A place of high threat & ineffective response
08 January 2022
PORT MORESBY - In 2020 and 2021, Papua New Guinea faced serious security challenges on many fronts, including Covid-19, cyberattacks and tribal fights.
Many people in PNG do not see Covid as a security risk, as evidenced in the high level of vaccines hesitancy in the country.
Only 2.6% of PNG’s population is vaccinated against Covid, although this should not be attributed exclusively to vaccine hesitancy.
Tough terrain, a porous PNG-Indonesian border, misuse of Covid funds and, towards the end of 2021, a cyberattack on the Finance Department have hindered an effective response to Covid.
An advantage for PNG has been the lack of interconnectivity between hot spots like Port Moresby and Western Province and the rest of PNG.
These natural barriers have limited movement of people and limited the spread of Covid on the scale experienced in other countries with well-developed road networks allowing easy access from one place to another.
It gave an opportunity to speed up vaccination but PNG’s health infrastructure is weak, and hospitals lack nurses and doctors and proper amenities.
There are about 500 medical doctors nationwide, serving a population of nine million.
We saw from Goroka’s experience in 2021 how deadly Covid can be when it hits a province outside Port Moresby in high numbers.
The main test will be the 2022 election. PNG elections are known for drawing huge crowds during rallies. It will be very difficult to maintain any sort of social distancing or enforced restrictions.
With Omicron transmitted easily, the huge crowds at political rallies will be a recipe for disaster.
Threats such as cybercrime used to be a distant concept to us, but the 2021 cyberattack showed how vulnerable PNG is.
In October 2021, hackers introduced ransomware into PNG’s financial management system within the Finance Department.
The hackers locked the system and asked for payment to release control of the system back to the government.
Although the system was restored, and no ransom was paid, the extent of the damage remains unknown.
PNG continues to experience delays of payments and other financial procedures following the attack.
Chinese company Huawei built underwater internet cables connecting PNG’s 14 maritime provinces while Australia built the underwater internet cable connecting Port Moresby to Sydney.
Huawei also built PNG’s national data centre, but to repair it the PNG government requested Australia for funding.
These complex cyber space systems require highly qualified technical expertise on PNG’s part to make sense of and protect PNG interests.
In addition, transnational criminals have found PNG to be an easy target for drug trafficking. In 2020 PNG police discovered about 500kg of cocaine in Port Moresby when the plane transporting the drugs crashed during take-off. Due to outdated laws, the offenders were not charged for possession and transport of cocaine.
Also in 2021, a methamphetamine laboratory was discovered in a hotel in PNG but the offender was not charged for manufacturing the drug because PNG laws didn’t cover methamphetamine.
Late in the year a new law was passed to change this, but another serious issue remains: the lack of capacity of PNG law enforcement agencies to investigate these crimes.
The investigations of both cases mentioned were assisted by Australian and US law enforcement agencies respectively.
Australian counterparts monitored the cocaine movement that led to the arrest. In the meth production case, US authorities identified suspicious substances headed to PNG from the US and notified PNG authorities.
Questions remain whether PNG law enforcement authorities have the capacity, funding and technology to monitor transnational crimes.
Another challenge for PNG law enforcement agencies is the porous border between PNG and Indonesia and the illegal, largely unreported and undocumented fishing in PNG waters.
There are about eight entry points along the 700km PNG-Indonesia border which remains largely unmonitored. Illegal drugs and weapons pass through these points.
Outside Port Moresby, Western Province, which borders Indonesia, has had most Covid cases, believed to have come from Indonesia.
In late November 2021, the National Fisheries Authority reported that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing is the single most significant threat to long term sustainability of PNG’s marine resources. Each year PNG loses about K400 million through illegal fishing.
Human security is compromised by sorcery-related killings, especially the torture of women and children, and tribal warfare.
Tribal fighting in the highlands does not seem to have an end. In 2019, about 20 women, children and a pregnant woman were killed in just one of many tribal wars.
Tommy Baker, a Milne Bay criminal gang leader who was killed on New Year’s eve, for committed violent crimes for many years and overcome police in gunfights, burnt a police station and killed a policeman.
There is a lack of consciousness of the state’s presence in some communities, and the idea that the state has a monopoly over violence is seriously under question in PNG.
There is need for PNG to dramatically increase funding for health, security and law and order. It has to be a long-term and consistent commitment.
Climate change will also continue to be an issue beyond PNG’s ability to address despite the world’s first climate refugees coming from the Carteret Islands.
What PNG can do is devise an effect resettlement mechanism, which not only caters for climate change refugees but those displaced by disasters such as the Manam volcano in Madang and Kadovar volcano in East Sepik.
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