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date: 28 January 2021

Papua New Guinea: Volatile but Couplesslocked

  • R.J. MayR.J. MayEmeritus Fellow, Australian National University

Summary

Before Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, its military consisted of a Pacific Island Regiment under the Australian Army’s Northern Command. In preparation for independence, there was considerable debate over whether the independent country should have a military force. Provision was made for the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in the constitution, with a strong emphasis on the supremacy of the civilian authority. In the first decade of independence, the PNGDF was called out to assist police in internal security operations, but the priority of its role in internal security was not officially recognized until 1991.

The deployment of the PNGDF to Bougainville to assist police in operations against what became the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army involved a heavy commitment of troops to a long-running conflict and was marked by a number of confrontations between the military and political leaders. This culminated in the Sandline affair, in which the PNGDF commander stepped in to terminate a contract between the government and the military consultants Sandline International and called on the prime minister to resign (but did not attempt to take over the government). After the Sandline affair and with the Bougainville Peace Agreement, relations between government and military improved, but several incidents involving PNGDF personnel led Prime Minister Morauta to speak of a “culture of instability” within the PNGDF and to invite a review by a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group. Confrontations between the military and government, however, have consistently stopped short of attempted coup. The most plausible explanation for this may lie in the localized, competitive, and fractious nature of political power in Papua New Guinea, the absence of a dominant ethnic group, and the difficulties that even a legitimate, elected government has in maintaining law and order and service delivery across the country.

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