TUMBY BAY - Joe Herman, in PNG Attitude, has joined a growing list of Papua New Guineans who have alluded to the feeling of fear induced by many Australian kiaps in the days before independence.
At the same time, some of those kiaps have expressed surprise that they or their cohorts created that perception or were ever regarded in this way.
Like me, I think that a lot of kiaps went out of their way not to convey any overt authoritarian or oppressive power imbalance in their day-to-day dealings with the people they administered.
As a group of administrators that were very thin on the ground and deeply embedded in often remote societies under their care, such arrogance was never an effective tool. Cooperation, more than anything else, was the key to their success.
They did, however, hold responsibility for administering, among other things, the rule of law, which had certain sanctions attached to it that had to be applied without fear or favour.
Juggling this necessity with effective administration was always a tricky business. There is supposed to be a difference between fear and sanction but sometimes the two become mixed.
Ever since human beings have been organising themselves into communities there has been a need for clearly defined modes of behaviour. Whether codified or simply acknowledged, the rules attached to social behaviour have always required some form of enforcement.
In less sophisticated societies this method of enforcement relied heavily on fear. If an individual crossed the line it was often necessary to take brutal steps to discourage others from doing the same thing.
Thus, especially in Europe and Asia, we had the development of sadistic methods of torture and execution for major crimes and punishments way out of proportion for minor offences.
Pre-contact societies like those in Papua New Guinea were usually no different than their cousins in Europe. Effective sanctions were largely based on fear.
If your own society dealt with crimes against the social order in often brutal ways is it any wonder then that people in Papua New Guinea, who had only recently been brought under foreign control, would feel a level of fear about their new rulers?
That is the theory at least. There are exceptions however.
One of these is highlighted by Mathias Kin in his book ‘My Simbu’, where he describes the heavy-handed tactics of the Australian administration before World War II in parts of the highlands.
Having helped with editing Mathias’ book, I have thought long and hard about this matter. My conclusion, unexpressed until now, is that much of that history, especially the killings, can be put down to two things.
The first is the savage behaviour of the Papua New Guinean police and the second is the inability of their kiap officers to control them.
My conclusion about incidents in which kiaps were directly involved and personally accountable for the deaths of people is that these incidents, whatever the cause, occurred during dangerous clashes with warlike people who severely underestimated the power of those they were up against.
That said, the stories of such clashes were well known to many people and no doubt added to their anxiety about the kiaps and especially the police under their control.
The police, as we are well aware, have never shaken this perception.
In recent times, continuing brutality and other bad behaviour has added to their reputation. For many Papua New Guinean policemen, fear is a legitimate tool of trade.
The other point made by Joe Herman is that there were some kiaps who revelled in their power and abused it.
Thankfully those individuals were rare. They were also well-known among the kiap fraternity. Some had their services terminated while others were barely tolerated. The individual that Joe names in his article was one of the latter.
Finally, it is worth noting that this arrogance was not confined solely to a few kiaps. Among other administrative departments there were tyrants and ogres who took great delight in preying on susceptible people.
Whether this was more pronounced in Papua New Guinea because of its isolation and circumstances than back home in Australia is difficult to say.
You will notice I haven’t said anything about local Papua New Guinean kiaps. By 1975 they were on the ground in relatively large numbers. Ross Wilkinson has documented 487 and he is still gathering data.
I suspect the people might have regarded them much as they did their Australian counterparts but I can’t be sure about this. Perhaps it is a topic for later.