UPDATED AT 03:46 a.m. ET on 2023-05-12
Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister is facing an intense public backlash and calls to resign after he labeled critics of his daughter’s ostentatious TikTok video from a taxpayer funded trip to the U.K. monarch’s coronation as “primitive animals.”
The furor over Australian-born Justin Tkatchenko’s comments, which were made to Australia’s state broadcaster ABC, is happening less than two weeks ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s stopover in Papua New Guinea to meet leaders of Pacific island countries.
Tkatchenko’s adult daughter Savannah accompanied him to the coronation of King Charles III in London last week. She posted a TikTok video of their luxury travel, since deleted, which triggered criticism in Papua New Guinea where poverty is widespread.
In an interview with the ABC on Wednesday about the social media onslaught, Tkatchenko said his daughter was “absolutely traumatized by these primitive animals.” He added, “And I call them primitive animals because they are.”
The comments were perceived as racist in the Melanesian nation of more than nine million people, where there was also anger at a local newspaper’s estimate of the expense of sending a large delegation to the coronation.
On Friday, Tkatchenko said he would step aside as foreign minister while any investigations take place. He repeated his apology from the day before when he had said his comments were a reaction to “horrible threats of a sexual and violent nature” by internet trolls against his daughter and not directed at Papua New Guineans.
Prime Minister James Marape on Thursday said he had been offended by the primitive animals comment, but also urged the county to accept the apology and move on.
Savannah Tkatchenko’s video showed her enjoying luxury travel, accommodation and high-end shops such as Hermes at Singapore Airport and doing her skincare routine on a flight to London.
“I’ve actually packed my whole life into these two big suitcases, I’m so proud of myself because I have so much stuff,” she said as she strolled through an airport.
“So I’m traveling with my Dad and our first stop is Singapore and we checked into the first class lounge where we had some cosmos and some yummy food,” she said.
“Then we did some shopping around Singapore Airport at Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Those of you that don’t know, Singapore Airport shopping is honestly so elite.”
Calls for the foreign minister’s resignation have come from senior politicians such as the opposition leader and organizations including the country’s Trade Union Congress.
“Justin deserves no mercy or forgiveness. He must be kicked out of this country. PM James Marape must act immediately,” said PNG Trade Union Congress Acting General Secretary Anton Sekum.
Biden visit aims to counter Chinese influence
The rancor over a senior minister’s comments comes ahead of landmark visits to Papua New Guinea later this month by Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Papua New Guinea, the most populous Pacific Island country, is increasingly a focus of China-U.S. rivalry in the region and a U.S. push to counter Beijing’s influence.
Like some other Pacific island nations, Papua New Guinea is trying to balance increased Chinese trade and investment and its traditional security relationships with countries such as Australia and the United States.
Tkatchenko earlier this month said he hopes a defense cooperation agreement with the United States will be signed during Biden’s visit. Papua New Guinea is also working on completing a broad security agreement with Australia.
China’s influence in the Pacific has burgeoned over several decades through increased trade, infrastructure investment and aid as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain allies in international institutions. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.
Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, alarming the U.S. and allies such as Australia who fear it could pave the way for a Chinese military presence in the region.
Marape’s statement about Tkatchenko said Papua New Guinea’s “national character” was being tested at a time when it would be in the spotlight because of Biden and Modi’s visits.
“We must show the world that we can forgive those who offend us,” he said.
“This will be a momentous and historic occasion, which should rally our nation together, and we should not let this issue stand in the way.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.
Story updated to note that Tkatchenko is stepping aside to allow an investigation.