Changing face of tribal fights

Editorial, Normal

The National – Tuesday, February 1, 2011

WE are tribal animals driven by tribal instincts.
When the tribe is under attack, we respond accordingly instinctively.
This is what has been happening for eons throughout this country. The last vestiges of that kind of primal behaviour remains today in tribal fights in the highlands of PNG, but some fundamental rules are changing.
Reading the news about the violent tribal fights raging in parts of the highlands region, or the ethnic violence such as that visited upon Lae last month and last weekend’s clash in Port Moresby, people might think these are part and partial of that tribal heritage.
They are not.
They are not because there is a vast difference between the rules of tribal engagement in the past and today’s conflicts.
The entire philosophy of the tribal fight has shifted, from one of dispute resolution in the past, an ultimate form of judicial settlement by physical strength if you like, to one of escalating a dispute into a greater law and order problem today.
Where once the tribal fight was a means to settle scores or disputes that could not be resolved by consensus, compromise or mediation, today it is used as an opportunity to beat smaller tribes into submission, to pillage, rob and rape and to kill with no limits to the blood lust.
There are some important elements from the old dispute settlement system that is absent in today’s tribal and ethnic violence.
The fights of old were a very serious and last resort option that warranted very serious consideration after all attempts at consensus, compromise, mediation and compensation failed. It involved wizened leaders of the tribe who consulted with all men of the tribe and who then consulted other leaders from friendly neighbouring tribes before committing the tribes.
There were strict rules of engagement, the violation of which could mean death. It was a pitting of one tribe’s strength over the other so the battle ground was chosen, the day of the battle selected and men of both tribes clashed in full traditional regalia.
To watch today some of the dance groups in highlands shows where men dressed in their full traditional attire and armed with spears or axes march into a field chanting, that is really watching how a tribal fight unfolded in the past.
One did not snipe. One did not ambush. One did not kill women and children. One did not rape. People of other tribes not engaged in the conflict were not touched.
These were widely respected taboos.
In the conflict in Port Moresby over the weekend, any person from Enga or from the Hela region was in danger of being killed. It is a blind, unreasoned, criminal behaviour that can, if allowed to run out of control, result in the kind of blood letting we have seen in Rwanda.
This has no resemblance to our tribal conflicts of old where only after a battle was won and the victor had the vanquished on the run, houses in the enemy tribe were set on fire and gardens were destroyed and domestic animals killed or captured.
Women were captured and taken away to be wives of their captors or other men in the victorious tribe who were unmarried or widowed. There was no rape and those who engaged in it were killed because it was a sign of weakness which could prove fatal in the next battle.
By the same token, those men who visited their wives’ houses while battle plans were discussed were exposed to the enemy and killed in battle. They were seen to be weak and expandable. Keeping them could prove to be a weak link in the security ring.
That was then. Today, the tribal conflicts are vastly different. They are perpetrated by and carried on by youths high on alcohol or drugs.
The Port Moresby conflict started when a drunk grabbed a mobile phone from a woman at the Gordon market last Wednesday.
Leaders have little or no effect on today’s conflicts and are often dragged into the conflict or die trying to resolve the conflict by some sensible means such as through dialogue. Youths shoot such leaders from hiding in ambushes.
It is a battle in which there are no rules involved and none respected. Women and girls are raped and hacked to death as are children.
We might call it by its old name “tribal fight”, for want of a better description, but today’s conflicts have lost the very heart and significance of the tribal fight of old.
It is no a longer conflict resolution tool, it has degenerated into a conflict creation mechanism.