Big men in PNG: beyond the rational market
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Government needs to review Defence Act


AS A DIRECT RESULT of actions of an errant former general of the PNG Defence Force, the Somare government has a strong case to critically review the Defence Act, including related civil law provisions.

What happened in March 1997, which became the infamous Sandline Crisis, was in fact a total command failure with the PNGDF. The then defence force head, Jerry Singirok, eventually lost his command after challenging the authority of the State.

This was the first time since PNG’s Independence that a military general had, without higher authority, used the military in unauthorised operations.

The general could have avoided all that followed had he properly used his command team and provided suitable options to the government.

This is what happened. In 1997, Prime Minister Julius Chan made a tough judgement call. The government planned to use limited external military support to augment PNGDF operations on Bougainville in response to a protracted defence emergency.

Joint operations against counter-insurgency are always subject to specific rules of engagement. This is standard operating procedure.

Moreover, the military leadership also knew the strategic objective was to achieve a negotiated political settlement with relevant parties.

In this case, however,, the force commander’s intention was kept secret from key senior subordinates within Defence headquarters at Murray Barracks, Port Moresby.

This resulted in the general’s command team playing little or no direct role in engaging Sandline personnel.

It is now 14 years since these dramatic events, so perhaps it is now time for the former commander to reveal all the facts as to why he failed to consult his senior staff to provide advice to government.

The general’s media explanation every year on each anniversary of the crisis does not justify his unilateral actions in taking on the government using military muscle.

No general and commander of the defence force should be allowed to directly take the law into his own hands, no matter how compelling the reason.

This critical incident should be a good lesson for any future PNG government. Never let its military act in such manner again.

After what has happened 14 years ago, PNGDF servicemen must be fully indoctrinated that every officer in command of any unit at all command levels must fully comply with political directions, and without question.

Once the government makes an executive decision to engage the military, a commander is duty-bound to enforce it and see that the mission is undertaken without compromise.

No-one in the PNGDF, let alone the most senior officer, has any absolute right to abuse his power and position of trust, especially during a national security emergency as was the case with Sandline.

The commander’s unpredictable actions proved very disastrous for the government and country. The PNGDF command support system was totally usurped and seriously compromised.

This clearly boosted the Bougainville Revolutionary Army’s confidence to continue its aggression towards PNGDF troops in the armed insurrection.

The actions also triggered a mutiny and civil strife in the capital city and in parts of PNG.

It is now vital that the Defence Act and Code of Military Discipline be reviewed by the government without delay as the country goes to the polls next year.

Strong legislation is needed to provide some measure of protection to the government.

New defence legislation is required to especially deal with serious ‘dereliction of duty’ incidents involving military commanders at all levels.


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Reginald Renagi

The PNG government and the Defence Ministry must learn from the lessons of the Sandline incident of 1997.

The PNGDF must not be taken for granted and ensure it is up to its task to protect the state from enemies, both domestic and foreign.

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