PNG targets 'internal' enemies with paramilitary force

July 24, 1996

By Norm Dixon

The PNG government has endorsed a defence policy paper — written with the assistance of ANU Professor Paul Dibb, author of the 1987 defence white paper for the Australian government — which argues that the main threat to PNG's security is "internal". It proposes that a joint police-army paramilitary force be formed to protect foreign-owned mineral, petroleum and forestry projects.

The plan, if implemented, will mean that PNG's notoriously undisciplined police force undertakes joint operations — perhaps even merges — with the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), whose brutality and disregard for human rights on Bougainville have been condemned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

On June 28, under heavy security, a gathering of serving and retired senior Australian military officers, senior public servants, diplomats from the Asian region and representatives of Australian big business gathered in Sydney for a seminar entitled "PNG: Security and Defence in the Nineties and Beyond 2000", sponsored by the establishment Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Australia/PNG Friendship Association.

This who's-who of ruling class policy makers on PNG heard speeches by the PNGDF commander, Brigadier General Jerry Singirok, PNG defence minister Mathias Ijape and Gabriel Dusava, PNG secretary for foreign affairs and trade. The proposed restructuring of the PNG armed forces and police for the benefit of overseas investors was the dominant topic of the speeches, overshadowing even the Bougainville crisis.

The speakers emphasised over and over again that PNG's security focus must shift from one of defence against outside aggressors to the enemy within. Dusava identified the source of these internal threats: "Limited economic opportunity and often unstable markets; inadequate access to good health and medical services; and a terrible shortage both of educational opportunity and educated personnel ... More than minimal economic opportunities, medical and health services, or educational facilities have simply never existed as far as most Papua New Guineans are concerned ... As governments have tried to tackle our problems, so population has grown, [and] aspirations continue to rise."

Urban unemployment is increasing; the economy is not growing fast enough to employ more than a fraction of the 50,000 young people entering the labour market each year, defence minister Ijape pointed out. Over half the population is under 26 years old, and the population growth rate is 2.3% a year. Another speaker said that unemployment in Port Moresby was 34% in 1990, and up to 40% in regional capitals. Real wages fell 2.5% per year between 1980 and 1990.

Foreign companies

However, PNG government speakers did not address the question of how to share more fairly the enormous wealth being generated from huge mineral and petroleum developments, which are dominated by foreign investors — many Australian. Instead, the key question addressed was how to defend these operations from increasingly disgruntled land-holders, workers and the unemployed.

PNG has become a mecca for big — especially Australian-owned — mining, oil and logging companies. In the past, these companies have been able to convince traditional land-holders to let them cut timber, mine for minerals or drill for oil, and in return the local community would promised new roads, hospitals and other benefits.

But these benefits have rarely been delivered. Instead, the fabric of society has often been ripped apart, while valuable resources and vast profits are taken out of the country, leaving massive environmental damage. Little social or economic infrastructure is provided beyond that immediately required by big business.

In frustration, PNG people have launched struggles for compensation, improved services or simply to close down developments that are detrimental to their livelihoods. This is what sparked the rebellion on Bougainville as well as the long-running struggle of the Ok Tedi and Fly River peoples for compensation.

Australian support

Dusava appealed for Australia to support the increasing militarisation of PNG: "PNG and Australia are drawing closer; one has only to look at the development of Cairns, and the flight schedules from there to various projects in PNG, to see how close we already are. The benefits that Australia receives from development of our mineral resources are evident even to the most casual observer." The value of Australian investments in PNG is estimated at between $1.8 and $2.3 billion. There are projects on the drawing board worth another $4.6 billion.

Commander Singirok typically did not beat about the bush. He explained that PNG's new security outlook was inspired by Ketahanan Nasional, a concept formulated by retired Indonesian general and prominent military strategist Hasnan Habib.

"In this viewpoint, national security covers not only the military aspect vis-a-vis external threats and aggression, but also threats to sovereignty and stability from within. Increasingly our political and strategic thinking has been moving towards the consideration of threats to our national security as emanating not only from without but increasingly from within the domestic boundaries of PNG", Singirok said.

From this flows the need for the PNGDF to provide assistance and cooperate with the police "through joint efforts in the maintenance of law and order and the conduct of internal security operations against insurgent groups", Singirok said. The new defence policy also demands that a "paramilitary battalion be established to perform internal security functions". PNG's security forces must be "small, mobile, well-trained and disciplined to cater for the security challenges of the future", he added.

Ongoing aid

Singirok called on the Australian government to continue to provide enough military aid to allow this new focus to be implemented. Such a call is likely to be heeded, since the Australian government has for many years been insisting that PNG direct more resources towards "internal security" and "law and order".

Australia provides $20 million in direct military aid to the PNGDF. By 1998, through AusAid's largest single aid project, it will have funnelled more than $105 million to the PNG police. The effectiveness of this police aid can be gauged by a comment made during a speech at the seminar by an AusAid police consultant, Bernice Masterson: "Regrettably, not only do people not have confidence in the police; in some cases they fear them and are disinclined to seek assistance".

This is not surprising, especially in view of revelations by ABC reporters Matthew Brown and Steve McDonell in 1992. They found Australian advisers were training paramilitary police squads in jungle warfare. These police squads — dubbed Blackshirts — used excessive force and burned villages in the highlands. These actions were condoned by the advisers and at times occurred while the advisers were present.

One adviser, Captain "Tex" Howarth from the Australian Army, taught the police how to attack a village by helicopter as well as the use of M-60 heavy machine-guns. A secret AIDAB (as AusAid was then known) report leaked to the journalists confirmed that an important component of the police training project was "training for operations on Bougainville" and "training for raids on remote villages".

Ijape told the seminar that when the present PNG government came to power in 1994, it began a "major restructuring of the economy" under instructions from the World Bank. He implied that increased internal security was necessary to ensure that the widespread demonstrations that accompanied the austerity measures did not derail them.

The key planks of the structural adjustment program, which was backed by the Australian Labor government, were for collective land ownership to be undermined, a real cut in government spending of at least 12% in 1996, real wage cuts for public servants, abolition of 4500 public service jobs and privatising "non-essential" state assets. The plans, especially the attack on communal land ownership, provoked massive, militant demonstrations throughout PNG, which forced the government to delay the program.

Ijape spoke bluntly of meeting growing dissatisfaction with force: "Like so many other developing countries, PNG faces the prospects of political and social discontentment resulting from the perceived failure by the state to fulfil political, social and economic aspirations of the people. Such discontentment could be potential flashpoints for internal instability. The Bougainville crisis is a case in point ... We cannot isolate military security from politics, economics and social security. [The PNG government's] vision is to interlock the military's efforts together with the police and other government security agencies to address PNG's defence and security requirements in a collective and comprehensive manner ... It is the priority of the current government to deal with internal threats to maintain a secure environment for economic prosperity."