Australian military aid to PNG will not be cut

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

Following a meeting between Australian PM John Howard and PNG PM Julius Chan in Sydney on March 9, Howard hinted that military aid to PNG may be boosted and more Australian army "advisers" sent to replace the hired guns from Sandline International/Executive Outcomes.

In Port Moresby on March 6, Annmaree O'Keefe, a top official at the Australian High Commission, announced that Australia was giving PNG $320 million in the 1997 financial year.

Of the total, $150 million is in the form of untied "budgetary support". Opponents of PNG's war on Bougainville charge that this allows funds to be diverted for military purposes, including the payment of $46 million for the services of mercenaries and the provision of sophisticated hardware for them.

Much of the rest of the aid, which is tied to specific programs, directly boosts the PNG government's repressive apparatus. By 1998, $105 million will have been funnelled to the PNG police. The Correctional Institutions Service will get $25.5 million over the next three years. O'Keefe confirmed the figures as she handed over the first of 14 new paddy wagons for the prison service.

The Australian government has also allocated over $11 million this year for the PNG Defence Force. At least 55 uniformed Australian military officers are presently in PNG training PNGDF soldiers, and at least 41 PNG troops are training in Australia.

Chan's government on March 6 hurriedly transferred US$18 million from the Bank of PNG to an account in Hong Kong. The money was the balance owed to Sandline International, the company that has contracted the mercenaries. The payment was rushed through ahead of two court actions challenging the deal's legitimacy and seeking restraining orders on payments to the mercenaries.

The Australian government has failed to take any action against at least four Australians known to be part of the mercenary force. The involvement of the former Australian Defence Force officers is in breach of the federal Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act.

In an article that appeared in the March 10 PNG National newspaper, the mercenaries' apartheid links were very apparent. One former ADF officer, who also served with the racist Rhodesian armed forces between 1972 and 1980 and later the South African Defence Force's 32 Battalion, was pivotal in putting the mercenary operation together.

He admitted that most of the mercenaries contracted to PNG were former Rhodesian soldiers and members of the South African 32 Battalion, notorious for its brutality during apartheid's war on Angola and later implicated in random political violence in South Africa.

The former officer said PNG troops would be trained in methods and tactics perfected by the Rhodesian and South African armed forces during their wars against the black majorities of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The "trainers", he admitted, would be on the front line in the war against the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

As much as US$28 million is earmarked for the purchase of up to six sophisticated helicopter gunships equipped with high-powered machine guns. It is reported that the aircraft will be equipped with infrared movement detectors and devices that can pinpoint the source of radio signals. PNG finance minister Chris Haiveta boasted, "No longer will rebels hide behind trees to avoid being shot".

In Sydney on March 9, a spokesperson for Chan said the meeting "set things moving in the right direction" but refused to elaborate. While Howard's office ruled out Australian troops being deployed on Bougainville, it did not rule out more "advisers" being sent to mainland PNG in preference to the mercenaries.

The suggestion of more Australian military assistance was condemned by Bougainville Interim Government President Francis Ona on March 10."It is the lives of thousands of Bougainvillean civilians that are at stake ... The Australian government has been accused of having its own mercenaries on Bougainville before. Will [Australia] replace the mercenaries in their current preparations and training for Bougainville?", Ona asked.

The Australian Council for Overseas Aid said that any use of mercenaries in logistical support or training for PNG special forces was "totally unacceptable". ACFOA has called for the immediate suspension of military aid to PNG.

"The Australian government's theatrical finger-waving over Port Moresby's hiring of apartheid-linked mercenaries is little more than a charade", Max Lane, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Democratic Socialist Party, told Green Left Weekly.

"Rather than withhold the funding that has allowed PNG to wage the terrible nine-year war and blockade on Bougainville, Howard has given the green light for continuing carnage that has already cost the lives of more than 10,000 people. The Australian government's motive remains allowing the giant RTZ-CRA copper mine to be reopened and other mines developed on the island for the benefit of Australian big business."