Papua New Guinea’s Year of Independence—1975
By “Awake!” correspondent in Papua New Guinea
FROM a wild land of warring tribes to an independent nation in less than one hundred years! This is the story of Papua New Guinea’s emergence into the modern world. September 16, 1975, saw the culmination of the efforts of its nation builders as the Papua New Guinea flag was raised in the country’s capital, Port Moresby, in place of the Australian flag.
For days official guests had been arriving from Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and other Pacific islands. The British monarchy was represented by Prince Charles, while the Australian Governor-General, Prime Minister, and many of the Members of the Australian Parliament were there to see the final transfer of powers from Australia to the new government.
Early Colonial Rule
Thus ended a period of colonial rule that had begun in the mid-1880’s, when imperial Germany had taken over 70,000 square miles of the northern section of the large island and 600 smaller islands, calling them Neu Guinea. For four years a business enterprise called the Neuguinea Kompagnie. Was given rights and also responsibilities of rule. But in 1899, the German government once more took control, and eventually New Guinea was merged with German Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, and administrative headquarters were set up at Rabaul on the island of New Britain.
Such activity so close to the northern shores of their Australian colonies alarmed the British, resulting in the raising of the Union Jack over the southern section of the main island, some 90,500 square miles including off-shore islands. The capital was Port Moresby on the southern coast. When a federal government was set up in Australia in 1901, control of British New Guinea, or Papua, as it came to be called, was transferred to Australia.
With the handing over of Germany’s colonies following World War I, the northern section, New Guinea, was also assigned to Australia, as a trust territory by the League of Nations. When a severe volcanic eruption practically wiped out the town of Rabaul in 1937, a decision was made to move the capital to Lae, on the north coast of the mainland. This move, however, was interrupted by the advent of World War II and the subsequent invasion by Japanese forces.
Progress Toward Independence
A military administration now cared for both Papua and New Guinea until 1945. Then it was decided to bring the trust territory of New Guinea and the Australian possession of Papua together as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea under an administrator and central government situated at Port Moresby. In that same year, 1945, Mr. Ward, the member of the Australian Labor government responsible for Papua New Guinea affairs, stated the policy of his government to be “greater participation by the natives in the wealth of their country and eventually in its government.”
Progress toward self-government really gained impetus in the 1960’s, with the setting up in 1961 of a new Legislative Council having a majority of elected members, 50 percent being Papua New Guineans.
In 1964, the Legislative Council became the House of Assembly. Political parties began to develop, and resolutions in the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1965-1967 called on Australia to set target dates for self-determination and independence for Papua New Guinea. A coalition government, formed by Mr. Michael Somare, came to power in 1972. Soon after, a Constitutional Planning Committee was set up. In September of that year a target date of December 1, 1973, was set for self-government. In spite of opposition by certain conservatives, this target date was met and the Papua New Guinea government took control of virtually all but defense and foreign affairs. After much debating, September 16, 1975, was finally set as Independence Day for Papua New Guinea.
Already, before independence, Papua New Guinea had its own commercial bank, its own airline, Air Niugini, and many Papua New Guineans were moving into positions of influence in government departments and private enterprise. A defense force also had been set up, with soldiers, sailors and airmen.
From mid-1975 excitement rose as preparations began speeding up. Some dissenting voices were heard. On the copper-rich island of Bougainville, certain leaders took it upon themselves to unilaterally declare Bougainville’s independence from the rest of Papua New Guinea. Papua also has its own separatist movement, Papua Besena (the Papuan Nation). Its members adopted a unilateral declaration of independence for Papua even earlier.
Early September saw a massive cleanup and last-minute building program in Port Moresby. Independence Drive, in Waigani, the new administrative headquarters area of the city, was yet to be completed and various other projects were being speeded up.
Profiting from experience gained on Self-Government Day and other holidays, the government banned the sale of liquor over the Independence holidays. The peacefulness of the entire period was a tribute to their thoughtful action.
Now the pace increased. The city began to take on a festive air as buildings, offices and even lamp poles began to sprout brightly colored flags and bird-of-paradise emblems. Displays of Papua New Guinea arts and crafts were set up throughout the city. Although these were designed to give the visitors an idea of the life-style here, many of the local residents were to be seen watching, fascinated by some aspect of life and work that is passing away from the scene today. Special aircraft began to arrive. Visitors were welcomed. The city’s hotels were filled. Police took up duty at twenty-five-meter intervals, lining the routes taken by the visiting dignitaries. For the most part, however, their role was that of spectator only.
The Sir Hubert Murray Stadium, a site used by Christian Bible Students each year for assemblies, saw thousands gathering on the eve of Independence Day, as sundown marked the ceremony of the lowering of the Australian flag for the last time in Papua New Guinea. Thousands watched in silence as the Governor-General-Elect of Papua New Guinea, Sir John Guise, handed the flag to Australia’s Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. Massed bands of the Papuan constabulary, the Pacific Islands Regiment and a visiting R.A.N. warship then produced a lighter note. These played a variety of tunes ranging from Highland ballads to a World War II tune from Papua called “Raisi,” which reflected the longing of tribes near the capital for traditional food after becoming tired of the rice diet forced on them by the war.
With the passing of midnight, speeches by the Prime Minister, Mr. Michael Somare, and the Governor General and a hundred-and-one gun salute from the naval warship in the harbor greeted the dawn of independence in Papua New Guinea. Brilliant firework displays could be seen on the hills ringing the harbor. For some, the celebrations continued till the early hours.
Independence Day saw the opening of Parliament at the old House of Assembly by Prince Charles, who read a message from Queen Elizabeth II, the official head of the state of Papua New Guinea. Following the raising of the Papua New Guinea flag on Independence Hill at Waigani, Prince Charles unveiled a plaque to mark the site of the new Parliament House. Planes of the Australian and Papua New Guinea forces flew past overhead.
With the celebrations now past, the practical note struck by the new Prime Minister at his first press conference is fitting. He said: “Now we have a new nation we have to pull up our socks and start working. From today onwards we should be thinking more of self-reliance than depending on others.”
Work on a constitution had been completed earlier in the year, and it was adopted even before Independence Day. Fifteen fundamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed, including freedom of conscience, thought and religion, freedom of expression and publication and freedom of assembly. It also provides for an “ombudsman,” a kind of public defender of people who feel they have been unfairly dealt with by officials. All sincere Christians in the land hope that such fine guarantees will continue to be enjoyed.
More than 1,400 of Jehovah’s witnesses in Papua New Guinea have already established a reputation for being hard workers. They use their talents wisely to improve themselves and others in the community, an obligation recognized by the new constitution.
These Witnesses have appreciated the freedom granted to them by the government in practicing their religion both prior to and after independence. They will continue to teach people throughout the land about the time when men from different nations can unite and enjoy one another’s company endlessly in peace under God’s kingdom by His Son.