Australian ministers demand 'protection' of investments in PNG

Issue 

By Norm Dixon

Five Australian government ministers visiting Papua New Guinea have demanded, and received, strong assurances that the government there will step up "internal security" to protect the investments of Australian big businesses.

The five (wryly described by a PNG source as "the Enforcers") were led by foreign minister Gareth Evans and defence minister Robert Ray at the annual Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum in Madang.

Opening the talks, PNG Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu said Australia's economic interests in PNG were greater than ever and would increase as huge oil, natural gas, gold and other mineral discoveries are developed.

In the wake of the closure of CRA's Bougainville copper mine in 1989 and the recent attack on the Mt Kare gold mine (also controlled by CRA) by disgruntled landowners, Namaliu promised continuing steps "to maintain economic stability and confidence". Namaliu told the ministers: "I believe you can assure your investors and shareholders that their investments are sound and future prospects are bright."

Evans said Australia would remain PNG's chief partner in maintaining "security". Port Moresby has asked Australia to fund a range of military- and police-related projects. The most controversial is a planned 300-strong Highlands-based special force to guard mining and drilling projects.

Australia will directly spend $38 million on the PNG defence forces this year and at least $13 million on its police force. Total Australian aid for 1990-91 was $340 million.

Evans said the recent attack on the Mt Kare mine gave added urgency to the issue of "law and order". He told Radio Australia what the Australian government expected from PNG's leaders: "It is urgent that action both be taken and seen to be taken from the point of view of confidence of foreign investors ...

"There is a commitment on the PNG side to move quickly. They are talking about rapid reaction forces being established shortly. They are talking about an office of security coordination to better mesh together the military and police dimensions of internal security. They are talking about a joint services college for better training and coordination ...

"What needs to happen still, however, is for the whole thing to be brought together into a single plan ..."

Translated from diplomat-speak, calls for "improved internal security" to "restore foreign investors's confidence" means increased repression against ordinary people who demand greater popular control of the country's resources and a fairer distribution of wealth. This is the view of Peti Lafanama, general secretary of the progressive organisation Melsol, who recently visited Sydney.

Lafanama told Green Left that the plan for a force to protect mining projects would only lead to more problems. The crises in Bougainville and Mt Kare occurred because "the companies that go in to develop these resources don't take time to study the situation. They just want to do it quickly and get out with as much profit as possible ... the companies and the government seem unable to accommodate the interests of the people, provide benefits or protect the environment.

"The people want a say in the development of their land. It belongs to them — the rivers, the plants that grow there, the mountains — and that must be understood, something the government and companies have to address. They have to give adequate time to negotiate, accommodate the people's feelings and provide real long-term benefits. If the companies don't, then there will be more eruptions."

Lafanama said the root of the problem was the PNG government's unwillingness to put conditions on the operations of foreign companies. This allows the country's wealth to taken offshore rather than distributed fairly. The PNG government has a greater loyalty to foreign investors than it does to its own people, and that is why it is considering a special force whose role would be to wage war on them.

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