with endemic law and order and corruption problems, outbreaks of rioting and
looting often lead to military dictatorship, or some similarly authoritarian
style of government.
don’t think many people expect the recent outbreak of rioting and looting in Port
Moresby and other major cities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to result in
authoritarian government. In the 50 years since it gained independence from
Australia, PNG leaders have muddled through several major crises without resort
to authoritarianism. Local leaders, including military leaders, have generally displayed
little appetite for radical change. They have responded to major crises by
seeking to uphold the PNG constitution. Responses to the Sandline crisis of 1997
are a prime example.
1997, the PNG government approved a contract to engage Sandline International –
a firm employing mercenary soldiers – to neutralize the Bougainville
Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aim of the exercise was to reopen the Panguna copper
mine which had been shut down in 1989 as a consequence of BRA activities seeking
Bougainville’s independence from PNG.
Jerry Singirok, the commander of the PNG defence force, did not believe that
the proposed Sandline operation would succeed, and was concerned that it might
result in mass civilian casualties. He also believed that the Sandline contract
was unconstitutional. He resolved to expel the mercenaries from PNG before they
were able to begin military activities on Bougainville. To achieve that
objective, Singirok and some trusted colleagues devised and implemented Operation
Rausim Kwik. The operation received overwhelming public support in PNG.
I don’t propose to present my view on whether Jerry Singirok did the right thing. I encourage readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading Singirok’s recently published book, A Matter of Conscience: Operation Rausim Kwik. I enjoyed reading the book. It was given to me for Christmas by one of my brothers, who lives in PNG. As well as discussing the matters of conscience that Singirok had to consider, it provides an exciting account of the planning and implementation of this secret military operation.
My purpose in
the remainder of this essay is to sketch out how the Sandline contract and Rausim
Kwik were viewed in Australia, and to offer some additional thoughts about PNG
views of the Sandline crisis
remember, there was intense interest in the Sandline affair in Australia. News
stories about mercenaries and mutiny always attract attention but the Sandline
affair was of particular interest because of the proximity of PNG to Australia,
PNG’s history as an Australian colony, and the large number of Australians who
had lived and worked in PNG or had family living there.
former colonial power, the Australian government didn’t want to interfere overtly
unless it became necessary for action to be taken to protect Australian
citizens. The official reaction of the government could be described as
Prior to the
Sandline affair, Australian authorities had been trying to persuade their counterparts
in Port Moresby that peace on Bougainville could only be achieved via a
negotiated settlement. Support provided under the Defence Cooperation Program included
a requirement that the helicopters provided could not be used as “gunships”,
and other similar conditions. Sir Julius Chan, the PNG prime minister, claimed
that it was Australia’s reluctance to provide adequate support that had led his
government “to go to the private sector”.
government did not send a strong message to the PNG government about its opposition to
employment of mercenaries in the region until after Jerry Singirok had taken
action to arrest the Sandline executives. At that point the Australian PM, John
Howard, sent three senior public servants to PNG to urge Sir Julius to cancel
the Sandline agreement and deport the mercenaries. The emissaries threatened
that Australia might not continue its aid program if the PNG government
continued in the proposed use of mercenaries to put down the rebellion on Bougainville.
public address to the nation, Singirok reassured the public that he was not
conducting a military coup. Nevertheless, he insisted that the government
ministers involved should step aside pending a judicial inquiry into the hiring
I think there
was as much concern in Australia about Singirok’s mutinous behaviour as about the
PNG government’s employment of mercenaries. The actions of the military commander
in preventing implementation of government policy seemed like a step in the
direction of military dictatorship. Singirok notes that the Australian High
Commissioner handed him a diplomatic note from Canberra stating among other
strongly believe that it is essential that the PNGDF obey the directives of the
PNG government and cease any illegal or unconstitutional activity.”
However, I doubt
that the Australian government’s hand-wringing had much influence in ensuring
that the Sandline crisis ended peacefully.
prominent PNG citizens helped to end the Sandline crisis by assisting negotiations
between Singirok and Sir Julius Chan. Singirok was dismissed as commander of
the PNG defence force, but his demands were met. The PM and two other ministers
stepped aside while an inquiry was held. Normal constitutional processes were resumed.
Sean Dorney, an Australian journalist with over four decades of experience in reporting on Papua New Guinea, regards the professionalism of its defence force as one of PNG’s strengths. In his book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, published in 2016, he writes about the PNGDF under the heading: “A Developing Country’s Military With No Ambition to Rule”. He quotes General Toropo, who was then commander of the PNGDF, as saying that he cannot see a military coup ever happening in PNG because the PNGDF regards itself as a professional organisation and “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”. Dorney notes that prior to independence, Australia made a conscious effort to recruit soldiers from all around the country so that the defence force would not be dominated by a group from any one province or region.
a less favourable view of the police force. He notes that a police department
had not even been created until the decade before independence and suggests
that inexperienced and untrained staff were major problems at that time. He
notes that by international standards the size of the police force relative to
population is very low in PNG.
professionalism of the police force is obviously still a problem. The most
recent bout of rioting and looting occurred after police went on strike because
of a pay dispute. Hopefully, the increased foreign aid that Australia announced
last year to police training etc. will be of some help in improving the
professionalism of the PNG police force.
policing is an obvious response to a law-and-order problem, but it may not be
necessary to invest vast amounts of public money in crime deterrence in order to make
the transition from a high to low crime society. In his book, The Enlightened
Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that firm government enforcement of
laws could not have played a major role in enabling Britain to achieve a low
crime society. In the 18th century, large parts of Britain were
virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated
considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private
enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There
was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of
amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent
on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations
specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of
substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages
The incentive to engage in crime depends on the alternative economic
opportunities available to potential criminals as well as on the expected rewards
of crime. The more general issue of what has been holding back the growth of
economic opportunities in PNG, discussed
previously on this blog, is relevant in this context.
Criminal activity has certainly been having an adverse
impact on the growth of economic opportunities, and lack of economic
opportunity has no doubt tempted more people to resort to crime. However, that
does not necessarily make the problem intractable. One possible solution is for
police to give highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is
having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.
The survival of democratic institutions in PNG does not seem
to be seriously threatened by current levels of crime and corruption. There is
a risk, however, that crime and corruption will reach a stage where criminal
gangs directly threaten the survival of democratic institutions.
Democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea because
local leaders have generally responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the
constitution. That was particularly evident in the Sandline crisis of 1997.
The PNG defence force has been aptly described as a
developing country’s military with no ambition to rule. The defence force regards
itself as a professional organisation that has “has got beyond tribal and
The professionalism of the PNG police force is more
questionable. A more professional police force could help ameliorate PNG’s
endemic law and order problems by giving highest priority to deterring the violence
and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of
The main risk to democratic institutions in PNG seems to me
to lie in the potential for crime and corruption to expand to a point where criminal
gangs take over the government.
1. Noric Dilanchian has provided the following comment:
2. Pat Green wrote:
If I could draw comics, I would draw a helicopter way up in the sky, and attached to it is a silhouette of PNG. Hanging up high on the rope is a bunch of politicians cutting the rope above their heads with a big tramontina that has "idependence" etched on it.
There is no future in the current system.