The PNG Defence Force: Our Weakest Link
“Papua New Guinea does have a defence force – they use bows and arrows and National batteries for their torches” – that was a joke that we used to always make when we were kids.
And although it is a joke which is quite eccentric, it does convey a rather powerful point, and that is the incompetency of the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF).
If you follow PNG news, every now and then you will notice that former Papua New Guinea military commander General Jerry Singirok always pipes up from the shadows of his retired refuge and attacks the Government’s policies on national security – or the lack of.
Recently, General Jerry Singirok (retired) bombarded another round of accusations at the PNG government following the most recent incursion by Indonesian soldiers into East Sepik Province – blaming the PNG government for allowing the military to become run down.
The following is the transcript from an interview between ABC Radio Australia’s presenter Bruce Hill, and the former Papua New Guinea Defence Force commander himself, General Jerry Singirok:
SINGIROK: In the past 10 years we have continued to face constant border crossings by the Indonesian military, and it’s of serious concern, because we don’t have a force, we don’t have a defence force that has sufficient troops and resources to protect or to be of deterrent on our side of the border. It’s not only the Indonesian troops crossing. A lot of logging activities in the PNG side of the border and the authorities do not have anything to say.
HILL: How big a problem is this? I mean the Indonesian military say that they able to cross the border in hot pursuit of OPM rebels who are fighting for an independent West Papua, and they have that right under international law. Are they going beyond that? Are they doing more? Are they staging regular patrols in the PNG territory, for example?
SINGIROK: Yes, they have a very strong military presence. I believe its a battalion spread across the 750 kilometre border. So yes, their presence is pretty strong and they actually got the military base right along the border, so a series of bases. So obviously because they establish physically presence, they will continue to patrol, and whether it’s hot pursuit or these routine patrols, they will continue to conduct their operations.
HILL: Is this deliberate border crossing? I mean don’t they know where the border is?
SINGIROK: The border is difficult to define. Having said that, their border marks already, there is are about 300 or 400 border marks from one end to the another. Most people have a fair idea where the border is, so yes, whilst it’s difficult to define where the border line is or the border mark is, I think it is in our interest that we continue to define where the border is, so that we can keep the Indonesians on their side of the border.
HILL: Is this an issue purely for the Indonesians or does the PNG Government bare any share of the responsibility for this situation?
SINGIROK: I think squarely, responsible government departments have not taken ownership. This is PNG government and departments not taking ownership, and I put it squarely on the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Defence and Provincial Affairs. I think those three departments are solely responsible for border administration, border management and activities along the border.
HILL: Well, what do you think they should do then?
SINGIROK: Their list of strategies or action plan, this has been discussed time and time again to have some kind of border development or border management reactivated so that there is a constant dialogue, there’s constant understanding with the Indonesian authorities. In the absence of that, we will continue to have influx of illegals into PNG, we will continue to face increase in Indonesian military operations and more importantly, the trading between PNG and Indonesia in terms of kina and rupiah will be in favour of Indonesia all the time.
HILL: If nothing is done, what is the worst that could happen?
SINGIROK: Well, the worst that could happen as we’ve seen about six weeks ago, that we could have Papua New Guinean citizens lives being lost, as a result of this Indonesian military operations. And once that happens, and when there is a stand off, and PNG and the PNGDF, they are in no position to throw assurance, does not have logistics, does not have leadership and does not have the initiative even for deterrence and that’s where the real crunch is. And I’m still a critic of the downsizing exercise, because it’s done nothing to assist our security situation, not only in PNG, but in the region.
[NOTE: You can find the original transcript here].
General Jerry Singirok raises a number of interesting points – especially the downsizing exercise which was funded by the Australian Defence Force not so long ago. Which is quite ironic, because one year later former Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced that the Australian army would be beefed up by 2,600 extra soldiers under a 11-year $10 billion plan “designed to prepare the defence force to intervene in more failing states in an increasingly unstable region“.
At the time John Howard said that the need for a bigger army was self-evident and that it was overwhelmingly in Australia’s interest to stop states failing and deal in a pre-emptive fashion with problems in the region:
“This country faces ongoing and, in my opinion, increasing instances of destabilised and failing states in our own region.
I believe in the next 10 to 20 years Australia will face a number of situations the equivalent of, or potentially more challenging, than the Solomon Islands and East Timor.
Look at what happened in East Timor, look at what happened in the Solomon Islands and think back a few years to Fiji.
Think of Vanuatu, think of the inherently unstable situation in Papua New Guinea”.
And Australia really did think of PNG at the time – they funded the downsizing of the PNG Defence to around two thousand personnel under the Sir Mekere Morauta Government.
That was in 2006, two years later and the times have somewhat changed.
At the beginning of this year the PNGDF announced that it was moving towards building a clever and effective force specialised in every field under a programme aimed at rebuilding manpower capacity. The force then established a Defence Strategic and Management Centre worth K6 million (US$2 million) from the National Planning Office.
I guess a US$2 million investment isn’t too bad – and then out of the blue, PNG Defence Minister Bob Dadae proclaims that the PNGDF needs to be built up to a level where it is affordable, efficient, skilled and properly equipped. And in order to achieve that target, he announces that he has put forward a submission for US$62 million in new spending!
Now that has got to make any country in the Pacific sit up and take notice – including Australia.