NOOSA – Milne Bay is a big province with a small police force. The locals are said to be good at harbouring criminals. And the most notorious and successful of these is Tommy Maeva Baker.
Baker, who has developed expertise in guerrilla-style hit and run tactics, heads a gang of up to 100 men who engaged in murder, plunder and arson.
He and his gang started their reign of terror in Alotau in 2013 – killing anyone who got in their way and committing dozens of robberies.
He was captured briefly in September 2018 but faked a knee injury and escaped from Port Moresby General Hospital. Since then he’s been a fugitive.
From time to time gang members have been arrested, and some killed, but Baker has proven elusive and his activities, including many attacks on police and their families, persistent.
Much of the population lives in fear of him and police are also feared for their reputation of brutalising the community in their hunt for him.
In February a gang member, Gabby, suspected of killing a policeman in Alotau in 2016, was wounded and later killed by police on what was apparently his regular errand to buy supplies for Baker.
In mid-March some 70 members of the Baker gang retaliated, attacking a police station. They were repelled after a six-hour gun battle.
Then late last week, the gang had another go and burned down the police barracks in Alotau.
But an important issue seems to be the collusion between criminal gangs and some police and even senior politicians.
A Milne Bay source told me that, when the last two People’s National Congress governments were being sorted out at ‘camp’ in Alotau, “political leaders engaged the police and criminals for security”.
This was "normal in PNG" during a government's formation.
“They promised to pay them millions [for security] and never did, so it’s turning back to bite their tail,” the source said.
“They see politicians supporting Asians in business so they are fighting the Asians as well. Their fight is not against Milne Bay people but against politicians.
“Leaders are turning to police and telling them its law and order problem, come flush them out, however they created the scene in the beginning.”
John Greenshields, who has visited Alotau since 1966, has been discussing the violence with friends who have lived in Milne Bay for 46 years.
“Authorities need to talk to Tommy Baker and see what he wants,” they conclude.
“Guns won’t solve the problems. I expect he might say, we need jobs, housing, proper education and health systems, and an end to corruption.”
But residents also believe that Milne Bay authorities need to ask the Papua New Guinea government for an external police intervention like the RAMSI mission that extinguished similar criminal activities in the Solomons in an operation that lasted from 2003 to 2017.
Australia had spent years saying it would not intervene in a growing crisis in the Solomons, but changed its mind as security fears grew about a South Pacific ‘arc of instability’.
First regarded with suspicion, the RAMSI mission proved very popular with Solomon Islanders and has so far created an enduring stability in the country.
Aljazeera Television has just produced a documentary, The Gangs of PNG, that offers excellent insights into the operations of one of Port Moresby's most active criminal gangs. Link to it here