PNG parliament bids farewell to 'father of the nation'

Gorethy Kenneth
·2-min read

Papua New Guinea's first prime minister Sir Michael Somare's coffin laid in state at a special sitting of parliament Thursday ahead of a series of funeral services for the beloved "father of the nation".

Crowds lined Independence Boulevard in the capital Port Moresby, throwing flowers onto the passing motorcade carrying the body of the "Grand Chief" as it approached parliament.

Somare, who died of pancreatic cancer late last month aged 84, led Papua New Guinea at independence from Australia in 1975 and was prime minister for a total of 17 years, during three separate terms.

"Somare united our leaders, and united a thousand tribes to become a nation called Papua New Guinea," Chief Justice Sir Gibuma Gibbs Salika told parliament over the coffin placed in the centre of the chamber.

"You and I are to guard with our lives our PNG national identity with integrity and respect," he said.

Two weeks of memorial events for Somare have come amid a surge of coronavirus infections in the poor Pacific nation, with large crowds turning out to honour the politician heightening concerns of a worsening outbreak.

PNG has so far officially recorded 1,741 cases of the virus and 21 deaths.

But the number of new infections has risen in the past two weeks and, due to a low rate of testing, there are fears the virus is rapidly spreading undetected through the population.

Earlier this week, a slew of new restrictions were announced to try to contain the spread, including a ban on gatherings of over 50 people.

But a state funeral on Friday is likely to draw crowds and hundreds of thousands are expected to attend services Sunday in Somare's home town of Wewak on the country's east coast.

The head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of PNG, Glen Mola, told Australia's national broadcaster that hospitals were seeing an uptick in positive cases and called for the large memorial events to be cancelled.

"We can't have massive Haus Krai's, because that's just a way of propagating the infection," Mola said, referring to traditional mourning events.

He said several expectant mothers were testing positive to the virus daily and urged organisers to cancel Somare's public funeral service.

"I'm sorry Grand Chief, I'm sure you're looking down on us... and you're telling us to stop, please."

"We have to start taking notice; otherwise, there will be chaos, and everyone will suffer very, very severely."