The ballot boxes must be released to Mendi so that people can have their say in government.

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