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Belden Namah’s prison dreams: a couple of steps to go

KELA KAPKORA SIL BOLKIN | Supported by the Phil Fitzpatrick Writing Fellowship

Belden NamahTHE SANDLINE INTERNATIONAL mercenaries arrived in Papua New Guinea in February 1997.

Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, the army chief, denounced the Sandline deal and called on Sir Julius Chan to resign. So Sir Julius sacked him.

But the PNG Defence Force refused to cooperate with his replacement. Brigadier-General Singirok retained the support of the 4,700 members of PNG’s army.

All these events unfolded when I was a first year student at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The PNGDF soldiers made a new home at the university’s Forum Square.  The university students and the soldiers unanimously opposed Sir Julius hiring the mercenaries to flush out the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

The police force was true to its constitutional duty and tried its best to protect the lives of civilians as well as public property and assets. But there were a couple of instances where the police and the defence force soldiers came close to firing shots at each other.

At the beginning of their protest, the students and the soldiers shared food from the university mess.  This show of solidarity and camaraderie was consistent with the traditional PNG way of preparing for tribal warfare.

There were five defence force officers heading the protest: Major Walter Enuma; Captain Bola Renagi; Captain Belden Namah; Lieutenant Michael David; and Second Lieutenant Linus Osaba.

These soldiers played a crucial role in stopping the mercenaries from going to Bougainville to kill and murder the BRA fighters.

Every time Namah took the podium in his full military regalia to deliver a speech he looked like the Napoleon Bonaparte that we had read about in history books.

He could truly talk and had the students, the soldiers and everyone standing on their toes with their adrenaline soaring.

That was the first time I had heard and seen Namah, albeit from a distance.  At the time I didn’t realise he would end up where he is now.

Civilians living in the various settlements in Port Moresby inundated the Waigani campus to show their support for the students and soldiers.

A couple of government vehicles were stolen and driven into Forum Square and burnt as a warning to the Chan-Haiveta government about what to expect if they sent the mercenaries to Bougainville.

Over the next two or three days the student leaders used rhetoric and demagogy to maintain the momentum of the protest.

Some dissenting students who claimed that the leaders were using the crisis for their own means were harassed.  So were students who didn’t get involved in the protest and tried to attend normal classes.

Fearing intimidation, they refrained from school work and sat at Forum Square listening to the student leaders talking about Tiananmen Square and the liberation movements in Latin America and Africa.

People like Fidel Castro, Che Ernesto Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez and other revolutionaries were hailed and used as examples of the approach needed in the crisis.


Sandline Affair - DorneyFew of the civilians, students and soldiers had an understanding of the nature and rationale of the deal signed by the Chan-Haiveta government with Tim Spicer of Sandline International.  They only had the opportunity to hear the side of the story espoused at the UPNG Forum Square.

The two daily newspapers were burnt or destroyed if they reported on the advantages of the deal to have the mercenaries eliminate the BRA.

The organisation Melanesian Solidarity (MelSol) was part and parcel of the protest and was very vocal. Jonathan Baure, Peti Lafanama and Powes Parkop were some of the leaders of MelSol and made names for themselves during the crisis. Some student leaders like Tom Olga and David Arore also became well known because of the crisis.

In the 1997 national general election many of the MelSol and student leaders stood for election in their various provinces. They thought that they had made themselves popular enough during the crisis to get elected.

But in the end only one of them, Peti Lafanama, was successful and joined the other new faces, like the late Fr Robert Lak, in parliament.

During the protest, students, soldiers and the general public, and various opportunists, slept outside both the northern and southern gates of National Parliament demanding that the Chan-Haiveta government tear up the deal with Sandline International. 

Eventually the 40 Sandline mercenaries were sent packing from Port Moresby and never set foot in Bougainville nor fired a shot there.

Sir Julius Chan resigned on 26 March 1997 taking with him his deputy, Haiveta, and defence minister.

After the crisis, the law took its course. Namah was tried for mutiny, convicted and gaoled in late 1997 with all his fellow officers except Major Walter Enuma. Namah was locked away, nobody heard of him again and he seemed to have faded into the abyss of history.

Around 11 September 2001 when the Islamic militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, I was granted permission by the then CIS Commissioner Richard Sikani to carry out a 10-week research program looking into prison rehabilitation at Bomana gaol.

Belden Namah and Army chiefI entered the main Bomana compound and met Namah at the entrance to the European area. He was clean shaven and wore short dark sportswear without a shirt.

He introduced himself and it quickly dawned on me that he was one of the soldiers that had led the Sandline protest. He was living in the European compound with a couple of the other officers implicated in the mutiny. 

There were also a couple of policemen, a Fijian and two Chinese who had been involved in various crimes ranging from murder to felony. Namah was very obviously the leader among the prisoners in the European compound and he had secured a freezer, decent beds and a TV for his fellow inmates.

For the next 10 weeks, Namah and I met at the Bomana main compound library for lunch. Whilst munching on our brown rice and tinned fish we discussed socio-economic and political issues affecting Papua New Guinea.

Through our discussions, I came to realise that he knew all the factions in the PNG Defence Force and which politicians they were affiliated with. He was also aware of all the major white collar crimes and embezzlement taking place from the public coffers and would strenuously condemn these crimes.

“This country is a land of milk and honey and I want to become the prime minister one day and save this country from both illegal and legal exploitation of our wealth and diversity.

“We are too polite to foreigners and that in itself is setting ourselves up for ambush by greedy foreign corporate organizations who are obsessed with profits, cheap labour and compliant markets. PNG’s interest is the last thing on their priority list,’ Namah said.

I listened attentively but at the back of my mind I was wondering how a helpless prisoner could get out of prison and give birth to his dreams and aspirations.

We became well acquainted and every time I went to the main compound he greeted me as ‘Angra’.

I tell you, Namah can talk and talk on any issue with vigour and conviction.

Every week when I entered the Bomana CIS I brought the two daily newspapers for Namah to read. He would read through them making comments on all the political rhetoric and grandstanding by politicians and corporate organisations.

He had an opinion on how it could all be done better with less cost, or no cost, to catalyse hugely successful results and impacts.

I was impressed with his ideas but deep down in the bottom of my heart I was underestimating him and was sure that he would die without realising his dreams, not least because of his prisoner status.

Then in 2003 the news was splashed on the front page of both dailies that Namah had been granted parole for his part in the Sandline Crisis. He quietly returned to his Bewani Forest like Robin Hood did to Sherwood Forest in English folklore.

I don’t know what he did between 2003 and the eve of the 2007 national general elections.

In 2007 he stood for the Vanimo Green River Open seat and won. He returned to tackle his arch enemies at the Waigani Haus Tambaran (Parliament) and the Galleries of Justice.

From that point on, all is familiar and we all know he helped oust Sir Michael Somare’s nine-year old government and install Peter O’Neill as prime minister. He landed in the deputy prime minister’s seat.

With the connections he had, he cooled and contained the mutiny by Defence Force soldiers supporting Somare.  He also combed the Supreme Court building looking for the chief justice.

If Namah is still the same guy that I became acquainted with at the Bomana prison in 2001 then I feel that one day he will climb the remaining couple of stairs to reach the apex.

I also believe that his prison dream of becoming prime minister one day will also unfold.

You and I know that PNG is the land of the unexpected. Let us wait and see if this prophecy of mine becomes reality.

We all know the adage, ‘Where there is the will, there is the way’.  It is also useful to remember that other adage, ‘All great visions are reached in stages.’ Caveat!


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Jonathan Oata

Correction needed..one of the MELSOL leaders was Jonathan Oata and not Jonathan Baure.

Oata was a MELSOL senior in the Sandline issue who was arrested, while Jonathan Baure was challenging Australia to recognise the issue of Papuan statehood.

John K Kamasua

Great read, Sil. I would deal with and view leaders anywhere with a "grain of salt," particularly leaders in this country.

Michael Dom

Integrity is determined by our actions, all of them, cumulatively and consistently.

Not in the one off opportunities, but in the day-to-day grind of life.

Our actions behind the scenes where only a few may witness, decisions at those difficult times when one cannot possibly profit.

And the conviction to carry through to the end, when it is either legally appropriate or just and right, to pursue a course of action.

Is Belden Namah a leader with integrity?

Triscilla Waikasi

Interesting piece indeed. I never knew Belden Namah was part of the PNG Defence Force. Thanks.

For more information on Belden Namah's colourful PNGDF career, read these articles from earlier PNG Attitude editions....




Michael Dom

Joshua - Compare Namah to Mandela, really? I thought I was naive.

Rashmii - Namah, charismatic? Like a charging bull(y).

Rashmii Bell

Excellent read, Sil! I've long found Belden Namah intriguing and felt he has a certain attention-commanding charisma.

Joshua Wangdui

Namah, I salute him for all his good work. He knows very well his people's needs and struggles. Nelson Mandela was once a prisoner and became the world's great leader.

Yes we human beings make mistakes and learn from them to become stronger and those.

Let Namah be PM one day....

Mathias Kin

Yalkiyo, thank for that great story.

From comments here and a few I have gathered in my bag over the past five or six years, Belden Namah really has to come good on many issues to convince PNGians that he is the man - the real deal.

That plus his erratic and often "uncultured" methods he has employed in his short time in public office stand him "ino redi long" CEO of PNG.

I throw in this other name for readers of PNG Attitude to be aware of; Gary Juffa. I see this Oro man as a definite candidate for the post of PM of our beautiful country.

Peter Kranz

Just met a young PNG Highlands student studying in Australia called Alan. He is extremely talented and has a wide perspective on PNG-Australian relationships, and the political future of PNG.

I mentioned Belden Namah to him. His response?

"It's time these old guys retired to make way for the younger talent that PNG has.

"The future of PNG is with a new generation, and I don't think they will make the same mistakes as the lapuns. They have learned some lessons from the past."

I hope he's right, and I'll put my money on the likes of Alan.

Alex Harris

Great read. Thank you Kela. You too Peter. :)

Peter Kranz

Forgot - his flight in the Falcon jet from Indonesia, and his alleged involvement with fugitive Indonesian fugitive Djoko Tjandra.

Don't put lipstick on a rokrok.

Peter Kranz

There's also his behaviour last year at the Sydney Casino. And his alleged posts on Facebook seeking and enticing women.

And his money.

These have yet to be accounted for.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I agree with David.

Here in Australia Namah came across as an irrational loose cannon. This is probably because we got all our information from the Australian media.

Clearly there is a lot more to him than meets the eye.

However, I'm still puzzled about how he could find the K37million that he talked about during the election.

Was this just rhetoric or does he have that sort of money and, if so, where does it come from? The impression that we all have is that he made it doing shonky logging deals.

If anyone can clarify that question we'd all be a lot more comfortable about him.

He clearly needs a team of spin doctors on his side and a couple of minders who can keep his more energetic impulses under control.

Someone like Jackson PR maybe?

David Kitchnoge

Namah does come across as a sincere and patriotic individual. But I hope he has learnt a valuable lesson over the last twelve months that governments are not run on emotions.

If he can learn to exercise restraint and show some maturiy in his decisions, then he might make a good PM.

Bernard Yegiora

Namah has studied the political landscape here in PNG. He knows who is corrupt and who is not. Interesting article, hope he becomes the PM one day.

Joe Wasia

Thanks for the great article, Sil. All I heard about Namah before reading this brief history was that he was one of the PNG military leaders who stopped the Sandline deal. I know now.

It's really interesting to read about this man. Namah and the other other five figures played a crucial role in stopping the mercenaries from going to Bougainville to kill and murder the BRA fighters.

Everything happens in time. Who knows, he may climb up the steps to realise the prison dream.

Wilson Kalama

Good story. Yep, dreams never die.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thanks Sil, for this very interesting story of Belden Namah and the events surrounding the Sandline Affair.

As time passes one starts to see the main threads of history.

I guess I was too busy with my own teaching life in Sydney to keep up with all the events in PNG over the past 29 years, since I left off teaching in PNG.

So much has happened in those years that I did not fully understand. Thanks to you, and other writers in PNG Attitude, I am starting to understand recent PNG history.

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