There is no clear explanation for the apparent uptick in killings in parts of the South Pacific nation, and even government officials seem at a loss to say why this is happening. Some are arguing the recent violence is fueled not by the nation’s widespread belief in black magic but instead by economic jealousy born of a mining boom that has widened the country’s economic divide and pitted the haves against the have-nots.
“Jealousy is causing a lot of hatred,” said Helen Hakena, chairwoman of the North Bougainville Human Rights Committee, which is based in the area Rumbali was killed. “People who are so jealous of those who are doing well in life, they resort to what our people believe in, sorcery, to kill them, to stop them continuing their own development.”
She said the witchcraft accusation against Rumbali was just an excuse.
“There’s no doubt that there are really genuine beliefs there and in some circumstances that is what is motivating people: the belief that if they don’t kill this person, then this person is going to continue to bring death and misfortune and sickness on their village,” said Miranda Forsyth, a lawyer at Australian National University who has studied the issue.
But she said recent cases in Papua New Guinea don’t appear to be motivated by a genuine belief in the occult, but instead are a pretext under which the wealthy can be attacked by poorer neighbors, and, many times, get away with it.
She and other experts on witchcraft in the Melanesia region believe Papua New Guinea’s newfound prosperity and the growing inequality in its traditionally egalitarian culture is a significant cause of the violence. Neighboring Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where belief in black magic is also widespread, haven’t seen the same level of extreme violence against accused witches.
Today, June 10, is the anniversary of the first hanging in the Salem witch trials, Bridget Bishop in 1692. Yep, 321 years ago. And this is still going on in the world. For slightly different reasons. According to history, Bishop may have been accused because she was outspoken, she owned one or more taverns, played shuffleboard, and/or dressed in provocative clothing. The belief in Salem was more palpable then due to the strict religious belief and lack of contact with the larger society. In the case of PNG, we see the disparity between poverty and wealth. This piece notes that it may not be such a literal belief in the occult that is at the core of the issue but the fact that they can get away with it. However, a particularly violent form of black magic belief is spreading. The country is under pressure to stop this persecution. It’s doubtful that will happen fast. It is complex problem to solve that might only be fixable through strong cultural condemnation of the practice, and time - for the old beliefs to fade away.
Tip: Steve Liberace