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Papua New Guinea’s Leader Calls Joe Biden’s ‘Cannibals’ Claim an Unfair ‘Punchline’

4 minute read

President Joe Biden is known for putting his foot in his mouth, but his latest gaffe has left a sour taste 9,000 miles away. During a visit last week to a war memorial in Pennsylvania, the President recounted the story of his aviator uncle, Ambrose Finnegan, who died during World War II in a plane crash, when Biden was one year old.

“He got shot down in New Guinea, and they never found the body because there used to be a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea,” Biden said, adding that U.S. authorities managed to recover parts of the plane.

The details of Biden’s retelling weren’t exactly right—U.S. defense records show that Finnegan and two others went missing after their plane “for unknown reasons” was “forced to ditch in the ocean” and that “no trace” of the aircraft was found, while the White House confirmed that the crash occurred over the Pacific “near” New Guinea but not in it—but Biden’s seemingly offhand suggestion that his uncle was eaten has sparked the sharpest blowback, particularly from Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape.

“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 in a statement on Sunday.

Cannibalism is known to be practiced by rare remote tribes in Papua New Guinea and the surrounding region, but stereotypes about it applied to the Pacific nation have been a sore spot for years, and Biden isn’t the only Western leader to reference it. Former British Prime Minister (then an MP) Boris Johnson made a similar faux pas in 2006, sparking a diplomatic row after he described local political parties’ infighting as “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.”

Marape, in his response to Biden’s blunder, is using the opportunity to call for more attention to how Papua New Guinea and its neighbors continue to bear the brunt of lingering effects of World War II, pointing specifically to explosives that were planted during the war and that are still causing casualties today as well as military wreckage still strewn across the country.

“Our people daily live with the fear of being killed by detonated bombs of WWII,” Marape said, adding that Papua New Guineans were “needlessly dragged into a conflict that was not their doing.”

“The remains of WWII lie scattered all over PNG, including the plane that carried President Biden’s uncle,” 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.”

All this comes as the U.S. and its allies compete with China for influence in the region: the Solomon Islands signed a security accord with Beijing in 2022, and last year, the U.S. similarly signed a defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has recently welcomed a flurry of visits from foreign leaders, including Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. During his visit, Wang referenced the geopolitical maneuvers in the region, saying that Pacific nations are not “the backyard of any major country,” even as the trip saw China and Papua New Guinea sign several agreements related to trade, humanitarian assistance, and technological cooperation.

But despite his firm retort, Marape insists that Biden’s cannibal comment hasn’t tainted broader bilateral relations with the U.S. In the four occasions that the two leaders have met, Marape recalled in an interview on Monday with Australian broadcaster SBS, Biden has “always had warm regards for Papua New Guinea.”

“Sometimes you have loose moments,” Marape said, adding that there were “deeper values in our relationship than one statement, one word, one punchline.”

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