Twenty years ago there were those who questioned whether Papua New Guinea needed a defence force. Wasn’t it just a status symbol like a national airline? There were fears that a standing army would be a temptation to a power-hungry general and that PNG would be dragged into the scenario of military coups and counter coups that dogged so many other small countries. These fears have been confounded. As one commentator wrote, “The low profile of the military in PNG is one of the country’s many political surprises.”
Before Independence the Australian administration maintained two infantry battalions, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment which had a proud and tough record stretching back to World War 2. At hand-over there was a force of 3,500 Papua New Guineans and 465 Australians. Overall control was vested in the NEC (National Executive Council) with the proviso that the Minister of Defence could not be a serving member of the armed forces.
At Independence the Defence Force was a confident elite. The soldiers had high educational level and material possessions. Their public image was good. It remained good until after the successful expedition to Vanuatu when the troops where welcomed home like heroes. But a slow rot had set in. Government after government reduced spending, which not only reduced administrative efficiency but also pay and conditions. In 1989 the soldiers rioted. It came soon after Bougainville – an unhappy experience for the Defence Force in which they were in conflict with local people. They felt humiliated.
The question remains: does PNG need a Defence Force? The answer from most Papua New Guinea politicians is ‘yes’ but only with considerable foreign defence assistance and with a devolved responsibility which allows for civil activities. This has, in a sense, been a success story both for the Australians and for the PNGDF. In the Southern Highlands there is a 23-man unit of engineers, based in Mendi, who virtually run the provincial works department. In 1989 a second unit was based in Sandaun which also helps with civil works. It has a double benefit. Trained troops undertake extremely useful activities like road and bridge building, and other capital projects. This could be the best justification for maintaining an army in peacetime.