The Role of the Military in Post-Independence Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea had an easy transition to independence in 1975. Indeed it has frequently been observed that the absence of a significant anti-colonial nationalist struggle in Papua New Guinea not only meant that Papua New Guinean soldiers had no heroic role to play in the winning of independence but that the new state was deprived of the unifying forces which such struggles were seen to have provided in many post-colonial societies.

The government which emerged from pre-self-government elections in 1972, under the leadership of Michael Somare, was a coalition government, and in the first post-independence elections in 1977 it was returned to power. Since then there have been three national elections and five changes of government. All changes of government have taken place through normal constitutional channels (three as the result of votes of no confidence and two through elections) and all have been smooth transitions. All governments have been rather fluid coalitions. The two-party Westminster-style politics envisioned by some in the 1970s has not materialised; but neither has a tendency to one-party or military regime. Papua New Guinea remains a robustly competitive political system. Separatist movements which emerged on the eve of independence, and resulted in unilateral declarations of independence in Papua and in the North Solomons (Bougainville) (Griffin 1976; May 1982) were dealt with by a combination of disregard and political negotiation. That in the North Solomons (where disputes had arisen over a large gold and copper mine) precipitated moves for political decentralisation. Following the establishment of provincial governments and the renegotiation of the Bougainville mining agreement this problem seemed to have been solved.

Preoccupied with the problems of policy making in the new state, and facing no serious external threat, Papua New Guineans were not greatly concerned about the role of the army, which maintained a fairly low profile. It was not until the 1980s, with a progressive breakdown in law and order nationally and the re-emergence of friction on Bougainville, that the role of the PNGDF again came under serious scrutiny.

At the time of the transfer of defence powers in 1975, the PNGDF had a posted strength of 3614, 14 per cent of whom were Australians, mostly officers and specialist NCOs. Less than 35 per cent of the 375 officer positions had been localised. By 1979 the number of loan personnel had fallen to 141 and by 1988 to 30, most of whom were with the Air transport Squadron. There were by 1979 almost 300 Papua New Guinean officers. Since independence, military assistance to Papua New Guinea has been provided through the Australian Defence Co-operation Program (DCP). In 1991 Australian Defence sources estimated that some 3000 PNGDF personnel had undertaken some form of training in Australia since 1975, and that about 90 per cent of the officer corps had trained or studied in Australia (JCFADT 1991:174 and JCFADT, Hearings, 22 October 1990, p.733). Additional assistance has been received from the US and New Zealand, and in 1992 Papua New Guinea signed status of forces agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia; Defence Secretary Peipul said, ‘We may be able to learn from Malaysia on handling domestic security and from Indonesia on civic action’.[24]

Notwithstanding the high level of Australian assistance under the DCP, as early as 1977-78 the Defence Report contained complaints about deficiencies in the size and structure of the PNGDF. The Defence Report 1980 commented that with its present budgetary allocation the PNGDF could not meaningfully achieve its primary object of defending the country from external attack. In 1983 a defence policy review recommended that the PNGDF’s force strength be reduced to 3050. The proposed cut was bitterly received in defence circles, where morale was said to be low. In 1984 a Defence manpower review revealed a wastage rate among officers of 7.7 per cent and among other ranks of 15.8 per cent (Defence Report 1984-85:44), and the Defence Report 1984-85 reported that the standard of discipline during 1985 was ‘below the required standard’ (ibid.:39). This growing frustration within the PNGDF coincided with demands for increased operations on the Irian Jaya border and the first call-out of the PNGDF to assist police in 1984. In 1988 the annual Defence Report noted that most operational units were 70 per cent below strength and that the PNGDF was having difficulty retaining specialists. That year, however, a Defence Policy Paper outlined proposals for a ten-year program to replace major equipment, reorganise force structure and enhance capabilities in several areas. (See also Defence Report 1988.) Although cabinet approval for the PNGDF’s Ten-Year Development Plan did not come until late 1991, after the government had undertaken a review of internal security, several policy changes were initiated in 1988-89, against the background of the emerging conflict between the security forces and rebels on Bougainville (see below). These included decisions to increase the strength of the Force to 5200 by 1995, and to proceed with plans (approved in 1985) for the development of a reserve force.

By 1992 force strength had risen to around 4200. But in presenting the 1993 budget, the minister for Finance announced new strategies in the law and order sector, which recognised ‘that there are limitations on the ability of the agencies concerned to control the current situation’ (1993 Budget Documents. Volume I. Economic and Development Policies, p.122). With respect to the PNGDF:

… it is recognised that the Defence Force needs to be scaled down, become more involved in civic action, more involved with the village and community, more co-ordinated with other agencies in both the law and order and other sectors, and better disciplined’ (ibid.).

The ‘move into Civic Action’ was to be accompanied by a reduction in force strength, through attrition, from 4200 to 2500-3000, ‘most of whom will perform CAP activities at the village level’; a core group of 1000 to 1500 ‘will receive specialised combat training to prepare them to effectively counter any major internal threat’ (ibid.).

Towards the end of 1993 the PNGDF faced a financial crisis. For several years defence spending had been substantially in excess of budget allocation (in 1991 defence spending was overbudgetted by an extraordinary 81 per cent). By 1993, outstanding accounts with local suppliers and unpaid special allowances to defence force personnel amounted to several million kina, and in September it was announced that naval and air craft could not be used because of a lack of funding. In Port Moresby soldiers returning from Bougainville attacked the pay office when they failed to receive due pay and allowances. The government responded by increasing the Defence budget.

As of 1994, it remains to be seen how the conflicting pressures, on the one hand for an enlarged, better-equipped fighting force and on the other for a reduced civic-action oriented force, will be resolved.

In the period leading up to independence the possibility of ethnic fragmentation was a major concern both of the Australian administration and of the rising nationalist politicians. The emergence of a number of subnationalist or ‘micronationalist’ movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s exacerbated these fears (see May 1982). Recognising this (and bearing in mind that ethnic tensions had been a reason for the disbanding of the PIR in 1946), as early as 1951 the army’s recruiting policy was carefully designed to achieve a regional balance. Initially the PIR sought to recruit equal numbers from Papua, the New Guinea islands, and the New Guinea mainland; but with the highlands closed to labour recruitment and difficulties of reaching more remote areas, in fact recruitment was biased towards the groups closest to Port Moresby, Lae and Rabaul. In 1967 an Australian officer serving with PIR, noted that ‘Mutual suspicion remained high and clashes between tribal factions could, and did, flare up at any time’ (Bell 1967:50).

The expansion of the PIR in 1963-65 gave the army the opportunity to achieve a better regional balance, although the fact that the army now sought higher education levels, for technical and officer training, meant that some coastal groups were still overrepresented. Thus, five of the first six officers commissioned were from the Rigo district of Central Province, and NCO ranks were said to be dominated by ‘Bukas’ from the North Solomons.

Initial fears of an ethnically divided army seem to have fairly quickly dissipated. In fact, Bell observed in 1967 that with the new generation of 1960s recruits came a breakdown of ‘tribal loyalty’ and a rise in Papua New Guinea nationalism, even though some ‘inter-tribal prejudices’ remained (Bell 1967:56). The achievement of integration in the PIR – the creation of what Olewale (1972:223) described as ‘a sort of super-tribe’ – did not go unnoticed among those apprehensive about the future role of the military, who saw the unity of the army in an emerging state characterised by fissiparous tendencies as a potential threat to democratic rule (for example, see Hastings 1971).

An official policy of recruiting ‘from each region to maintain a reasonable balance within the Force vis-à-vis the population distribution throughout PNG’ (Defence Report 1977-78:32) has been maintained since the 1960s. However the analysis of figures of force strength by rank and province (see May 1993:28) suggests that regional representation is by no means balanced. In particular, it shows a marked ‘underrepresentation’ of the populous highlands provinces, particularly at senior officer level, and a significant ‘overrepresentation’ of coastal Papuans and New Guinean islanders at senior levels.

In the latter part of the 1980s there was a hint of regionalism in rumours of collaboration between some Papuan colonels and PNGDF-commander-turned-politician Ted Diro, and regional sentiment was certainly evident in reaction outside the Force to the sacking of Nuia and three other Papuan colonels (see below); however this does not appear to have reflected any basic ethnic division with the Force.

In the early discussion of the role to be played by a defence force in independent Papua New Guinea, primary emphasis was placed on its function of defence against external threat. There was ambivalence about its possible use in maintaining internal security. As early as 1971, in the wake of increasing lawlessness in the highlands, highlands politicians called for the use of the PIR ‘for security purposes’ and supported proposals for the secondment of PIR officers to train police, particularly police riot squads. There was initial opposition to this but in 1973 four Australian Army officers were seconded to assist in training and administration; three of them were posted to riot squads.

As the general law and order situation in the country deteriorated, and particularly after the declaration of a state of emergency in the five highlands provinces in 1979, opposition to the use of the army for internal security purposes diminished. From 1977 there were calls for the deployment of the PNGDF to assist police in dealing with tribal fighting and criminal activity in the highlands. The first actual call-out in aid of the civilian authority, however, did not occur until 1984.

Table 10.1. Force Strength, 31 December 1989, by Rank and Province

Rank Brig.Gen. Col. Lt.Col. Major Capt. Lt(1,2) WO, Sgt OR OCdt Total % Percent of national population 1990c
Southern Regiona 1 6 5 37 38 41 171 636 2 937 29.6 15.5
Central 1 2 3 18 13 15b 35 173 260 8.2 3.8
Gulf 1 4 4 3 35 155 202 6.4 1.8
Western 4 3 4 10 97 118 3.7 3.0
Milne Bay 2 1 6 12 15 50 104 1 191 6.0 4.3
Oro 1 1 5 6 4 41 107 1 166 5.3 2.6
New Guinea Islands Region 1 3 12 21 33 32 111 463 5 681 21.5 16.1
East New Britain 2 1 7 3 6 38 150 207 6.5 5.0
West New Britain 2 4 4 19 69 1 99 3.1 3.5
New Ireland 1 1 6 6 8 13 17 90 1 143 4.5 2.4
North Solomons 2 2 14 4 6 51 3** 82 2.6 4.3
Manus 3 4 4 5 31 103 150 4.7 0.0
Highlands Region 2 11 17 30 86 459 8 613 19.4 35.6
Eastern Highlands 2 4 7 15 108 2 138 4.4 8.1
Simbu 1 4 7 24 113 3 152 4.8 5.0
Western Highlands 1 5 3 5 22 80 2 118 3.7 7.9
Enga 1 1 21 46 75 2.4 6.5
Southern Highlands 3 10 4 112 1 130 4.1 8.2
Momase Region 1 4 27 30 46 157 637 12 914 28.9 27.6
Morobe 3 7 12 59 184 3 272 8.6 9.9
Madang 2 9 27 138 2 185 5.9 5.9
East Sepik 1 1 13 17 21 54 220 6 333 10.5 6.7
West Sepik 5 2 4 17 95 1 124 3.9 3.7
National Capital District 1 2 2 1 10 16 0.5 5.2
TOTAL 2 10 23 97 120 151 526 2205 27 3161 100.0 100.0
  1. Southern Highlands Province, included for most purposes in the Southern (Papuan) Region, is included here in the Highlands Region, with which it has greater cultural and developmental affinity.

  2. These figures – both shown as 0 in the original data – have been interpolated from cross additions, since the table from which the figures were derived contained errors.

  3. The national census could not be conducted in the North Solomons Province ‘due to prevailing political situation’; an estimated figure of 160 000 has been used and the total calculated using this figure.

In 1984 the government announced a list of measures to deal with law and order problems, including call-out of PNGDF personnel to assist police. Diro, by then a member of parliament, supported the use of troops. At the end of that year the PNGDF was called out to assist police following the declaration of a state of emergency occasioned by rising urban crime and violence in Port Moresby. ‘Operation Green Beret’, as the exercise was called, lasted for about four months and was generally regarded as a success, though the urban crime rate quickly rose again when the state of emergency ended, and two months later the troops were called out again in the National Capital District, in an operation which lasted five months.

On several occasions in the early 1980s there were demands from national politicians to use the PNGDF to quell tribal fighting, particularly in Enga Province. In a Post-Courier article in 1985 former PNGDF officer Ian Glanville opposed such suggestions, arguing

To have a disciplined, armed and trained Papua New Guinean in uniform, shooting other Papua New Guineans in a situation other than where ‘the national security or the preservation of public order exists’ [sic] will forfeit any claim we might have to being a Christian, democratic, and enlightened country, and destroy forever our fragile national unity (Post-Courier 10 December 1985).

However, in 1987 the PNGDF was called out to assist police in law and order operations in Morobe, Madang and Eastern Highlands provinces, and the following year was mobilised to assist in ‘Operation LOMET 88’ in the highlands provinces, Morobe and Madang, and later East Sepik. LOMET 88 lasted for over three months and it attracted a great deal of publicity (see below); but the PNGDF’s role in it, though conspicuous, was limited – of 519 security forces personnel involved (including 308 from the Police Mobile Squad) only 33 were from the PNGDF (Draft Hansard 10 November 1988, p.28). Late in 1988 there was a further request, from the Morobe provincial law and order committee for PNGDF assistance to counter serious crime in Lae and Garaina (Post-Courier 20 December 1988). But by this time the Force was on standby awaiting a government decision on whether it was to be called out to assist the police on Bougainville. (The subsequent role of the PNGDF in the Bougainville crisis is discussed in more detail below.) PNGDF personnel were used again 1991 to provide additional security during the South Pacific Games in Port Moresby and to assist police in ‘crime busting operations’ in Morobe Province.

In 1992 it was something of a measure of the extent to which the army had come to be accepted as having a ‘law and order’ role that in outlining arrange-ments for the conduct of the national election is was said to be ‘necessary to call upon the services of the Defence Force … to assist the Electoral Commissioner before, during and after the election’ (Post-Courier 24 March 1992). On the eve of the elections some 1300 police and 50 soldiers paraded through Mount Hagen in a display of force.

Despite the general acceptance of the PNGDF’s role in internal security situations, however, the acceptance was slow to be recognised in official statements. In 1984, shortly before the first call-out of the PNGDF to aid the civil authority, the NEC’s list of priority functions put internal security last. The Defence Report 1984-85 (p.54), however, stated that ‘national security and development was foremost in our activities’. In 1987, in a statement delivered on resigning from cabinet (see below), Diro said

Clearly a military option for the defence of Papua New Guinea is out. The Defence Force must now be tailored to give priority to training in low intensity type of operations, civil aid tasks, internal security problems, rapid deployment to assist police or in instances of hijacking and of course surveillance of both land and sea boundaries (Times of PNG 19-25 November 1987).

The following year Defence Secretary Mokis told an Australian seminar that his department’s view was that ‘there is a far greater prospect of PNG being troubled seriously by internal rather than external security problems’; he saw the main challenges coming not from tribal fighting or separatism but from increasing criminal activities:

… concentrations of unemployed people, many of whom are young and smarting from unfulfilled expectations, have provided a fertile breeding ground for criminal activities. These trends have coincided with a general decline in the efficiency of PNG administration and, perhaps most notably in this context, a significant weakening of the system of justice; the police, the courts and the gaols. Other potential sources of internal security, such as tribal fighting and separatism, have caused difficulties in the past but at present seem of far less concern (Mokis 1988:2).

Yet in 1989, having noted the PNGDF’s responsibility for defending the nation from ‘external threats and internal uprisings’, the Defence minister went on to say that ‘internal uprising and internal security [was] the responsibility of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary’ (Defence Report 1989).

In 1990, facing an escalating law and order problem across the country, and with a crisis in Bougainville still unresolved, the Namaliu government set up a Security Review Task Force and, shortly after, convened a National Summit on Crime. As an outcome of these initiatives it released a report (PNG 1991) in which it was observed that ‘perceived political instability…is sometimes thought to have given rise to public questioning of the durability of particular leaders, policies and even laws’, and that the disciplined services had not been able to cope with ‘sources of law-breaking and disorder’ (ibid.:11, 17, unnumbered). It also referred to ‘the growing frequency with which call-outs of the PNGDF in aid to the civil power and states of emergency have been declared’ (ibid.:24). Among a number of recommendations the report proposed the establishment of a Joint Services Command Centre and the progressive integration of the disciplined forces (‘subject to review and even possible reversal’) (ibid.:23-30). It also suggested that ‘the most serious, foreseeable threats facing Papua New Guinea are internal’ and that the priorities of the PNGDF ‘should be reviewed and, as may be appropriate, re-ordered’ (ibid.:36). The demand for a change of focus was supported by Defence Minister Benais Sabumei, who in 1991 told a PNGDF passing out parade that ‘The real future of our Defence Force is to assist the civil authorities deal effectively with these threats’ (Post-Courier 2 July 1991).

Coincidentally with the Papua New Guinea government’s security review, the Australian government undertook a review of its security assistance programs for Papua New Guinea, and in September 1991 the two governments released a statement which announced that Papua New Guinea was to give highest priority to internal security needs, and that Australian assistance would be geared to supporting Papua New Guinea’s disciplined forces in maintaining internal security, including law and order. This was to be done by way of training and the provision and funding of infrastructure, equipment and other support facilities. But it is notable that, following well-publicised reports of abuses by Papua New Guinea’s security forces on Bougainville, an Australian government document described Australia’s military training efforts as having several components ‘designed to strengthen soldiers’ awareness of humanitarian law to provide guidance concerning proper treatment of civilians during security operations’. Operational training, it said, was ‘based on Australian Defence Force doctrine, which in turn draws on the Geneva Convention’ (Evans 1992:34-35).

Thus within sixteen years of independence the priorities of the PNGDF had been effectively reversed and the possibility of an integrated paramilitary force revived, though to date there has been no move to implement the latter proposal, which remains unpopular among both RPNGC and PNGDF personnel.

[24] Peipul, at a seminar at Australian National University, 19 June 1992.