Nation building and the necessity of historical national symbols

By PNG Echo.

Speaker of the Papua new Guinean Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc
Speaker of the Papua new Guinean Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc

Who gave Speaker of the Papua New Guinean Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc, the right to shape Papua New Guinea after an image that he chooses?

Who gave him the right to arbitrarily reinterpret the constitution and what the founding father’s meant – and to decide where they’d erred?

I’m speaking, specifically, of the tearing down of traditional artefacts originally commissioned for the Haus Tambaran to be replaced by others that the Speaker finds more to his taste, sensibilities and his personal interpretation of the Christian doctrine.

And this in spite of the very clear preamble to the Papua New Guinean constitution (also known colloquially as the ‘Mama Lo’) that states:


  • united in one nation
  • pay homage to the memory of our ancestors—the source of our strength and origin of our combined heritage
  • acknowledge the worthy customs and traditional wisdoms of our people—which have come down to us from generation to generation
  • pledge ourselves to guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now.
  • By authority of our inherent right as ancient, free and independent peoples

The acknowledgment and homage to an historical heritage in this preamble is evident, marked and appropriate.

Justification for vandalism

Haus Tambaran

In an article published by PNG Blogs Zurenuoc claims to be stamping out idolatry and renewing the Christian covenant in order that: “…a new light will shine in the Grand Hall of our National Parliament.”

Zurenuoc’s actions are akin to the Nazi book burning of 1933.

The Nazis found, to their detriment, that you cannot erase ideas with a single act of vandalism, as the Speaker will find that he cannot erase a rich cultural heritage with a similar act.

Anyway, if the previous totems are “idolatry”, is not the new “National Unity Pole” the same thing only with a different idol?

Wearing his misdirected zealotry like a badge of honour, Zurenuoc would brook no opposition to his destructive course, not even from the Roman Catholic Church and he refused to discuss his actions with the PNG Council of Churches claiming them to have some beliefs “…that were not appropriate.”

Who appointed Zurenuoc sole arbiter and definer of what is an ‘appropriate’ Christian belief?

Zurenuoc’s attitude and actions display an arrogant piety that is seriously out of kilter with the religion he espouses: one where humility is one of the main tenets.

National Unity

Zurenuoc claims to be committing this sacrilege in the name of ‘National Unity’.

He writes:

The idea of National Unity was taken from the courageous actions of our Founding Fathers who united our very difficult and fragmented tribes of thousand languages to give us Independence.

Sir Julius Chan, PM  Governor o the disgruntled Province of New Ireland and the PM who employed mercenaries against his own people.
Sir Julius Chan, PM Governor o the disgruntled Province of New Ireland and the PM who employed mercenaries against his own people.

In the aforementioned article he evokes two of the founding fathers, Sir Michael Somare and Sir Julius Chan as his inspirations for National Unity.

The idea of independence (or autonomy) for the Province of New Ireland that is oft bandied about and sometimes subscribed to by Sir Julius is something Zurenuoc needed to ignore to promote his vision.

That it was Sir Julius who brought in mercenaries (Sandline) to kill his own people (or at least the people of Bougainville) in  the bloody civil war of the 1990s also needs to be overlooked.

Founding father Sir Michael Somare, not happy with the actions of Zurenuoc
Founding father Sir Michael Somare, not happy with the actions of Zurenuoc

What’s more Zurenuoc’s methods are not subscribed to by Sir Michael either: a meeting between the Grand Chief, Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, Anthropologist, Dr Andrew Moutu and the Speaker did little to dissuade Zurenuoc from his righteous and deeply destructive crusade.

With a chainsaw, the Speaker has wantonly destroyed what little evidence there is in Papua New Guinea of any truly national symbols. What’s nationally unifying about that?

Is PNG a nation?

Zurenuoc with his ‘National Unity’ vision and his method of achieving it is barking up the wrong tree.  And this is why.

There are two ways in which a national entity is formed (ie an independent state, a nation or a nation/state – the state being the legal entity and the nation being notional):

…by an educative process whereby members of the group [are] systematically convinced of their sameness by interested parties (usually the intellectuals…) and hence become conscious of a shared nationality, (commonly termed ‘nation building’) and a purely arbitrary and pragmatic system whereby a ‘state’ [is] formed to administer a territory and the people within it, without regard to any sort of homogeneity, whether real or imagined, of the inhabitants.  (Merrell, Susan, PhD Thesis, UNSW, 2005 ‘On the fringe: The dilemma of Welsh political nationalism)

Although Papua New Guinea is indeed an independent state, it has never really attained a collective national consciousness and I would put it squarely in the category of ‘arbitrary state’, especially as the geopolitical boundaries were drawn in colonial times with little consideration of local sensibilities and everything to do with imperialistic consolidation and expansion.

Sam Koim - Chairman of Independent Taskforce Sweep.
Sam Koim – Chairman of Independent Taskforce Sweep.

Corruption fighter, Sam Koim in his speech to the Australian National University in Canberra recently singled out the lack of national consciousness as an impediment in the fight against corruption:

Many people think in groups, such as tribes, instead of as a country, he said

And the reason for this is that, missing in Papua New Guinea, has been the educative process and national imagining that makes a nation out of groups of disparate people.

Imagining the nation

Nationalist scholar Benedict Anderson describes the nation as ‘imagined’,[1] Ernest Gellner and Elie Kedourie as ‘invented’[2] and Anthony D. Smith as ‘reconstructed’[3

In those descriptions they all acknowledge that the promotion of an idea of a historical continuum built on past actualities revisited and rediscovered, or on an invention of common history is necessary in order to inculcate national sentiment.

And it is why it doesn’t matter whether the offending artefacts in the Haus Tambaran were from the Sepik, Morobe or anywhere else – they had become national symbols that represented all the people of PNG – a proud history available to all – why destroy what little there is in PNG of national symbols and sentiment.

The Speaker intends to replace these sources of national pride with representations of a new and foreign religious concept with no basis in history or the historical imagination of the nation.

If we adopt Benedict Anderson’s widely accepted description of ‘nation’ as an imagined community: there is no person on this earth, let alone in Papua New Guinea, who imagines that Papua New Guinea has much in common, historically, with the tribes of Israel.

Papua New Guinea is a beautiful diverse land with a plethora of colourful traditions and a rich history often represented in its carvings and rituals.

The last thing the nation needs for its national well-being is a high-profile politician telling it that it should be ashamed of its heritage and obliterating the symbols associated therewith.

They weren’t wrong

The founding fathers did not err in the preamble to the constitution they, in fact, showed remarkable insight into what it takes to build a nation.

It is Speaker Zurenuoc that has made an egregious error.

Is his decision borne of ignorance, arrogance or is his faith so weak that it cannot withstand the puniest of challenges? How shamefully pathetic! Someone needs to stop this false national prophet.

God bless Papua New Guinea!


[1] Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London, 1983

[2]In Thompson, A., “National Identity and Social Theory”, in Fevre, R., & Thompson, A., (eds.) Nation, Identity and Social Theory, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1999. p. 248

[3] ibid.

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8 thoughts on “Nation building and the necessity of historical national symbols

  1. Susan, i agree with this and about time we talk about uniting the country despite our different political persuasions

    • Wilson Orlegge Thompson, thank you for a well thought out, and I believe correct description of the facts of life, in PNG. I personally find the current religious fervor, (GC Sir Michael Somare signing COVENANTS and the Speaker destroying carvings to be rather a worry. TOTALLY dis-respectful to the citizens who choose to believe in their traditional faiths. After all why would PNG want to emulate the spiritual ways of the rest of the Western world. And as I am sure you know, christianity is actually an addendum to the spirituality of most Papua New Guineans. Perhaps some like the Speaker are 100% reborn Christians who have abandoned their traditions, but my guess is that most people in PNG can successfully run the bible and tradition in parallel. In closing can i say that what you have written is the most intelligent discourse on the matter that I have so far read. Thanks

  2. Dr. Susan.
    Please I respect your views on Speaker Theo Zeurnoc and your knowledge on PNG in your straight talk blog.
    However, your views on the Speaker trying to forge a new national identity for PNG by destroying our cultural heritage is a sensitive issue. If you are born as a Indigenous PNG citizen I believe your views will differ on PNG common identity. I published a book titled: “PNG-The Writing is on the Wall. Vol.1 Corruption in Year 2o12. My research to my conclusion boils down to identifying a common code of ethics and belief in a judicial system that is more superior to the British common law PNG adopted on Independence Day 16th September 1975. During the last 39 years of our political independence British Law has not been that effective to solve our current corrupt state of our people.

    Therefore the Hon Speakers search for a new identity for the nation that unites the several thousand tribes with dissimilar cultures and 82930 plus language groups in a confused Tower of Babel sticking out in the Pacific Ocean is the Christian Holy Bible. This is the common denominator for our PNG people in the next 40 years after 2015 ,16 September.
    Let us respect each others views at this point in time but my heart conviction is that only the fear of the God of Abraham Issach and Israel for my PNG people is the needle on the compass bearing pointing right now. I am sailing on the Noah’s Ark with my people and the Parliament Speaker in that direction. Thank you. David Herman Nime. Christian leader n Author.

  3. Dr. Susan.
    Speaker Theo Zeurnoc s new National Identity. CORRECTION TO MY COMMENT.
    82930 language groups is a typo error. It should read 830 plus language groups. I use my samsung phone and small for my big tumb on the electronic keyboard.
    Cheers. Br. David Herman Nime

  4. We Are Already a United People Guided by a Common Culture, Spirituality, Belief and Values

    [This is for our fellow citizens who may feel undermined and subjugated by the iconic cultural symbolism of our Parliament House and our authentic totem poles. The sentimental argument is that these do not create unity and religion is now used in an attempt to facilitate unity. The caution is that changing beliefs and values using religious zeal must be done mindfully in these modern times.]

    As the debate on the removal of the totem poles at our Parliament House rages on, I would like to add my piece by leveraging off and stringing together some writings of the late Bernard Narokobi who is being described as perhaps one of the greatest Melanesian philosopher of the modern times.

    I am sensing an undertone of other fellow citizens feeling sidelined and not well represented in the present architectural design of our Parliament House and what I think is a false consensus that unity will be achieved without the symbolism of one culture dominating over others. It is very unfortunate to feel marginalised like this. These are outlooks of defeat and despair, betraying an inability to not only appreciating but most importantly tolerating and transcending others’ culture. It is also very inopportune that religious zeal is used to cloak these sentiments, acting as a front, in what will be a futile guise to try and unite an already united people of many cultures with the aim to drive change in beliefs and values.

    If Papua New Guinea is a land of division, of disunity, of 800+ languages and thousands of cultures why did not we fragmented into tens of countries during the past 38 years of our independence?

    Those who will stop to reflect will realise that in spite of our intergroup fights or this anguishing sense of being subjugated by one cultural group, it must be realised that Melanesian societies are non-exploitative, non-acquisitive and non-colonialist. It is true that one tribe or perhaps more might have practiced slavery and colonialism but on the whole our societies did not survive successfully this long, and in isolation from the outside world, by subduing other races or by ruling the waves or enslaving others to one religious belief or cultural practice.

    As Melanesians we are not and have never been slaves to our cultural practices. If we believed these were obstructing us, we liberate ourselves by establishing new communities with new hopes and future.

    Yet, as a Melanesian country, we are still united, guided by a common cultural and spiritual unity. Though diverse in many cultural practices, including languages and of course architecture, still we are united, and are different from Asians or Europeans. Our ways are not so varied and contradictory as many have claimed. Our unity springs not from the nation state, common currency, common banks, the police and the military. It is not even based on a common language. These facilitate unity, but they do not make it. We are a united people because of our common vision. True enough, it has never been written, but has evolved over thousands of years.

    As Melanesians, we are a spiritual people. Even before Christians came onto our shores, we felt and knew the forces of a source greater than ourselves. From our spirituality, we had a communal vision of the cosmos. Our vision was not and still is not an artificially dichotomised and compartmentalised pragmatism of the secular society. Ours is a vision of totality, a vision of cosmic harmony. Our vision sees the human person in his totality with the spirit world as well as the animal and the plant world. This human person is not absolute master of the universe but an important component in an interdependent world of the person with the animal, the plant and the spiritual.

    These are the basic truths about us as a people. To meaningfully associate with other people we must seek to understand them and their inherent virtues. Have we ever wondered why other countries, especially in the West, have centres dedicated to the studies of other peoples? I think that is so that they can mindfully interrelate with these people.

    Similarly learning more about ourselves will present an opportunity to tolerate and transcend other’s culture and will lead to provision of true contemporary Melanesian leadership in this time and age where the world is moving more and more towards a confused uniformity, monotony and insensitivity to the fine, subtle and sublime beauty of cultural diversity.

    It is the simplistic imperialist who seeks uniformity as a technique to command obedience (and perhaps usher in the one-world-order that some Christians these days are self-prophesying and scared about).

    Considering the above and in my opinion the speaker and his advisers, in their ‘head on’ approach to change beliefs and values, have not done this mindfully. The outcome now is that the intention of removing our authentic totem poles and replacing them with a modern symbolic unity pillar, that is also rooted in a modern secular religion, is encountering a lot of resistance and criticisms in an increasingly contemporary and learned PNG society whose citizens are progressively seeing more and more through our mandated leaders’ actions. The real motives of the do-gooders must be questioned. In this now more liberal world, we have a right to question the forces at work to change us.

    For the proponents of these changes, the good news is that beliefs and values are not set in stone. We all change our beliefs as we go through life. The trick is to do it mindfully with clear intentions and some degree of interpersonal skill. The bad news, however, is that if you try to change other people’s beliefs head on, we will probably resist.

    People do not resist change, we change every day, but people do resist being changed in such a dramatic, intolerant and religiously zealous fashion these days.

  5. Gilberts comment is very neutral and sensible. His observations that “the world is moving into a uniformity and monotony of one world or global community is noted as real. May nations who were ruled by anarchy and dictatorial with military or autocratic rule suddenly fall in love with Democracy.

    My opinion is that democracy is very good if it is balanced by a moral checking institution like Christianity. Otherwise my travel in some parts of Asia recently and my conclusion is that democracy with capitalist idealogy is breeding ground for idolatry.
    As a byproduct of democracy in countries like China sees the rising of night clubs alcoholism massage parlour s karoke and sports with scentific and technical savy that goes beyond the Bible account of the book of Genesis of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah.
    As a Christian Church Ministry Team Leader I observe the world events of violence and corruption with a heart breaking concern. My prayer each morning is for PNG to transform into a society that others can model our success as a DEMOCRATIC CHRISTIAN country. These are just my opinion.

  6. Would it be sensible only if the speaker continues from the parliament house to every one of the 800 plus tribes and destroys every carving, artefacts, haus tambarans, hausman?

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