Up the Fly without a paddle

A senior police officer's view of policing in PNG

JOHN MURRAY APM has spent many years scrutinising South Pacific police forces. Here he casts a detective’s eye over Papua New Guinea....

DEATHS FROM SORCERY, tribal battles and cannibalism continue in PNG but tend to be neglected by the chronically incompetent Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary on the basis that the people are acting according to their traditions.

The role and writ of law in PNG is often open to personal interpretation similar to investigating the euphemistically-called “honour killings” in other countries.

The examples set by politicians have been abysmal, with none other than founding and frequently resurrected prime minister Sir Michael Somare an all too imperfect specimen.

Like others, he had been forced out of office on serious suspicions of criminality and corruption, narrowly avoided prosecution and imprisonment, and was subjected to commissions of enquiry finding him culpable but avoiding other than wrist-slapping admonitions, always denying any guilt and blaming others including a tolerantly benevolent Australian government. 

In April 2011 after being found guilty of 13 counts of filing incomplete financial returns to the Ombudsman’s Office, and with one Tribunal member and the prosecution calling for his dismissal, he was merely suspended from office for 14 days before carrying on his lucrative career until derailed by chronic medical conditions.

PNG legislation of a self-protection variety allows politicians and administrators to retire with grandiose handouts even after having been deemed guilty of Leadership Code infringements but before they are prosecuted, thereby avoiding any court appearance or conviction and thus eligible for subsequent re-appointment.

Policing is among the many departments to have suffered since independence, with the few capable commissioners being limited in their attempts to enhance efficiency when ministers thwart their aims and drunken magistrates dismiss apparently watertight cases due to incompetence, political influence or tribal allegiances.

The service span of a police commissioner is commonly aligned to that of the government of the day. Also not only do the military see the police as almost an opposing tribe but there even exist splits in the Constabulary between the general duties police and the undisciplined “Rambo” cowboys of the para-military units.

Tribal wantokism, being a pervasive clan kinship, is far more rife in PNG than elsewhere in the Pacific and is not only tolerated but even encouraged leading to prisoners finding their cell doors unlocked, prosecution briefs misplaced and police failing to attend court.

This misplaced loyalty as well as self-preservation has also led to police refusing to stake out premises where they have been forewarned that a holdup will occur, particularly if hearing that the offenders will be armed.

Politicians will address crowds of their constituents preparing for a notionally illegal tribal war but will whip off their shirts and ties to join in any outbreak of hostilities, with sanctions against these “debt-settling” processes being seen as little more than paper restrictions enacted by a parliamentary enclave in Port Moresby following the incomprehensible laws of former colonial masters.

That PNG has advanced as little as it has – and it hasn’t progressed anywhere near as far as 35 years of independence should have allowed – is still due by and large to expatriate expertise and the proverbial “few good men” of indigenous stock, hindered, hampered and hamstrung by too many of their fellow countrymen putting profit before patrimony and often manipulated by foreign sponsors.

In the mid 1990s the British police officer heading the fraud and anti-corruption squad claimed that 70% of his tasks entailed deception within government instrumentalities and that he needed four times more than the 20 staff allocated if even the most major crimes were to be investigated.

And major crimes there were.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were being lost to public coffers from chicanery in the lucrative timber industry where, even now, authorities lack the expertise and will to ascertain if the foreign-owned logging companies remove two, three or even 10 times the amount of timber they have been licensed to fell.

Receipts for billions of dollars earned from mineral and petroleum exploration have been unaccountably “lost”; and in 2001, K250 million allocated to the Port Moresby General Hospital was misappropriated.

As of March last year there were 71 cases under investigation relating to the diversion of millions of dollars from Australian aid funding, and they were just cases of which they were aware.

When former police commissioner Ila Geno, in his comparatively outstanding role as Ombudsman, relentlessly drew attention to scandals that would have brought down governments in most democratically elected countries, instead of gaining parliamentary support he was constantly criticised for interference in policy matters and subject of numerous attempts to dismiss him.

Extracts from a presentation to University of Sydney’s Master of Laws students on 5 October 2012

John’s book on policing in the South Pacific, ‘The Minnows of Triton’, won an ACT Writing and Publishing Award and it is revised annually, the latest edition coming out in September. In Sydney it is available at the Co-op Book Shop at Sydney University or you can order it directly from John for $22 including postage. Email him here


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Mrs Barbara Short

David, I realized a fair while back that when I talk about corruption with my PNG friends, they get upset for a moment or two then they seem to feel they can't do anything about it so they decide to try to forget about it and get on with life and make a joke about it.

Even my dear friend Sir Paulias Matane has just written in his Christmas letter - "If we had faced many difficulties and problems in the past, let’s forget all about them and move forward with Happiness, Hope and Harmony. The future should be bright for all of us. God bless us all."

Let's face it, there have been problems in the past, but, does the tribalism that you speak of, mean that if the problems were caused by someone in your tribe then you have to stop worrying about them?

It all sounds very fatalistic to me. I was a Neasmith, from the famous Scottish tribe of Neasmith/Naismyth/Nasmyth etc, and I have just heard about some distant Neasmith relatives who have been naughty and ended up in prison. I feel ashamed of them!

But I will pray that they will change their ways and that their time in prison will do them good. I'm happy that they have been caught and punished. I hope this will be a wake up call to them.

Surely setting up an ICAC would be able to work out "what is corruption, and what is not corruption". I think some PNG people act corruptly not realizing that it it corrupt.

I feel the PNG lawyers have to sit down and work out what is corrupt and what is not corrupt. Then the police have to abide by these rules. People who have been corrupt need to be arrested, even if they belong to your tribe!

I'm sure there are some brave honest people in PNG. I can think of a few who write for PNG Attitude.

The police men and women have to be willing to be brave and honest as well! My step children have been in the police force and I know they have been brave and honest. It is not an easy job. It can be very emotionally draining.

When I was writing the book on Keravat NHS I was corresponding with some of my ex-students in the PNG police force and I could see how they had been affected by their role in the force.

They suffered from anger and depression over all the things that were not going well in the Police Force. It would be good to have them aired on PNG Attitude.

I can see why Sir Paulias wants to forget about the troubles of the past. He believes in "forgive and let live".

I'm willing to forgive and let live when I hear that people who have done wrong by society have been punished and they have learnt by their mistakes and have become changed in their ways.

David Kitchnoge

Before any police people start getting defensive, this is not about them. The whole justice system in this country is so intertwined with tribalism that it is difficult to talk justice independent of tribalism.

This is what I mean by contextualising the problem. A one-eyed approach to policing (i.e a ten commandment style approach of do this/don't do this because the law says so) can be a very hard act to follow.

The second area in which the problem must be contextualised is in the area of white collar crime going unpunished. People don't care when public funds are stolen. They don’t actively seek justice because most people still live a subsistence lifestyle and money doesn't really matter to them in the final analysis.

Talk about corruption raises an eyebrow for a few moments and then people simply shrug their shoulder and move on.

How do you police white collar crime in such a situation where complaints from the public are hard to come by? There are some brave ones that try to raise the issue but the whole thing can quickly be silenced when tribalism kicks in.

But I do agree that the police force is severely undercapitalised and lacks capacity to be effective.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thanks Peter Turner for your wise words.

It would be good to hear from some serving members of the PNG Police Force. Come on boys and girls, start writing and tell us about your problems. We want to hear and try to understand what needs to be done to improve your lot.

R/Sgt Peter Turner BEM LL.M

"Contextualize the challenges"? Didn't he do that?

Cannibalism? Nah, doesn't happen, except in cases of extreme mental illness (like the dude who ate his own baby in public in Tabubil last year), and what else is the 'cult activity' in Bogia where the same sort of crap occurred, and the instances in Popondetta and Kavieng, that I am aware of, over the years. Oli long long.

Witch killing? Different matter. Not in the same league as 'honour killings".

Some of us spent years stamping on this stuff. Now, no-one is stamping on it. Porait? Absolutely.

Pouri pouri is still King in PNG. Just like it is wherever else it exists. South and Middle America, Africa?

A 37 years serving veteran of my beloved Constabulary, the 'Force', debilitated by 'politics' and underfunded for decades, which has kept this nation together in a reasonable state of affairs for over 120 years, I am able to see many instances of commitment, dedication and gallantry.

Just like the old days. There are some good ones, some bad ones, and a lot just needing guidance and encouragement.

Yes, there are two Police Forces. There always has been.
The Rural Coppers, under Kiap control, saw to Law and Order in 85% of the Country, the City Cops, under Regular Police Officers learnt how to run the CID, Traffic, Prosecutions etc. (what?; they are not all paragons of virtue and commitment?, like the rest of the world?) Go on....

As there are bugger all Police in the Provinces anymore, except in the Provincial Centres and Special Services Division (SSD - Mobile Squads), it is the SSD boys who 'sally out' into the 'rural areas' to provide some sort of Law and Justice coverage.

The SSD are the new 'Rural' Police force and if they tend to behave like a Marine Expeditionary Force, it's because they no longer have 'contact' with the local people and the local authorities.

So, often the 'goodies' get panel beaten, along with the 'baddies'. Not satisfactory, but things get a bit quieter and more secure whenever they are around.


Defensive? Blood Oath I am. Like everything else in this place, you only hear the bad publicity and never the good.

Imperfectly trained, under funded, many poorly housed and some improperly supervised, there is bound to be criticism and intolerance.

The basic material, however, is, and always has been, magnificent.


David Kitchnoge

Laurie - I meant as you said.

There are many cases of terrible miscarriage of justice where the person who makes the most noise wins regardless.

The so called “out of court settlements” is one such scheme that perpetuates this where the offender turns up with a token “gift” and an army of people to say “sorry”.

The party that has been wronged gets intimidated into accepting their sorry even if they are not completely satisfied with the settlement.

This is in the context of an offender owning up to their wrongs.

But there are equally many instances where tribespeople shelter an offender and frustrate the whole process until the already overwhelmed justice system snaps and allows the crime to simply go away without any retribution.

As for white collar criminals, they think up all sorts of schemes to conceal their tracks. But most of those schemes would have their roots in tribalism.

Laurie Meintjes

David, I assume that your maxim about blood running "deeper than water" is a re-working of the old adage "blood is thicker than water".

If so, we might reflect on the salient point that blood is thinner than gold, and that therein might lie the problem.

And PNG is not alone in this. Financial hanky-panky occurs wherever there are large pools of money. It is just that some are more adept at hiding their 'dubious dealings', to quote a Goroka-based Waigani hopeful I met in the 1980s.

William Dunlop

Terry - Hear, hear! A lot of water under the bridge since I last had an ale with you.

Paul Oates

We may well here be getting to the pith of the problem that confronts today’s PNG people. At the risk of being referred to as a ‘blast from the past’, perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Kiap system was so successful?

The culture and practice of traditional village life was basically left alone by the Kiaps who were moved around every so often and therefore perceived as being independent.

Sure missionaries made things difficult at times over matters like multiple marriages etc but mostly only serious crimes like murder or assault were ever brought before the Kiap.

People had a fairly clear view of what the legal parameters were: Abide by the Kiap’s laws on murder, rape, assault, theft, etc. and the village was basically free to follow their own customs.

That clearly separate and divisible system permitted improvements like public education and health to be set up and maintained while allowing most traditional cultures and practices to be continued while law and order were maintained.

That all changed when Somare and the Bully Beef Club decided the Kiaps were a threat to their taking over centralised power and Whitlam had no idea of what many of the issues were at all.

It’s probably true that a few expat old timers didn’t help at the time with their fixated views of the past and senior Canberra mandarins only thought about cementing their power bases further.

What was left after the Kiaps were effectively removed was a power vacuum at the village level where no one really knew which law or custom to follow in the village or when people came to town, who was in charge of what system?

That’s the situation that still exists today and seems to extend to many police officers as well.

What PNG desperately needs are independent people in authority who can understand what the issues and problems are and can work with and not against the people’s wishes.

That’s the issue: Where do you find recognised individuals who will be viewed as independent and yet capable of understanding and managing a dual system?

William Dunlop

Sad to say the rot started when the first Papuan New Guinean Police Commissioner, the late Pius Kerepia, was side-slotted to the Public Service Commission, then Transport, Works and Supply and finally to the Corrective Services Institution.

This was started under the Somare government.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

PNG has a parochial socio-economic and political culture. We are more loyal to our own small nations (Simbu, Sepik, etc) than the nation-state of PNG.

Unless we exploit this culture we will progress on a snail's pace. Local problems are best solved with local solutions.

Therefore, every able bodied man or woman in PNG has to change his or her way of thinking and start embracing change at the household or individual level.

The ripples of it will change all the ugly socio-economic indicators we seem to topple.

David Kitchnoge

"You can’t have both systems operating in tandem otherwise both become totally ineffective as has been proven again and again. Lamenting the end product doesn’t fix anything" - Paul Oates.

I agree.

Paul Oates

John Murray has effectively drawn a line in the coral sand. Melanesian coral sand that so often seems to remain pristine in Melanesian eyes.

Many may find it hard to accept that you can’t apply the law in an elastic and ephemeral manner. This is the nub of the problem and ‘the buck’ stops at everyone’s front door.

Either you have a law that is effective and applies to everyone or you don’t have a law. What you then end up with is a regime where the personal whim of those who have power is applied in an arbitrary manner. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

I have previously raised the inevitable impasse between the so called Melanesian Way and Western concepts of law and order.

It seems inevitable that you end up with an impasse when you try to mix the two. Either you have an effective and accountable system or you have a different code of conduct and ethnics and recognise it for what it is.

Could the Melanesian Way be codified and become accepted law? Whose regional customs would everyone accept?

Who then would become the arbiter? Only he who has the power as did the kings and emperors of old.

You can’t have both systems operating in tandem otherwise both become totally ineffective as has been proven again and again. Lamenting the end product doesn’t fix anything.

T J Shelley

Could we please have Richard Marles' or Bob Carr's comments on this very sad and distressing, however true and factual account, of the last 35 years.

Never mind the Moresby forecast.

Bernard Yegiora

"A few good men" best sums up the whole situation here in PNG.

Majority of educated and semi educated individuals seek to enhance their own livelihood via devious means.

Thus, the current status quo is terrible because PNG has a lot of wolves in sheepskin.

One maybe optimistic and have moral plans but when he or she finds that he or she is going against the current, at that point in time he or she is faced with two options either to flow with the current or to go against it.

In PNG, to go against the current is career suicide. You may think you are doing the right and moral thing by exposing corrupt networks but in fact you are digging your own grave.

Why waste your time in being a whistle blower when you know that corruption is systematic.

David Kitchnoge

His claim of cannibalism is an unnecessary exaggeration he could do without.

Indeed PNG is a very difficult country to police. We are an indigenous people where blood still runs deeper than water even in urban settings.

Another related but slightly different issue is the fact that a great majority of our people lead a largely subsistence lifestyle where money is not a matter of life or death for us.

It is quite difficult to hold abusers of the money economy accountable in a society like this. It is a question of motivation for us.

There is very little in the lecture that we don’t already know. I would have expected an expert in the area of policing to properly contextualise the challenges we face here and suggest possible ways of overcoming them.

David Wall

A sorry reflection on the state of affairs in PNG, but a contemplation which all honest PNG watchers know to be totally true!

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