Papua New Guinea leader takes offence after Biden implies his uncle was eaten by cannibals

April 22, 2024
Papua New Guinean Prime Minister James Marape, left, listens during a meeting with Pacific Islands Forum leaders during the US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in the East Room of the White House, Monday, September 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape accused Joe Biden of disparaging the South Pacific island nation by implying that an uncle of the US president had been eaten by “cannibals” there during World War II.

Biden’s comments offended a key strategic ally as China moves to increase its influence in the region.

The president spoke at a Pennsylvania war memorial last week about his Army Air Corps aviator uncle Second Lt. Ambrose J. Finnegan Jr., whom he said was shot down over Papua New Guinea, which was a theatre of heavy fighting.

“They never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals for real in that part of New Guinea,” Biden said, referring to the country’s main island.

Marape said in a statement on Sunday that Biden “appeared to imply his uncle was eaten by cannibals.”

“President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labelled as such,” Marape said in a statement provided by his office to The Associated Press on Monday.

“World War II was not the doing of my people; however, they were needlessly dragged into a conflict that was not their doing,” Marape added.

The rift comes as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese began a visit on Monday to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbour. Albanese and Marape will commemorate strong defence ties between the two countries by walking part of a pivotal battle ground known as the Kokoda Track later this week.

“I’m very confident that PNG has no stronger partner than Australia and our defence and security ties have never been stronger,” Albanese told reporters before departing Australia.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday Biden was speaking to the bravery of his uncle and the many US service members that put their lives on the line.

“He takes this very seriously. His uncle, who served and protected this country, lost his life serving. And that should matter,” she said.

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