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Many threats surround PNG’s coming election

| The Asia and the Pacific Society

PORT MORESBY - Policymakers in the Pacific Islands face multifaceted security issues, a fact that is not lost on the region’s leaders.

This was demonstrated in the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which expanded the definition of security beyond geostrategic concerns to human security.

Non-traditional security issues such as food security, water security and the protection of valuable ocean resources feature prominently in the Boe Declaration.

For Papua New Guinea, the events of October and November 2021 showed how several security issues can strike simultaneously.

Climate change-induced population displacement, the Covid-19 pandemic and transnational crime dominated PNG national politics late last year and will continue to do so this year.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow was important for PNG, not least because it is amongst the first nations to confront large scale climate change refugees.

The country’s Carteret Atolls are increasingly becoming uninhabitable due to the rise in sea levels.

There are plans to relocate residents of this island to other parts of PNG – possibly to one of the bigger islands of Bougainville.

But internal resettlement has its own challenges: less than 5% of land in PNG is assigned for government use.

As such, resettlement requires complex negotiations with customary landowners.

Compulsory land acquisition is one way to go, but it requires long negotiation and what can be costly compensation to landowners.

Past experience shows that the government is not willing to do this.

When inhabitants of Manam Island in Madang Province were displaced by volcanic eruptions, they were resettled on customary land in Bogia on the mainland.

There ae still occasional conflicts between the traditional owners and the settlers.

Despite the significance of COP26, prime minister James Marape missed the meeting because PNG was grappling with another threat: Covid-19.

Covid has exposed the weaknesses in PNG’s health infrastructure and capacity.

The country has fewer than 500 medical doctors and fewer than 5,000 hospital beds.

Of significant concern is that only 2.6% of the PNG population of nine million has been fully vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy, rough topography, the lack of road networks and a host of other factors hinder uptake.

Adding to these challenges, the funds for Covid response, usually kept in a trust account within the Department of Finance, were attacked by ransomware hackers in October 2021.

Ransomware attacks work through a virus designed to enter a computer system undetected, allowing unauthorised access to hackers who demand payment in exchange for the return of control of the computer system.

Affecting all levels of government, the cyberattack targeted the Integrated Financial Management System that facilitates budgets and accounts for revenues, grants, expenditure and reporting.

The government said no ransom was paid to the hackers and that the system was restored. The extent of damage is uncertain.

In addition to these threats, the National Fisheries Authority reported in November that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in PNG remains the single most significant threat to the long term sustainability of its marine resources.

PNG loses about K400 million kina each year due to illegal fishing.

Monitoring PNG’s sea boundary has been challenging due to the lack of capacity of the Fisheries Authority and the PNG navy.

The problem extends to monitoring the 700km PNG-Indonesian border where there are at least eight illegal entry points that are largely unmonitored, resulting in the movement of illegal materials, including weapons which end up being used in tribal fights in the Highlands.

These myriad security issues will come into sharper focus in the next few months with the national election set for April.

There is reason to be concerned that these issues may further inflame increasingly tense and violent elections.

In 2017, there were more than 100 recorded deaths directly related to the elections. Vandalism, arson, and destruction of life and property have become regular features of political participation.

This internal division is contributing to a strengthening of transnational criminal syndicates, which flourish in environments of corruption and weak institutions.

Drug syndicates have adapted and changed, particularly in response to Covid, reminding policymakers that they must adapt too.

In many cases, responses to these threats, like climate change and Covid, require international and regional cooperation.

Equally, transnational crime and illegal fishing require regional external intervention. Australia and New Zealand in particular have a big role to play in assisting Pacific Islands countries.

At the national level, PNG needs to build its military, police, and health capacities. All three are underfunded and underequipped.

But whilst much relies on external partners, PNG itself must invest more in its health and security to manage its resources, keep its citizens safe and secure its future beyond next year’s election.


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