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PNG remains 'land of the unexpected'
Sean Dorney returns to Papua New Guinea at a turbulent time in politics.

It's dubbed the land of the unexpected, and Papua New Guinea's politicians have certainly lived up to that reputation over the past few months.

Since December, two men have claimed the prime minister's job, one with the support of Parliament, the other initially backed by the courts.

Last month the division led to a brief military mutiny. But still, the country's two most powerful men squabble over political power.

Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney spent 20 years covering PNG and he returned to file this report.
(Footage of mutineers returning arms)

SEAN DORNEY, REPORTER: These were the guns used in the half day mutiny in Papua New Guinea in late January when disgruntled soldiers joined a retrenched colonel in an abortive attempt to take control of the military and reinstate Sir Michael Somare as prime minister.

BELDEN NAMAH, PNG DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Soldiers of today be given amnesty. Nobody will be dealt with by the law.

SEAN DORNEY: The deputy prime minister in the government elected by the Parliament, Belden Namah, is a former soldier.

He spent two and half years in prison for mutiny in the aftermath of the military revolt in 1997 that terminated the proposed use of mercenaries from Africa to try to end the Bougainville conflict. He was later given a full pardon.

BELDEN NAMAH: I told the soldiers of 1st Battalion, and the soldiers who were involved in the recent mutiny that it is not easy. You must not listen to politicians, you must not listen to self centred people who will lure you to committing that kind of offence, because at the end of the day, when you're charged for mutiny you'll be left on your own. Your families will be the ones to suffer the most.

SEAN DORNEY: It was in August last year that Sir Michael Somare's nine-year-old government fell apart when he was in hospital in Singapore for months undergoing a series of major heart operations. He was in a coma when his son Arthur, also an MP, announced his father would retire.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE, FORMER PNG PRIME MINISTER: Arthur was thinking that I was very sick and he said there could be a possibility of my retiring early.

SEAN DORNEY: I told Sir Michael he was looking remarkably well considering how close to death everybody thought he had been.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: Yes, yes. It's a big operation, my friend. You know it.

SEAN DORNEY: The PNG Parliament elected Peter O'Neill as prime minister, but then in December, the Supreme Court ruled in a split 3-2 decision that proper procedure had not been followed and Sir Michael remained prime minister.

However, prime minister O'Neill has the overwhelming support of Parliament.

PETER O'NEILL, PNG PRIME MINISTER: We are in charge of the executive government. We are in charge of the public service. We are in charge of the treasuries and the police force and the security forces of our country.

So our government did not go out there and try to take control of government by a barrel of gun. Now Somare has done that.

SEAN DORNEY: The O'Neill Government used its numbers to dismiss Sir Michael from parliament, citing his absence from three consecutive sittings.

JEFFREY NAPE, PNG SPEAKER: Parliament have effectively removed the former Prime Minister. He's now an ordinary person.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: Mr O'Neill has a lot to answer for. He has to answer, why are they doing this? Nine consecutive parliaments I been elected to that seat. Nine parliaments, not one that I missed out on re-elected. No, nine, you know it. I came in '68 and I stayed put.

SEAN DORNEY: Amid rowdy scenes in Parliament, Sir Michael tried to serve the speaker with the Supreme Court decision.

(Footage of Sir Michael Somare attempting to serve the Speaker with decision, January 18, 2012)

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: We're members of Parliament. We're coming in.

JEFFREY NAPE: There's a stranger! A stranger! Do not accept it! Do not accept it!

Stranger! Stranger!


JEFFREY NAPE: Silence! He's a stranger! He's no longer a member of parliament.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: You are in contempt of the court. You are in contempt of court.

SEAN DORNEY: Paul Barker is the director of the privately funded PNG think tank, The Institute of National Affairs.

PAUL BARKER, DIRECTOR, PNG INSTITUTE OF NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The weight of public support, you'd have to say, would be over the last months with the Belden Namah, O'Neill team. But there is a strong public sympathy for Somare, and a feeling well, 'look, this is unfair of him - on him to be particularly removed as a member of parliament'.

SEAN DORNEY: The attempted military mutiny disturbed some former Somare supporters like his community affairs minister who is now the opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu.

DAME CAROL KIDU, PNG OPPOSITION LEADER: I said I'm very uncomfortable with this. I don't want to be associated with this. I'm sorry but I'm going to distance myself.

SEAN DORNEY: One of those who had been most loyal to Sir Michael, the man he left in charge as acting prime minister when he went to Singapore, Sam Abal, has quit Sir Michael's National Alliance Party.

SAM ABAL, PNG DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: I've a good working relationship with him. And there was a bit of a sad affair for me to inform him that I will have to be going on, because I cannot work with the executives and other people there.

SEAN DORNEY: Not everything is going the way of prime minister O'Neill's government. One of his ministers has just been suspended and is facing a leadership tribunal on charges after alleged misconduct in office. Another minister had his house raided and police found hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

On the other side, Arthur Somare, Sir Michael's son, has also been suspended from parliament and he too is facing a leadership tribunal for alleged misconduct in office.

Sir Michael, now 76, said he had intended to retire this year, but he's so angry at what has happened he's reconsidering.

SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: I was looking forward to 2012. But people think if they can easily use the parliament numbers to get rid of me, that easily, I have a second thought. But as I said, we're waiting for court decision to take its course and we'll wait.

SEAN DORNEY: The PNG Supreme Court is dealing with a dozen cases arising from the constitutional crisis.

Australia's High Commissioner, Ian Kemish, has been advising Canberra that any high profile attempt to broker a resolution could have unintended consequences.

IAN KEMISH, AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSIONER TO PNG: While there have been some troubling developments over the last few months, these developments have also underlined some positive things about the capacity of certain key Papua New Guinean institutions. And I mean particularly the PNG defence force and the PNG police to manage themselves in a mature, responsible and non-political way.

PAUL BARKER: Well PNG must be one of the only places in the world where you can have effectively, call it what you will, a mutiny, you can have had battles in the courts, all kinds of scenarios that have been fairly rough and ready, and yet, where the kina has been going up. By and large investors don't worry that much about changes of government so long as the policies don't change.

SEAN DORNEY: Papua New Guinea is due to go to the polls in the coming months for its eighth uninterrupted democratic elections since independence.

The former acting prime minister says he's expecting a record number of independents to win.

SAM ABAL: As you know, it is more personalities than policies. And so it's not really clear on how they will vote. I think there will be a lot more independents coming out because of that confusion.

BELDEN NAMAH: Sean, you have you been in Papua New Guinea. How many times do Australian media say, 'there will be bloodshed, there will be trouble in Papua New Guinea during the elections' and how many times we have proven them wrong? And we will continue to prove them wrong.

SEAN DORNEY: For the Papua New Guinea public it seems the elections cannot come soon enough.
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