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Operation Covid-19: ‘Resilient & Agile’

Inside the PNGDF Covid coordination centre
Inside PNGDF joint task force Covid-19 headquarters (JTFHQ) in Port Moresby

ALEXANDER NARA

PORT MORESBY – The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on Papua New Guinea’s national security as the government heightens measures across land, air and sea borders.

There is a new focus on continuous enhancement of PNG Defence Force capabilities especially along the 720 kilometres land border.

Both the pandemic and other 21st century security threats have left doors open for organised crime including contraband traded across the many unprotected border areas.

And all this in a brutal landscape - an interior encrusted by rugged mountain ranges - requiring patrols with proper equipment and all the necessary capabilities.

Illegal traders, unlawful loggers and traditional border crossers roam freely in the absence of PNG’s border security agencies.

One rainy September afternoon in 2015 I witnessed a sortie of PNGDF special forces inserted into these rugged border jungles.

It struck me then of the need for a continuous presence of the PNGDF boosted by enhanced surveillance capabilities and logistical support.

At the centre of PNG’s western borderline with Indonesia lie the rugged mountain ranges of Telefomin.

Further to the south, precipitous terrain unfolds into the vast wetlands of Western Province, smeared with the floodplains of the Fly River and its tributaries, the Strickland and Ok Tedi rivers.

Lt Col Yapu Raphael with Chief of Force Preparation Col Lari Opa
Lt Col Yapu Raphael with Chief of Force Preparation Col Lari Opa

Through this untamed jungle, the patrol trails run along the Torasi River and the immense floodplains of Benchbach.

I visited the Benchbach wild life lodge back in 2012 and what I saw left me speechless.

It is an amazing ecosystem wrapped in an astounding natural beauty.

The Torasi River seemed to float motionless as it snaked its way downstream.

Over 250 species of resident and migratory water birds rule these wetlands - Curlew Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones which breed in Siberia and Yellow Wagtails from Eurasia are among the special visitors every year.

Deer, wallabies, monitor lizards, crocodiles, cassowaries and pygmy geese roamed freely.

This is wonderful, awe-inspiring country that poses massive security challenges along with its natural grandeur.

PNG needs to pay every attention to deliver the required security in these areas which the PNGDF is constitutionally mandated to protect since our country’s birth.

The harshness of the task involved is readily seen when it comes to coordinating troops and providing them with logistical support.

During recent Covid-19 operations, additional strength was deployed into these remote areas to build community awareness, secure border crossing points, maintain surveillance and regulate the movement of people and goods.

The PNGDF joint task force Covid-19 headquarters (JTFHQ) in Port Moresby had been coordinating all this as part of the government’s response against the pandemic.

JTFHQ is commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Raphael Yapu assisted by deputy commander Major Gabriel Gwaibo.

If you step inside JTFHQ, you find a small team of military specialists selected from across the PNGDF’s land, air and sea elements.

Most are young, energetic officers and soldiers from various operational areas.

They initially met behind closed doors in late March - four days after the first Covid case was reported.

Among them were four Australian defence staff who had seen their families depart for home as PNG prepared for lockdown.

I occasionally dragged myself to the building late at night for a hot cup of coffee as they were always there, 24 hours.

JTFHQ members take a break
JTFHQ members take a break

My eyes always caught the words on the JTFHQ logo – ‘Resilient and Agile’ - also embedded on their armbands.

Toughness and speed are certainly what this unit needs in its resistance to the perils posed by Covid-19.

Every time I asked about their mission, I was referred to a higher ranking officer who reported to another higher ranking officer so eventually I stopped asking.

That’s our PNGDF. It’s there to deliver operational answers, not deal with a pesky journalist’s questions.

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Arthur Williams

The 720km border is porous not because of the lack of willingness of our military to patrol it but merely there has never been a real efforts of the PNG governments since 1975 to have a definite policy to this long border.

The very legitimacy of the enabling occupation for the western half of New Guinea Island allegedly derived by the 1969 Act of Free Choice for West Irian or West Papua has never been accepted by the majority of its non-Muslim citizens.

No administration in PNG has ever wanted to confront its massive neighbour’s right to describe the now two provinces of Western New Guinea as being Indonesian. PNG Prime Ministers & Foreign Ministers have all bowed the knee to the Jakarta government and its oft times brutal control of the area. PNG preferring instead to be host to 10,000 asylum seekers as a result of atrocities in their daily lives.

Even the UNHCR acquiesced by claiming almost 7,000 did not qualify for the status of genuine refugees as they were not in East Awin Camp. Being subservient to a foreign power seems to have led to a bad policy of laissez-faire or just plain neglect for the border areas especially in the non-mountainous portion of the Western province.

Ever since I first set foot there its tiny muddy capital of Daru was the butt of many snide remarks. PNG governments ignored the very serious threat of chloroquine resistant malaria that is claimed to have entered from Merauke into the lower Fly area. No controls were in place to stops its spreading into all of PNG.

Nobody knows how many citizens of PNG may have died until eventually a new drug started to ease the problem. Though Maloprim which i and my workers started taking from 1979 unlike chloroquine was found to have serious side effects if taken for more than 6 months.

Nobody informed me until I had being using it for over 18 months. Is my current heart problem a result of that I cannot say and most UK doctors seem uninterested in that historic section of my health.

Then along came TB as a new scourge for the people of Daru and the folk across the narrow ocean that divides it from the mainland. The overcrowded island is a breeding ground for TB and any other infection that may arrive.

It seemed for a time that a solution could be provided to solve the impoverished nature of the nation’s largest province (98,000km2 same as South Korea) when natural gas was found in the upper reaches of the province.

There were plans by Horizon to develop a stand-alone LNG project based on a refinery on or near Daru. For the first time since the development of Ok Tedi far away up the Fly R. it seemed there was chance that this could be a catalyst to kick start a development process.

Having such a project within its borders could mean Waigani would sit up and use it to enhance their control of the porous border east of Merauke.

There would be a chance to attract tourism to the beautiful water-world of the Bensbach area and build up the Morehead sub-district to lift it up from its longtime run down decayed state.

From the project could have flowed a start on a border road from the coast towards the blip in the international border on the Fly. Such infrastructure would have provided PNG’s Defence force with better access to patrol this section of their increasingly strategic task.

Sadly Waigani politics means that there is little hope for Daru or indeed Baimuru in neighbouring Gulf Province to equally participate in the development of their LNG resources that was promised by the nation’s founding fathers when they wrote the preamble to the Constitution.

Why is there a need for a naval base in Port Moresby far from the western and eastern borders? Why is there no permanent army/navy presence in the south-west of PNG to control all sorts of criminality that is regularly occurring there from human trafficking in the Torres Strait, drug smuggling, illegal activities in the marine resources of the Gulf of Papua and west to east border crossers helping themselves to any natural resource beit sago or redwood timber etc.

I wonder what will happen to Western province when Ok Tedi ceases in next ten years. It is the only source of sizeable income for the province. Perhaps it could become a mecca for green tourism away from the Fly and Strickland rivers that is until they return to their once pristine state in thirty or more years’ time.

Is there a remote chance of it becoming a target of expansion from the Indonesia which is the largest Islamic nation in the world?

20/05/01 there was a long report that PNG’s PM and Foreign Minister must be aware of:
‘West Papua – The issue that won't go away for Melanesia’ www.lowyinstitute.org.
It claimed: ‘Another grievance (for Melanesians of West Papua) is the presence of some Muslim groups in West Papua, especially radicalised organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has a foothold near the PNG border (ref37) The danger is not just from the unrest that these groups can foment, but also from the cross-border ties Moslem organisations are developing as increasing numbers of disaffected PNG teenagers have crossed the border to study Islam

19/03/01 Jakarta Post – ‘Police have named firebrand cleric Ja'far Umar Thalib, former commander of the disbanded Islamist militant organization Laskar Jihad, a suspect in a case of assault in Jayapura, Papua.’

18/04/24 www.international.la.croix.com#7429-- Christians in Papua fear growing Islamization by Benny Mawel, Jayapura. Christians concerned as mosques mushroom, shrines damaged and Muslims seen to be spreading influence

17/05/18 Jakarta Post – ‘Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia entered Indonesia in 1980s, targeting university students and mosque congregation members. It spread to Papua in the 2000s’

These extremists do not give in. Just recall the Moro Liberation struggling on Mindanao in Philippines for a very long time. So the apparently terra nullius of poorly patrolled impoverished Western province would seem to be an open invitation for them to populate for the establishment of their avowed caliphate.

I think one way or another PNG will always being needing many more brave healthy young soldiers to attempt to patrol and control its western border with or without much infrastructural support from Waigani.
_________

Athur's comment was edited to clarify that Indonesia is a secular not a Muslim state - KJ

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