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Tribal squabbles: How law & order breakdown began


Watabung men, 1954 (Bob Cleland)IN 1955 I WAS A PATROL OFFICER working in the Eastern Highlands District of the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

My field staff colleagues and I – kiaps – were members of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs in the Administration.

The lowest level of court in PNG was the Court for Native Affairs. It was a court of summary jurisdiction presided over by magistrates who were usually kiaps.

Appointments of junior officers as magistrates were recommended by a District Commissioner only after a minimum period of field duties, attendance as observers of actual cases and a demonstrated knowledge of the controlling ordinance and regulations.

I was appointed after a year of service to the position ‘Magistrate in the Court for Native Affairs’.

A court case might start with someone saying, ‘Mi laik mekim kot’.  Or a Luluai might bring all parties to the kiap to mekim kot. Or the kiap himself might take court proceedings.

The first thing a kiap did as magistrate was to hear what complainants had to say and question them to ensure that he understood the case. He would hear the tok of other people involved. He would question to find out for himself what the customary law was and how it might relate to the traditions of the villagers.

In 1954, I built and lived on a small outstation, Watabung, on the newly opened road – merely a 4WD track, now the Highlands Highway – from Goroka to Mount Hagen. This story is a case of the kiap convening the court.

One day I was riding my motorbike along the road towards Chuave alongside the winding Mai River which rushed through very steep country. At one point, I swung around a corner and was confronted by a small group of agitated men running along the road.

I stopped and so did the bike’s engine. Without the exhaust noise, I could hear excited yells and yodeling further on out of sight.

O Kiap,’ they said, ‘Ol i-pait’ (they’re all fighting).

I felt like a New York cop scrambling to the crime in a B-grade movie, as I kicked the bike into life and rode off around the next corner. Down the steep slope of the ridge above, 15 or 20 Watabung tribesmen cascaded towards me.

A similar number of excited, yelling, weapon-brandishing, tribesmen were chasing, hot on their heels. I stopped, not sure what to do. The men slowed their descent. Everyone seemed to be yelling at once but I could hear the word ‘kiap’ frequently.

The attackers slowed down and the skirmish came to a halt. I signalled and yelled for them to come down to the road. Slowly they came, gathering on the road in two separate simmering groups.

The first group carried a wounded tribesman. I persuaded them to sit down, one group on the left and the other on the right of a sharp corner, each partially obscured from the other. I stood at their apex with both sides visible to me, left and right. Behind me was a 20-metre sheer fall to the raging river.

The dispute was over a pig which had been part of a bride price paid by the clan on my left to the clan on my right. Bit by bit, working with their limited tok pisin, I pieced the story together.

The two groups were from two clans of the same village. A woman from the clan on my left had weaned and brought to maturity a pig which then formed part of a bride price paid to the clan on my right.

Months later, the woman had seen the pig tied up in a garden, and her maternal instincts overcame her – she had simply untied the pig and walked away with it.

Members of the clan on my right got cranky and marched upon the other clan carrying their usual domestic weaponry. Fists led to sticks led to axes and knives and the skirmish escalated and poured down towards the road, there to be confronted by the Watabung kiap!

The wounded man (husband of the larcenous woman) had an axe wound to his head and blood all over him. This, in truth, was the main reason the skirmish came to an end. The aggrieved clan had shed blood, so assuaging the pig theft. My coincidental arrival reinforced the traditional stopping point.

Once I had the story, I harangued them about Pax Australiana and told them they would all have to attend a Court because their fighting had broken the law.

This I would do on my return from Chuave in a few hours time, and while I was gone they could all take the half-hour walk to Watabung and the wounded man to the Aid Post there.

They were quite happy with this expression of ‘Kiap law’, and marched off down the road, unsupervised, in a single, harmonious, singing and laughing group!

I convened the court later that day and sentenced about 30 men to do five days’ work on Watabung Base Camp. This didn’t upset them much because they could continue to sleep at home.

Elimbari from the air (Bob Cleland)Traditionally, this dispute would have ended amicably and ‘in balance’ between the two clans as soon as the perpetrator’s husband was wounded. My intervention should have served the same purpose.

But this little dispute turned out to be still out of balance for the first clan because the wound (the payback) was too big.  Later, I called at the Aid Post to enquire after the wounded one. He was sitting on a bed looking quite happy with a large piece of sticking plaster on one side of his shaven skull.

‘He’s okay,’ said the Orderly.

‘Skull’s not broken eh?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he responded, ‘his skull is broken – here look.’ He removed the sticking plaster from his head, folded down a 4 inch by 6 inch flap of skin (which included his ear) and picked out a piece of bone three inches long by half an inch wide.

‘See – his skull is broken, but he’s okay.’ I gulped while the Orderly replaced bone and plaster. The injured one had continued smiling up at me without flinching. I thought he should have more-skilled medical attention so I said I’d send him to Goroka at the first opportunity. This came next morning someone came through and off he went, cheerfully sitting in the back of a bouncing Land Rover.

In the meantime, I persuaded the aggrieved clan to withhold further aggression until their clansman returned from hospital, and I made sure that the convicted men worked on the Station in two separate clan groups.

A week later, the injured one returned in the Health Department Land Rover, proudly wearing smart new clothes and a large, resplendent, spotless white turban of hospital bandages.

He’d been sent from Goroka’s rather rudimentary hospital to Madang’s Base Hospital. The DC3 flight was his first, his view of the coast and the Bismarck Sea was his first and the sights, sounds and people of Madang were his first. He returned a VIP!

His clan were so impressed and felt so vicariously important that they immediately declared peace and goodwill towards the aggressive clan, and, at least for the rest of the time I was at Watabung, the two clans remained happy and harmonious neighbours in their village.

This incident illustrates the multiple roles which kiaps were called upon to play.

Initially, I was a policeman intervening in the dispute and finding the story behind it. I had some anthropological knowledge of the social structure and customs, which helped.

I heard the case as a Magistrate and acted as counsel for both parties in an inquisitorial sense. Finally, I was a gaoler in supervising the sentences imposed.

The local people understood all this and accepted it as an alternative to their traditional method of settling disputes. Justice had been done, and done with a minimum of legalities.

In those early years, field staff numbers were always well short of ideal. Expansion of administration influence into uncontrolled areas gathered pace. New patrol posts and their airstrips were built and manned, often by only one, sometimes by two officers.

The introduction of Pax Australiana inevitably meant that those kiaps had to wear a multitude of different hats. There’s always a string of functions in the process of administering justice through the Court for Native Affairs.

With only one kiap on a post or on patrol, he had to be, successively, arresting policeman, magistrate, counsel for both prosecution and defence, and gaoler. It couldn’t have been any other way.

It speaks volumes for Australian policy, the training of kiaps, their discipline and their integrity, that this body of individuals mostly succeeded in recognising the inherent conflicts of interest, while creating a presence in the field which, by and large, was trusted and understood by villagers and their leaders.

Twenty years later, I was Assistant District Commissioner (nambawan kiap) at Chuave, 20 km west of Watabung. By then, as a result of the Derham Report, the Court for Native Affairs had been replaced by the Local Court and a full-time magistrate had been appointed. He was a well educated and trained PNG national. I quickly came to realise his training was sound. There was mutual respect between us and we got on well.

Instead of a small detachment of PNG police that would have been controlled by me as a field officer of the PNG Constabulary, there was now a commissioned PNG officer in charge of the detachment.

His duties were strictly policing without any thought to the administrative effect of police activities. There was little contact between me and the officer. I felt resented when I attempted to get some sort of coordination between us.

One day, the District Commissioner made a routine visit to Chuave. He and I drove up the long climb towards a group of villages. We rounded a blind corner to find ourselves right in the middle of a local squabble.

Arrows were flying in both directions in front of and over the vehicle.  Several bodies lay prone in the midst of the melee. Two houses were burning fiercely. I stopped and without thought, we both jumped out remonstrating and yelling for them to stop.

They ignored us and several arrows came perilously close.  Our retreat back to the vehicle was obviously the better part of valour.

We drove back to Chuave and reported the incident to the police officer who said he would organise a squad to visit the area. In this new regime, the matter was now out of our hands.

This was the first time for either of us that a kiap’s presence had been totally ignored. It was an unpleasant sign of the times. What was different?

From the point of view of most of the extensive Highlands population in the 1970s, there had been degrees of evolution from traditional justice to kiap-administered justice over periods ranging from 30 years in the eastern parts and decreasing to virtually zero in some still uncontrolled western and southern areas.

Chuave people, early 1970s (Bob Cleland)For these Chuave people, first contact was early in the 1930s but regular patrols and the introduction of Pax Australiana did not properly start until the late 1940s.

In the 1970s they found the sudden substitution of a new method of policing and administration of justice, a very confusing and apparently needless change.

Instead of a kiap sitting down with a group of people – albeit on many occasions with a substantial uniformed police presence – and delving deep into the tradition and causes behind an event, they saw uniformed police themselves investigating strictly within the law and only what they saw as enough to secure a conviction.

They saw only the evidence relating to the offence presented in court, often without the broader background of tribal custom and social relationships.

Instead of a kiap hearing the court and using evidence which nobody questioned, then giving a decision which at least took some note of the social and political needs and expectations of the community, they found a town-based magistrate or judge sticking to a confusing procedure, with counsel testing evidence in incomprehensible ways.

Court decisions were seldom fully understood and, worse, sometimes completely misconstrued.

With experiences of this new way of administering the same law, is it any wonder that those Chuave villagers reverted to their own ways of solving a dispute and chose to ignore two kiaps who suddenly turned up and wanted to interfere?

After the DC and I had reported to the Chuave police, they took a full hour to mobilise and start the half-hour drive to the scene. They found peace and quiet, no arrows lying around, no bodies and the ashes of two burned houses.

Two villagers had been killed. After several days of enquiry, they arrested two men and charged them with a string of offences, including murder. The clan of the two deceased was persuaded not to resort to the traditional payback – to wait and see the result of the court case.

They were committed for trial by the Supreme Court and held in custody in Kundiawa, well out of the tribal areas of the two villages involved in the fight.

At that point, I was transferred to Goroka, but I subsequently learned that it was four months before the Supreme Court sat in Kundiawa.

Prosecuting counsel’s first witness was a member of the Chuave police detachment who had attended the fight scene. His evidence was inconsistent, had errors of fact and indicated a sloppy police investigation. Counsel for the defence easily discredited him. The judge dismissed the case and released the prisoners.

The reaction back at Chuave was predictable. They could not understand how the two men, widely acknowledged as responsible for the deaths, were not punished. The aggrieved clan immediately attacked the other in their traditional payback way. They had lost their respect for the law and for the police.


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Paul Oates

Thanks Bob. You have encapsulated the essence of why the Kiap system, and Kiaps by and large, were so important to the development of PNG.

The real disappointment was that those who had the power on both sides of the Torres Strait had no idea what they were getting rid of when they disposed of the system.

They only saw the faults and were possibly jealous of the power the Kiaps supposedly had. In fact, Kiaps had very little power that was not given to them by the people themselves because they could see the benefits of the system.

Today's justice system is so fragmented and truncated that very few can actually see the forest for the trees let alone pay for them.

It's very important for posterity to distil the essence of this form of beneficial justice system as you have, before we all pass on.

Perhaps someone, somewhere may actually read about it in the future and do some hard thinking about what we currently have and whether it is truly working for the benefit of all our society?

Mrs Barbara Short

Thanks for this great story, Bob.

I hope the police and magistrates and judges of PNG are starting to read this blog. They could certainly learn a few things from the past.

Joe Wasia

Great article Bob. My grandfather used to tell me how powerful were the kiaps in those days. I loved his stories but failed to write them down, and regret that now he is not around.

Yes, communication was a big problem but the kiaps managed to understand the varying cultures and traditions of the people in different societies of Papua New Guinea.

The system of the Court for Native Affair was so powerful unlike today. In fear of being punished by kiaps they kept abiding by the rules set by the colonial administration.

Thanks Bob and other great men who played great roles in taming, molding and shaping this nation to be where it is when we could not do ourselves.

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