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Papua New Guinea - History & Background

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Papua New Guinea occupies 462,840 square kilometers of land and water off the coast of Southeast Asia. The island nation, roughly the size of California or Thailand, includes the eastern half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, and about six hundred smaller islands between the Coral Sea and the south Pacific Ocean. Papua New Guinea's 4.9 million people (July 2000 estimate) speak more than 715 different languages. The government recognizes English as the nation's official language, but only between 1 percent and 2 percent of the population speak it. Pidgin, a mixture of English, German, and other languages, is spoken throughout the country.

Papua New Guinea remained fairly isolated from Western influences until the nineteenth century, although infrequent contacts were documented as early as the 1500s. The Dutch annexed the western half of New Guinea between 1828 and 1848. The British and Germans divided the eastern half in 1885; Great Britain took the south and Germany took the north. Great Britain transferred control of the southeastern portion of New Guinea to Australia in 1902, which renamed it Papua. Australia seized the northern region during World War I and assumed complete control of eastern New Guinea under a League of Nations mandate. The Japanese occupied most of the colonized areas of New Guinea during World War II. However, after the war, control of the island reverted to Australia as a United Nations trusteeship. Australia maintained control until Papua New Guinea claimed its independence in 1975. Australia remains one of Papua New Guinea's primary trading partners.

Since independence, Papua New Guinea has functioned as a parliamentary democracy, with a capital in Port Moresby and 19 other administrative provinces. About 15 percent of the population live in major urban areas. The country's national currency is the Kina (K1.00 equals about US$.31 as of February 2001.)


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