The Colonial Heritage

The Papua New Guinea Defence Force has its origins in the formation, during World War II, of four infantry battalions in the then separate territories of Papua and New Guinea. The four battalions were brought together as the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR), though all officers and most NCOs were Australian. The PIR fought with distinction alongside Allied troops in Papua New Guinea. It was disbanded in 1946 but was re-formed five years later.

Until well into the 1960s the PIR was essentially a component of the Australian army, and was there primarily to serve Australian defence interests. A former PIR commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Maurie Pears, later wrote, ‘We saw PIR as Australia’s Ghurka Unit’ (Sinclair 1992:153). [22]

During the early 1960s, Indonesia’s campaign against the Dutch in what was then Dutch New Guinea (now the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya) and its confrontation with Malaysia sparked fears of possible Indonesian expansionism towards Papua New Guinea, and prompted a surge of activity on Australia’s part to expand the military in Papua New Guinea and to strengthen security infrastructure along the Indonesian-Papua New Guinea border. Within the space of a few years the PIR was increased from about 700 ‘native soldiers’ with Australian officers to a force of over 3000. Indigenisation of the officer corps began, the first two officers (Ted Diro and Patterson Lowa) graduating from the Australian Officer Cadet School in Portsea in 1963. A Military Cadet School (to prepare recruits for further training at Portsea) was established in Lae. A water transport base was established in Port Moresby and the wartime naval base on Manus was resuscitated. An Army Aviation Corps was created and several Royal Australian Air Force transport aircraft were posted to Papua New Guinea.

By the mid 1960s, coincident with the perceived threat from Indonesia diminishing, the military build-up levelled off, though Papua New Guinea continued to occupy a significant place in Australian strategic planning. More significant for Papua New Guinea, however, along with the increased expenditure on the military came more serious consideration of the possible future role of a Papua New Guinea defence force. In 1966 the force’s incoming commanding officer said:

The Army’s role in PNG falls basically into two parts – to build an Army capable of playing a major role in the defence of the Territory against external aggression, and to provide for the future a loyal and well-disciplined indigenous force capable of supporting the Government of an independent PNG (quoted in Sinclair 1992:222-23).

In the House of Assembly, at forums at the recently-established University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), and elsewhere, however, a number of Papua New Guineans expressed apprehension about the growth of a well-provisioned military. In a paper published in 1967, for example, a pseudonymous Papua New Guinean school teacher questioned the Australian government’s expenditure on the army, suggesting ‘that the army is probably the biggest single threat to the peace, security and development of our country’ (Heatu 1967:33; similarly see Warubu 1968; Olewale 1972).

The issue of the military’s relations with civil authorities was officially addressed in 1969 by the Australian minister for the Army, Peter Lynch. Lynch described the ‘current basic roles’ of the army as being to build an efficient force capable of playing a vital part in the defence of Papua New Guinea and to provide a well-disciplined, stable and reliable indigenous force completely loyal to the government (Lynch 1969:22). He went on to say:

Emphasis is placed on loyalty to legally constituted authority. This is implicit in the Australian Government’s aim of developing in the Territory a sound political structure in which the Public Service, the [Police] Constabulary and the Army have all been thoroughly trained in the concept of subordination to a legally constituted democratic government (ibid.:23).

To this end the army was involved in a ‘heavy education effort’, including group discussions of ‘civics and christian ethics’ (ibid. Also see O’Neill 1971:16-17).

Also, although civic action work had been carried out since 1951, from 1967 all major patrols and operational exercises by the PIR included civic action projects designed to ‘create constructive attitudes in the minds of soldiers towards the people, and help identify the people with their Army’ (Lynch 1969:23. Also see Hussey 1968).

Ironically, the success of the civic action program fuelled concerns about the future role of the military in Papua New Guinea. Vincent (Serei) Eri (who later served as defence secretary before becoming governor-general) suggested in 1969 that the army was ‘replacing the Administration in the minds of the people’ and ‘preparing the ground for some future action’, and he warned, ‘it is a very dangerous situation that we are getting into’ (quoted in Sinclair 1992:136). Such concerns appear to have been quite widely shared among educated Papua New Guineans, but were countered by army commander Brigadier Hunter, who said,

It is better to have the army out with people, learning to understand them, than to be sitting in their barracks getting big heads. What Papua-New Guinea needs is a people’s army, though not in the Maoist form (Canberra Times 23 January 1969).

Not specifically mentioned in Lynch’s 1969 statement was the army’s possible future role in internal security. This issue was not long in surfacing. Following a disturbance in East New Britain in mid 1970 the Australian government placed the army in readiness to assist the administration should the situation escalate, and troops were given a hastily-arranged course in riot control. In the event the situation was resolved without the army being called in, and there was a general feeling that the administration had acted prematurely. But the events of 1970 clearly signalled a recognition of the broader role the army might be called upon to play in an independent Papua New Guinea, and, along with growing unrest on Bougainville, stimulated further debate.

Australian defence expert Robert O’Neill (1971) suggested that internal law and order was likely to become the army’s major preoccupation. Australian journalist Peter Hastings endorsed this view, referring to the ‘inescapable similarity between Africa and Papua New Guinea’, and suggesting that after independence ‘the Army will inevitably be involved in the political direction of the country’ (Hastings 1971:32). The future role of the army was also the subject of a local radio program,[23] which brought together defence force personnel, politicians, and civilian commentators. Papua New Guinea’s newly-elected chief minister, Michael Somare, expressed the view that ‘we do probably need a defence force’ – for patrolling borders and territorial waters, and ‘to react in the first instance to any armed aggression’ – but he suggested that it should be of a smaller size and that it should only be involved in internal security operations in ‘a real national emergency’. As against this, senior Papua New Guinean officer, Major Ted Diro, saw the army as having a role to play in internal security matters, and UPNG lecturer Ulf Sundhaussen argued that given the very low level of national consciousness and ‘already surfacing tendencies for separatism’ the maintenance of internal security would be a task for the army in Papua New Guinea, as it was in Asia and Africa, and that the army should have ‘some sort of political say’. Sundhaussen (who had studied the military’s role in Indonesia) advocated the development of working relationships between officers and politicians and the integration of the military into the political and social structure. At this time there was some debate over Sundhaussen’s suggestion that the military be represented in cabinet (see, for example, Sundhaussen 1973a, 1973b; Mench 1975: chapter 5, and Premdas’s 1974 critique of Sundhaussen), and there were proposals, supported by Australian External Territories Minister Morrison, to combine the army and police in a paramilitary force (Morrison advocated a Malaysian-style field force). But when in 1974 the Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) presented its report, its recommendations followed the approach outlined earlier by Somare.

The CPC began by emphasising its belief in the general principle, ‘that the disciplined forces should at all times be subject to the control of the elected government’ (CPC 1974:13/1). It went on to express the view that the Defence Force should be ‘firmly oriented towards external defence’ (ibid.:13/3):

… we have very serious reservations about the possibility of a future Papua New Guinea Government using the army against its own people in any but the most extreme cases of civil disorder, and then subject also to specific conditions (ibid.).

Its reservations on this issue were reinforced by concerns about what it saw as the provision of installations and equipment ‘at a standard that has little relevance to the circumstances of Papua New Guinea’ and about ‘the elitist nature of the Defence Force’ (ibid.). It consequently recommended an expansion of the police force and the appointment of a commission of inquiry to recommend on the relative size of, and allocation of resources between, the police and the military.

With minor modifications, the CPC’s recommendations on the disciplined forces were accepted by parliament and were written into the constitution of the independent state (see May 1993:10-13). The supremacy of the civilian authority is laid down in Section 201, which states that the force is subject to the ‘superintendence and control’ of the National Executive Council (NEC) through the minister responsible for the defence force (who may not be a serving member of the force). Contrary to the CPC’s recommendation, the constitution specifically excluded the office of commander-in-chief. The question of the relative size of the police and the army was not taken up, the level of military expenditure being effectively underwritten by an Australian military assistance program.

In 1973 the former PIR was redesignated Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and shortly before independence the formal transfer of defence powers took place. Brigadier-General Diro became the PNGDF’s first Papua New Guinean commander.

[22] For a detailed history of the PIR, and its involvement in World War II, see Barrett (1969), Mench (1975), and Sinclair (1990, 1992).

[23] ‘The Sword and the State’. Two-part program by Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2, 9 November 1972.