On the eve of independence, many, especially among Papua New Guinea’s emerging political leaders, looked with some apprehension to the future role of the PNGDF. Well funded by the colonial government, well trained and possessing a degree of cohesion unusual in the fragmented society of the emerging state, and actively involved in village-level civic action, the military was seen by some as a potential challenge to the authority of an independent government and a threat to the continuation of a democratic political system. Not all of those who foresaw a political role for the military, however, anticipated a coup-style takeover. Hastings, for example, suggested that ‘Australian democracy’ was unlikely to take root and that ‘we might be sensible to look towards ‘guided democracy’, to a presidential system, to a strong army loyal to a strong central executive’ (1969:191-92. Also see Nelson 1972:208).
Concern about the future role of the Defence Force was reflected in the independence constitution, which rejected the idea of the military’s participation in government and defined the Defence Force’s primary function as that of defending the country against external threat, placing restrictions on its use for internal security purposes.
Contrary to pessimistic predictions, after independence Papua New Guinea’s democratic system prospered, and in the absence of external threat the military languished, notwithstanding substantial financial assistance through Australia’s Defence Co-operation Program. But within a decade of independence, growing problems of lawlessness and disorder began to threaten the position of national political leaders, and even some who had earlier looked apprehensively at the PNGDF, began to call for an expanded role of the Defence Force in assisting police to maintain internal security.
The first rift between civil and military leaders – the so-called Diro Affair of 1977 – was not long in coming; but though it generated rumours of an impending coup it proved to be inconsequential. On the other hand, the resignation of several senior officers, including the deputy commander and the commander, to pursue careers in civil politics, established an early precedent and suggested a possible safety-valve against the build-up of military antagonism towards the civilian government. There was also, from the early 1980s, clear evidence of a politicisation of at least the senior levels of the PNGDF.
With a resurgence of tribal fighting and a growing problem of criminality, more and more politicians looked to the military to support the increasingly inadequate attempts of the police to contain lawlessness and maintain the authority of the state. From 1984 the army was regularly involved in ‘law and order’ operations and there was growing acceptance that the PNGDF’s role in internal security was likely to be more significant than its function of safeguarding the country against external threat.
In this respect, the emergence of the Bougainville crisis was a watershed in changing perceptions of the PNGDF. What began as a police action against disgruntled landowners developed into a full-blown insurrection in which the PNGDF was called upon to maintain the integrity of the Papua New Guinea state. In the process, severe doubts have been cast upon the capacity of the Defence Force to act in internal security situations. A belief within the security forces that they have been deprived of adequate funding and have been subjected to ‘political’ interference predates the Bougainville crisis but has been exacerbated by events on Bougainville since 1988. The effects of such feelings have been a growing tension in relations between military personnel and civil authorities, factionalism within the PNGDF’s senior command structure, and a general lowering of morale and discipline. Notwithstanding this, by the early 1990s, with the Bougainville conflict still not resolved and growing threats to the authority of the state from urban and rural lawlessness, a series of reviews and summit meetings resulted in a significant shift in perceptions of the role of the PNGDF, placing primary emphasis on its role in maintaining internal security.
Such developments have coincided with an apparent tendency towards tighter social control in Papua New Guinea and an expressed admiration of Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian models (see May 1993:74). In 1992 this prompted a group of NGO and church organisations to warn against an ‘increasing and dangerous trend towards the militarisation of [Papua New Guinea] society’; ‘We need not have a military coup’, their statement said, ‘to militarise society’ (Post-Courier 7 August 1992).
The spectre of a military coup has been raised on several occasions. Indeed, in many respects Papua New Guinea presents the classic preconditions for military intervention (see chapter 1). Most observers, however, continue to see a coup as a remote possibility. This is not least because of the logistic difficulties which an attempted coup would pose for a relatively small army with limited transport capabilities in a physically and socially fragmented society in which even popularly elected national and provincial governments have difficulty maintaining their authority. Beyond this, even in relation to Bougainville the military’s corporate interests do not appear to have been well defined in political terms, and electoral politics has provided a well-trodden exit route for soldiers with personal political ambitions. But while the military’s subordination to civilian authority seems to be fairly well assured in the foreseeable future, the PNGDF has become politicised at senior levels and appears increasingly prone to challenge government decisions. If the integrity of the Papua New Guinea state becomes more dependent on the support of the security forces in the face of growing law and order problems, these tendencies may increase. Such a development would involve a slight shift along the ‘civilocracy’/‘militocracy’ continuum (Bebler 1990), but, at least in terms of participation and competition, within a continuing essentially democratic political framework.