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WHY THE 2014 UNITECH BOYCOTT SUCCEEDED

By Former PNG Journalist

As the Unitech saga fades into time, it leaves positive thoughts in the minds of thousands. Most of us will not forget the dedicated young people who bravely stood up and spoke out against corruption.  The government repeatedly threatened the students hoping to frighten them into submission. Through the government's two mouthpieces, The National and Post Courier, we read the many smug editorials that belittled the students
as foolish and irresponsible, then telling them to behave themselves and go back to class.

But students held their ground and spoke out despite being surrounded and discouraged by a sea of older people who displayed varying degrees of cowardice when challenged to join the fight for two basic principles of decent humanity:  truth and justice. The Unitech boycott was a brilliant success, but why?  We need to know
so that the techniques can be applied later and elsewhere. 

Effective activism at all levels of society against the growing dictatorship and corruption of our government is badly needed. I explored what made the Unitech Saga 2014 so successful by interviewing a number of student and staff residents, as well as outsiders who are connected to the university.   Their responses revealed 12 key activities or ways of doing things that led to this victory.  They are presented here in the order of occurrence.

1. UNITECH RESIDENTS WOULDN'T LET THE SCHRAM ISSUE BE FORGOTTEN (September 2013)

After the failed 2013 boycott brought humiliation to the SRC president 
Livingstone Hosea, it was in his selfish interest to get everyone to forget about all that.   Not surprisingly, when SRC elections were around the corner, Hosea supported candidates who didn't speak out about the Saga, including Hosea's chosen successor, Eddie Nagual. During campaign week, hardly any intending candidates mentioned the Saga. However, some people refused to follow the leaders and saw the Saga as a battle of good versus evil.   Christian radicals and others went to work, covering the campus with information papers.   The Saga and Schram ended up being the talk of the campaign.  This people power activism in defiance of the SRC was the first key action that eventually led to victory.

2. UNITECH COUNCIL DECLARED SCHRAM'S INNOCENCE TO THE NATION (December 2013)

In December 2013 Sir Nagora Bogan and his interim council voted unanimously to declare Schram the innocent and legitimate VC and invite him back.   This brave act inspired all who felt that Schram was being treated unjustly and brought him much new support.

3. THE SCHRAM ISSUE WASN'T FORGOTTEN (AGAIN) (November 2013-February 2014)


During the school holidays Facebook was filled with comments supporting Schram.    Activist students established a Facebook page dedicated to the Saga.  They fortified each other, organised, and pushed the new SRC president to make clear how he would work to bring  back Schram.   More than once Nagual as a facebook administrator erased postings in a futile attempt to stop the criticism.  When classes began and the SRC president remained quiet (partly because he was attending a family matter), the activists did not wait.   At the
start of the school year, radicals at Unitech defied the SRC and pushed the issue back into the open.

4. DAVID ARORE SACKED (February 2014)

How powerful was the social media was in causing Minister Arore's downfall?  All we know is that  his sacking came after a series of PNGBlogs articles on Arore's corruption and incompetence.   The print media published nothing and thus can take no credit. When Arore fell, it inspired many students to believe for the first time that they could defeat the government.

5.  UNITECH STAFF MEMBER POLIN BECAME A GAME CHANGER (late February 2014)

Unitech staff member Ken Polin risked his job and livelihood to deliver an inspirational speech to students and staff and in the process became Unitech's symbol of genuine Christian consciousness. His one man awareness forum for students and staff outside the administration building defied the foot dragging senior executive
management.   Polin's bravery may have pushed SRC president Nagual into action to start holding student forums to plan strategy.

6.  STUDENTS PREDICTED AND COUNTERACTED THE DIVIDE AND CONQUER

STRATEGY USED AGAINST THEM (March 2014) How many governors threatened to withdraw school fee support if students didn't return to class?  What about Minister Delilah Gore's (actually David Kavanamur's) threats to expel boycotting students, deny scholarships to those who continued to strike, and cancel the academic school year?  It turns out that before any of this happened, students were educating each other about the "divide and conquer" tactic   When the tactic was carried out by the Unitech administration and the government, the students were ready.

7.   EVENTS COINCIDED PERFECTLY TO GIVE THE STUDENT MOVEMENT SUCH POWER THAT THE GOVERNMENT HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO SURRENDER (late March 2014)

Unitech student power did not come from being students, or because they represented thousands of warm bodies, or even because they stopped attending class.  The power was created by their nonviolent refusal, time and time again, to back down. Adding to that initial power was the growing support that students were given by ex-unitechs and anticorruption activities as well as parents of the students, and even a few politicians.

While the students' power grew, the government's power was falling apart.  Behind her threat, Minister Gore didn't have the option of shutting down Unitech because of the severe financial and logistical repercussions this would bring to the government.   As the day of no return for salvaging the school year drew nearer, the government
became increasingly desperate to settle with the students.

Despite all this, in the end it was chance and chance alone that gave the students victory after only 5 weeks of boycott.   The chance occurrence was the appearance of several national issues that built up public anger throughout PNG, namely the suspicious K3 billion UBS loan and sacking of Minister Don Polye.  Anti corruption groups raised their voices, with the prospect of a UPNG student boycott. If this new anger had combined with what was already present at Unitech, the resulting people power might have brought down the government, just like in 1996 with the Sandline Scandal.   The fear of a large people power movement is what ended the last battle of the Saga.  O'Neill used surrender instead of victory to put Unitech out of action.   It was more important to secure his government than plot further against the Unitech VC.    The government surrendered, Schram returned, the boycott ended, and with the end of the boycott came the collapse of Unitech student power.  This then freed O'Neill to neutralise other movements against his government.

8.  EDDIE NAGUAL REFUSED TO COMPROMISE (March 2014)

Refusing to negotiate isn't usually a winning strategy and Nagual's refusal to negotiate with both the Unitech management and the government could have been a disaster.  Nagual's stubbornness only worked because it was backed up student power that was overwhelming compared to that of the government. Nagual maintained his 'no negotiation' stance during two high pressure Unitech meetings held between SRC and government ministers.  If he had compromised during either, the government would have reached an agreement with the SRC that would have brought Schram back to PNG on a tourist or business visa and not being able to set foot on campus nor
resume his VC job for weeks if not forever.   The Saga would have ended up in failure for the students.

9.  THE SRC PRESIDENT LISTENED TO AND FOLLOWED GOOD ADVICE

Until the 2014 boycott began, Nagual showed little sign of wanting to lead a fight to bring back Schram but once he got going, he usually made the right moves.   His youthfulness was poor preparation for such a challenge, but Nagual never displayed the oversized ego of his predecessor.  His mind was genuinely open to listening to and
following sound advice.

10. UNITECH RADICALS IGNORED CONSERVATIVE SRC LEADERS AND UNITECH ADMINISTRATORS AND SET THE AGENDAS


There is evidence that radical, nonviolent elements at Unitech significantly defined the saga even though they held no leadership positions.  If not for them, the majority conservative SRC leadership would have implemented more policies resulting in there being no boycott, limited boycott, or a negotiated end to the boycott, all of
which would have made the Saga a failure. Conservatives within the SRC became obstructionists because they were afraid to take risks, afraid of being sued in court, and generally afraid of doing anything innovative or strong.   Nagual stayed away from many SRC coordination committee meetings during the hottest point of the boycott. This  freed him to ignore the conservatives and maintain a more radical approach. The conservatives did  help to keep the boycott nonviolent, but most Unitech radicals seemed nonviolent anyway. Radicals operating outside the SRC did extensive awareness and succeeded at pushing more radical actions. In the end, victory for
Unitech was won by the radicals since only the radicals were fully committed to the no negotiation demand of "No Schram, No Class".

11. INFORMATION WAS SPREAD IN A WAY NEVER SEEN BEFORE IN PNG

Our culture has a big problem with keeping information hidden that should be public knowledge.  A big reason why our country is so corrupt is that we don't speak out when we witness corruption and we don't make things transparent in a way that exposes corrupt people and shames them the way  they deserve.   Even people who consider themselves committed Christians usually will not speak out when they see others doing immoral or illegal activities. Unitech Saga is probably unique in the nation's history because of the strong display of transparency and exposure of wrongdoing.  People reported on unethical and corrupt activities right and left.  The
results were exactly what Transparency International always predicts: corruption cannot operate or be sustained when exposed to light. It's safe to say that if it were not for the fact that the world could read what was going on at Unitech, much would have been covered up and the Saga would have been a failure.   Spreading information gives power to all who want justice and truth to prevail.  PNGBLOGS led the way.

12. THOSE FIGHTING FOR TRUTH AND JUSTICE REFUSED TO GIVE UP

It appears that Eddie Nagual was far from being the only person who stubbornly refused to back down on centimetre on the "No Schram, No Class" demand.  Threats against those supporting Schram came from all
directions but obviously were ignored.   Only through amazing perseverance did the passing of 2 years fail at fading interest in the Saga.

CONCLUSIONS

High school students learn about Gandhi, King and Mandela and in the Bible we learn about the activism of Jesus Christ who spoke out on behalf of the poor and mistreated.  All these great men were social radicals who took risks and in all but one case, paid for justice with their lives. Most of us don't follow the ways of these great people even though we admire what they achieved.  But we will never outgrow the paralysing effects of corruption and the bad reputation it brings to all of us if we do not start becoming real activists.  We cannot allow those with
power continue to abuse that power and take advantage of us.  We must stop being afraid to take risks.  We must speak out no matter what those above us tell us to do. That is what democracy is all about.
Before the boycott, Unitech SRC President Eddie Nagual's behaviour seemed to best fit the definition of a conservative afraid to take risks.  Some say the Unitech saga's radicals succeeded in radicalising him.  
Let us pray this is true not only for him, but for all of us.