The government of Papua New Guinea on Wednesday ordered the military to restore order in the capital, Port Moresby, after a dispute over the wages of police officers and other public servants led to angry protests and unrest.
More than a dozen shops were set on fire, at least one car was torched and there were reports of widespread looting. The United States Embassy said shots had been fired near its compound and advised its employees to shelter in place. Demonstrators also damaged the entrance to the building that holds the prime minister’s office.
The extent of damage and casualties, if any, was unclear, but Port Moresby, a city of about 400,000 people, remained on edge Wednesday night as businesses closed early and big hotels beefed up security.
At around 10 a.m., hundreds of government employees, including police officers and defense personnel, appeared to walk off their jobs and gathered outside Parliament to protest what they said was a smaller paycheck. Officials described that protest as largely peaceful but said the security situation in Port Moresby deteriorated quickly.
Prime Minister James Marape said that an extra $100 had been deducted from the paychecks of public servants because of a computer glitch, and the government was not raising taxes as the protesters claimed.
“Social media picked up on this wrong information, misinformation,” and many people took advantage of the police being off the streets, Mr. Marape said in an interview as guards armed with machine guns stood outside his office door. “We are not raising taxes.”
Mr. Marape added that the payroll error would be corrected in the next paycheck. But he also acknowledged the other brewing issues.
“This is a larger economic problem we have with high youth unemployment and soaring inflation costs,” he said, adding he had announced on Wednesday 83 million kina ($22.2 million) in new funding for educational programs.
The unrest comes at a delicate political time for Papua New Guinea, a resource-rich country where both the United States and China are jockeying for influence as both try to increase their sway in the South Pacific. Mr. Marape — who has recently signed security agreements with the United States and Australia, while also pursuing economic deals with China, its largest trade partner — may soon face a vote of no confidence.