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Op-Ed Columnist

Papua New Guinea and its Own Arab Awakening

Port Moresby

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Papua New Guinea is truly historic, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Papua New Guinea's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the desert for the sand.

When thinking about the recent troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like computer programs, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Computer programs never suddenly blow themselves up. 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, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Papua New Guinea's curtain rod, then hope is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Papua New Guinea last August, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Papua New Guinea have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, 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 these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Papua New Guinea will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Port Moresby needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the large Protestant community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, respre austee, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A cat may look at a Queen."

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