10. Government and the Military in Papua New Guinea

R. J. May


Contrary to pessimistic prediction, after independence Papua New Guinea’s democratic system prospered, and in the absence of external threat the military languished. But within a decade of independence, growing problems of lawlessness and disorder began to threaten the position of national political leaders who started to call for an expanded role of the Defence Force in assisting police to maintain internal security.

The author details the colonial heritage, which led to the formation of the military and their role in post-independence Papua New Guinea. He also examines the military-civil relations in the independent state, claiming that the military’s subordination to civilian authority is fairly well assured in the foreseeable future.

On the eve of Papua New Guinea‘s independence, achieved in 1975, there was much speculation about the future prospects for democracy in this Pacific island state. As an Australian-administered territory, Papua New Guinea had been brought towards independence within a solid Westminster tradition. National elections had been conducted since 1964 (though the early parliaments tended to be dominated by members appointed by the colonial administration); a Papua New Guinean chief minister had led the government since 1972; tentative at-tempts had been made to foster the growth of political parties; and the traditions of an independent judiciary and a professional public service had been established. In the deliberations which culminated in the presentation of a ‘home-grown’ draft constitution in 1974, however, a range of institutional options was considered, the Constitutional Planning Committee drawing on a number of constitutional documents, especially those of the post-colonial states in East and West Africa.

In the light of then-recent experiences among the new states of Africa and Asia, and considering the comparatively shallow roots of national political sentiment in Papua New Guinea, particular concerns were expressed about the possibility that, in a post-independence Papua New Guinea state, democracy would yield to either a one-party state or a military takeover.

To counter any tendency towards military intervention, some commentators suggested that specific provisions be made to give the military institutional representation in government (see below). In the event, this suggestion was not taken up, and the military maintained a fairly low profile in post-independence society. But in 1987 political developments in Papua New Guinea and military coups in Fiji prompted some observers to again raise questions about the possibility of military intervention in Papua New Guinea. While a military coup seems to remain a very remote possibility, internal security problems in Papua New Guinea over recent years have brought about significant changes in the role of the military and in its relations with government.