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Biden’s controversial ‘cannibalism’ remarks meet pushback in Papua New Guinea

US President Joe Biden’s apparent suggestion his uncle may have been eaten by cannibals during World War II has sparked uproar in Papua New Guinea, casting a shadow on US relations with the Pacific nation and meeting a firm response from its leader.

In contentious remarks made last week following a visit to a war memorial, Biden twice hinted that the US was unable to recover his uncle Ambrose Finnegan’s remains after his plane crashed near the island of New Guinea during the war “because there used to be a lot of cannibals” in the region.

In a statement from his office Monday, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape conceded that Biden may have misspoken, but he pushed back against the characterization of cannibalism in the Pacific Island nation, which encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea and more than 600 nearby islands.

“President Biden’s remarks may have been a slip of the tongue; however, my country does not deserve to be labeled as such,” Marape said.

While cannibalism was documented among remote tribes in the region in the mid-20th century, Papua New Guinea has struggled to shed stereotypes in more recent decades, and Biden’s comments were met with criticism inside the country.

“PNG shouldn’t be seen as cannibals because of our past history. We are part of the modern civilization,” said one comment on social platform X.

“What utter rubbish is he on about?” asked another X user in PNG’s capital Port Moresby.

In a Facebook post, PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko warned that Biden’s “uninformed remarks” could undermine relations between the countries, which had deepened in recent years as Washington vies for influence with Beijing in the strategically important Pacific.

“These apparent untrue remarks by the sitting President is a low point in our bilateral relations,” Tkatchenko said.

Missing soldiers

Tens of thousands of soldiers, including about 7,000 Americans, were killed on New Guinea during heavy fighting between the imperial Japanese army and Allied forces in World War II, according to the Australian War Memorial. Many remains have never been recovered.

In his statement Monday, Marape called on the United States to help find the remains of those killed during the conflict.

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

“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.”

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in PNG addressed Biden’s comments, saying the United States “respects the people and culture of Papua New Guinea and remains committed to furthering respectful relations between our democracies.”

“President Biden highlighted his uncle’s story as he made the case for honoring our sacred commitment to equip those we send to war,” the embassy said in a statement.

“U.S. Embassy Port Moresby and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency are dedicated to locating and recovering WWII remains in Papua New Guinea.”

What Biden said

Biden made the controversial remarks on April 17 following his visit to a war memorial in Pennsylvania.

“He got shot down in an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time. They never recovered his body,” he said of his uncle.

Biden blamed cannibalism more directly in a speech later that day, claiming Finnegan “got shot down in New Guinea, and they never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea.”

The president’s account of his uncle’s death differs from that published by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting agency, which says Finnegan’s plane, an A-20 Havoc headed to New Guinea on a courier flight, was “forced to ditch in the ocean” off the coast of the island “for unknown reasons.”

Biden’s comments came nearly a year after he canceled what would have been the first trip to PNG by a sitting US president, due to debt ceiling negotiations at home.

When asked about the remarks, the White House did not repeat Biden’s assertions about cannibals or his uncle’s plane being shot down.

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