Just hours after Brigadier General Gilbert Toropo delivered a cautiously upbeat address to the parade marking the end of his first year as Commander of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), a handful of his troops threatened to undo any progress he had made.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, police shot and injured a group of unarmed soldiers who had arrived at a police station in Boroko, a suburb of Port Moresby, to force the release of some of their mates, arrested for being drunk and disorderly outside a nightclub near Murray Barracks military headquarters. After the police and troops established defensive roadblocks against each other around the barracks and police station in Boroko, opportunists took advantage of the tension and confusion to loot several supermarkets. Serious disorder threatened to reignite on Sunday and Monday as crowds gathered around Port Moresby's shopping centres, partly fueled by rumours on social media that a soldier had died and that the army had instigated or sanctioned looting.
With Prime Minister Peter O'Neill facing a leadership tribunal over alleged misconduct and nearing the end of the grace period in which a no-confidence motion cannot be brought against him, the talented but erratic Belden Namah just dumped as leader of PNG's opposition and a still-influential Sir Michael Somare having recently moved to cross benches, it's tempting to wonder if such clashes were politically driven. O'Neill had handpicked key PNG Defence Force leaders, Namah has strong ties with the same generation of officers (having served jail-time as an army captain for helping eject Sandline mercenaries in 1997), and Somare maintains military links of his own.
But most signs suggest the protracted strife has so far been more unplanned than manufactured or deliberately stirred.
Enough has been published on the modern PNGDF and the Royal PNG Constabulary, their colonial predecessors and long relationship of close cooperation but deep antipathy, to 'write histories of their histories'. Although they've regularly served together in call-outs and states of emergency since the mid-1980s, and currently work alongside each other in several special resource-security and public-order operations in the highlands, they've also clashed frequently and sometimes spectacularly. And while each arguably serves a balancing function that prevents the other from becoming too dominant, both the police and military commit acts of indiscipline individually more frequently than together.
So why does Australia keep trying to strengthen two such troubled organisations? Well, mainly because it's in our direct interest to do so. With around three-quarters of all Pacific Islanders coming from PNG, the country's proximity across our direct approaches, and given Australia's regional security responsibilities, promoting stability across this part of our inner arc will remain 'non-discretionary'. This is irrespective of how next year's Defence White Paper balances our regional and global priorities. So it will remain important to improve the professionalism of both forces, maximise the degree to which they are strategic assets rather than a liabilities for PNG, and ensure they are potentially effective regional partners for the ADF (as both were in RAMSI).
And here, recent events point to some signs of progress as well as the limits of our influence. The weekend clash appears to have arisen less from the often unhappy First Battalion, where ADF-NZDF and PNGDF training efforts focus, than from recently graduated soldiers. Most personnel remained under effective command after the initial incident, and both forces acted independently to suppress looting right after the confrontation.
Police-military tensions won't just evaporate, and the mood in Port Moresby tends to be more combustible in the lead-up to Christmas ('tis the season to be angry). Difficult challenges facing the two forces may also deepen as social and economic change continue apace — so things could get worse.
However, a really dangerous, politically driven crisis doesn't seem imminent — yet. Continuing and enhancing already significant security cooperation will be in the interest of both countries.
Photo by Flickr user Dave Conner.