Was the Army - Police brawl a sign of a failing democracy?
13 December 2014
BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO
An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mining & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
JUST a week ago something unusual happened in Port Moresby when the country’s defence force decided to challenge the police force in a brawling incident that resulted in several soldiers being hospitalised.
Sadly this was another alcohol related incident. What started as an argument between certain defence and police officers eventually became a citywide problem when the public decided to get into the act, looting a major supermarket reportedly under the supervision of disgruntled defence officers. Goods worth millions of kina were stolen.
Instead of cooling off last weekend, the tension spilled over into Erima on Monday. Residents and opportunists living in and around the settlement flocked in numbers to loot the J-Mart store. However, quick action by the management and the police prevented another major crime.
Watching the scene unfold at Erima, I began to question whether Papua New Guinea was already heading down a precarious path of failing democracy.
People ran in all directions, zigzagging through speeding vehicles d panic gripped the drivers. From a far I could hear gun shots and instead of people retreating driven by panicked motorists.
Within half an hour, the rarely seen “people’s power” seemed to find a lease of life. It was a spectacle to behold and it gave some of us an insight into the potential and mostly dormant power of destruction that lies with the ordinary people.
Past nationwide protests such as the Privatisation Strike and the Sandline Issue witnessed “people’s power” as the silent majority found voice to r fight for a common cause.
During the stand-off between the Police and Defence, I sensed we were on a brink of anarchy. Such situations can easily lead to disastrous outcomes for our country. After all, PNG just came through a terrible experience in which Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill faced off, creating division between Defence and the Police.
An attempted mutiny and the removal of Tom Kulunga as Police Commissioner under questionable circumstances are also still fresh in our minds.
Many of us feared that the wounds created at that time could be re-opened. What was worrying about the Erima incident was that it revealed the great division between Police and Army.
Most of the people I spoke to afterwards said the recent increase in cases of Police brutality and harsh treatment against informal sector vendors has hardened the public’s feelings against the police. Again, as was mostly the case in the past, commonsense prevailed and the tension subsided.
The eager reaction of the public to potential looting prompted me to ponder whether Papua New Guineans are natural opportunists.
Maybe it’s just a spur of the moment thing where the situation pumps adrenaline and people go wild and act recklessly.
But I do not understand how people would be drawn into a frenzy by the sound of gunfire. Commonsense would tell you that guns blazing indicates danger and yet here we had people running towards the scene.
Such incidents defy logic and I was left somewhat amazed at how Papua New Guineans can act when confronted with this kind of situation. The description ‘PNG - land of the unexpected’is very fitting.
Now, the hierarchy of both Police and Defence along with the national government need to thoroughly investigate the incident.
Commendations must go to the hierarchy of both Police and Defence for quickly setting up a joint taskforce to investigate what happened.
It is hoped that they recommend action to ensure those involved are brought to face the full weight of the law.
By the same token, the investigation must also ask how such incidents are becoming a norm where dissatisfied soldiers can attack police officers.
Findings from an investigation into the incident involving members of the PNGDF and students at the UPNG Medical Faculty is still to be made public. Not a good precedent for transparency.
Let us hope that conflict of this nature involving members of our disciplinary forces do not continue.
Such incidents can be easily viewed as a symptom of a lack of command and control within the force and a sign of a failing democracy.
Phil, this is precisely the problem where PNG Police and Defence are involved in confrontation after the independence which throws up a lot of questions.
It may have occurred before but I suspect the scale, scope and intensity of the confrontation may have differed.
Nowadays with more Papua New Guineans holding onto a mobile phone, such situations could easily explode into a major national crisis.
In fact, during the attempted looting of the Erima J-Mart Shop, it was reported that looters from as far as 8 & 9 Mile joined their fellow looters from nearby 5, 6 & 7 Mile. I ask how this could be possible?
Posted by: Busa Jeremiah Wenogo | 15 December 2014 at 10:19 AM
Lindsay most of the people running to the scene of the guns shots were actually youths and kids with several parents.
The sea of people indicated to me a worrying trend of where PNG as a nation is heading to especially when you have a lot of unemployed youths and school-less kids who are just looking for opportunities both good and bad.
With good number of parents there who knows whether the children where also theirs.
Posted by: Busa Jeremiah Wenogo | 15 December 2014 at 08:18 AM
Busa, good report and details, a great example for more.
Of ‘people running towards…the sound of gunfire’, were they of much a same age, etc?
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 14 December 2014 at 01:32 PM
The police and the army fighting is not a new thing Busa, it happened before independence too.
In most of the incidents it was disgruntled army personnel rioting or marching being confronted by police doing their duty enforcing order.
From what I gather this incident involved police responding to an incident involving drunks who happened to be soldiers.
There are clearly problems in the defence force. They are underpaid, live in poor quarters and are under resourced. I imagine there is also a lot of boredom.
They need something useful to do, community work of some sort.
But the real problem is booze. It's the biggest bane in PNG ( and Australia too).
Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 13 December 2014 at 08:26 AM