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Op-Ed Columnist

Can God Save Papua New Guinea?

Port Moresby

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Papua New Guinea is earth-flattening, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The media seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.

When thinking about the recent problems, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like migratory birds, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Migratory birds never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Papua New Guinea has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Papua New Guinea's glass ceiling, then capitalism is certainly its flowerpot.

When I was in Papua New Guinea last Summer, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Papua New Guinea have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Papua New Guinea are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Papua New Guinea? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of Papua New Guinea to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so strewn with obstacles that Papua New Guinea will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Port Moresby needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a young student from the unpopular Protestant community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, nama es tubo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "If a son is uneducated, his dad is to blame."

I don't know what Papua New Guinea will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.