Papua New Guinea PM dismisses Biden’s ‘loose’ talk on cannibalism as ‘blurry moment’

Published April 22, 2024
US President Joe Biden salutes next to members of the Kennedy family, at a campaign event at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 18. — Reuters
US President Joe Biden salutes next to members of the Kennedy family, at a campaign event at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 18. — Reuters

Papua New Guinea’s leader has dismissed Joe Biden’s unlikely suggestion that his uncle was eaten by cannibals there as “loose” talk that does not reflect the US president’s feelings for the country.

“Sometimes you have loose moments,” James Marape said in an interview after Biden’s contentious remarks, adding that the relationship was stronger than “one blurry moment”.

Biden said last week that his uncle Ambrose Finnegan was shot down over the Pacific nation during World War II, suggesting his body was never found because “there were a lot of cannibals” in the area.

“I’ve met him on four occasions, until today, and on every occasion he’s always had warm regards for Papua New Guinea,” Marape said.

“Never in those moments (has) he spoke of PNG as cannibals,” he added.

US defence records showed Finnegan’s courier flight was actually “forced to ditch in the ocean” off the island’s coast “for unknown reasons”.

Finnegan’s aircraft hit the water hard and three crew members failed to emerge, while one survived and was rescued by a passing barge, the official Defence POW/MIA Accounting agency said on its website.

A search the next day found “no trace” of the missing crew, the agency said, and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed Finnegan died when he “crashed in the Pacific”, not over land.

Biden’s cannibalism quip comes on the back of a string of recent gaffes.

Earlier this year, Biden regaled an audience with an anecdote about meeting former German chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2021 — who at that point had been dead for four years.

Days earlier he appeared to confuse long-dead French president Francois Mitterrand with current leader Emmanuel Macron.

Critics — including his Republican rival Donald Trump, himself 77 — have questioned whether the 81-year-old is sharp enough to withstand another gruelling term in office.

Biden has repeatedly asserted there are no problems with his memory or cognition.

‘The truth’

Historically, cannibalism has been documented among a small number of tribes in remote parts of Papua New Guinea.

But the nation has for decades tried to shed outdated tropes that paint it as a wild nation full of savagery.

“There are much, much […] deeper values in our relationship than one statement, one word, one punchline,” Marape said.

He urged Biden and the White House to instead focus on clearing up the unexploded ordnance that still litters Papua New Guinea today.

In a separate statement on Sunday evening, Marape said the people of Papua New Guinea “live with the fear” of being killed by bombs left over from the Second World War.

“I urge President Biden to get the White House to look into cleaning up these remains of WWII so the truth about missing servicemen like Ambrose Finnegan can be put to rest,” he said.

In a single bomb disposal expedition on the island of Bougainville in 2014, troops from Australia and the United States destroyed 16 tonnes of wartime munitions.

The US government’s own travel advisory for Papua New Guinea cites unexploded ordnance as one of the main dangers in remote areas.

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