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A policeman’s story: tackling symptoms but not causes in PNG

Police-gunsPHIL FITZPATRICK

Man bilong polis: life and times with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary 1982 to 1991 by Douglas Ranmuthugala, unpublished manuscript, 2013. 288 pages, ISBN 9780992389000

TUMBY BAY - Douglas Ranmuthugala came from Sri Lanka, where he had been a senior policeman, to work in Papua New Guinea.

When he left Papua New Guinea he joined the Australian Federal Police and worked there for 15 or more years, primarily as an intelligence analyst, before retiring.

He wrote this book for his family with no intention of publishing it:

“This volume was not written for publication. It is merely for my grandchildren to understand what their grandparents lived through.

“As someone said, the past is another country. It is however, worth the occasional visit. My wife and I hope that this volume will give the next generation a peek at what it was to live in the time before.”

It’s a shame that it has never been published because books by Papua New Guinean policemen and even about policing in such a difficult country are almost non-existent.

I’m not sure how I came by a PDF copy of it. It turned up in my email in-box one day. I can only presume that a copy is in circulation among friends and acquaintances of Douglas Ranmuthugala.

I filed it in my ‘look at later’ folder and have only just got round to reading it. I wish I had read it sooner.

Upon arrival in PNG the author worked briefly at the police training college at Bomana before moving on to work in Port Moresby.

His role there was mostly in the upper echelons of the RPNGC working with senior officers, including several police commissioners.

There were still a number of expatriate officers in the RPNGC in those days, mostly Australians but with quite a few from the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth, including those with African experience.

They seem to have been a mixed bunch. As the author points out many of the expatriates in high positions in the RPNGC in those times had actually come from the lower ranks of their home country.

What I found most interesting about the book was the way it details the modus operandi of the RPNGC and related agencies in the Papua New Guinean public service. It also casts an interesting light on some of the politicians of the time.

The author suggests that, unlike police forces in other countries, the RPNGC had its origins as a quasi-military organisation, for instance, as police attached to administrators like the kiaps.

This, he says, made the force much more regimented than other police forces in its outlook and behaviour.

He doesn’t specifically make the connection when he says that police in PNG only tackle the symptoms of crime and not the root causes. The inference, however, is that its regimented approach precludes such an approach.

He says that many police officers:

“….. did yeomen work, but their efforts were dwarfed by the sheer size of the problem. It was not possible to reduce the level of crime in the country without sweeping changes in politico-social fields.

“The whole fabric of society had to be shaken up and the very thinking process of people needed change, before success could be achieved.

“It also goes without saying that economic welfare where goods and services percolated down to all levels was vital for such change.

“As it was, the large majority of people, especially among the rural masses, survived at a subsistence level without any uplifting input from governmental agencies”.

It is a sorry tale and one that is familiar to anyone who has dealt with the Papua New Guinean government. As we read about the slow decline of the force through political and fiscal neglect it reminds us of what has happened in so many other areas of governance in PNG.

The author’s wife, Janaki, who found employment with the Department of Primary Industries, in keeping with her qualifications in agricultural science and agricultural economics, also reported gross inefficiencies and wastage.

In both cases the lackadaisical approach of expatriates, especially Australians, employed in the government was notable.

In his account the author also describes the effects of political interference in the police force and the corruption that this entailed.

The rapid turnover of police commissioners is a good example of the outcome. Most of them served very short terms, usually about two years, before the politicians move them on.

Some of these men, as the author points out, were deeply talented and incorruptible administrators. He singles out men like David Tasion, under whom he worked, as an example.

There is much of interest in the book that is still relevant today but a couple of things caught my attention.

The first is the author’s view that Australian Federal Police are not suited to work in Papua New Guinea:

“AFP officers, coming from a very sheltered background of an extremely orderly society in Canberra, were going to suffer from culture shock when they hit the streets in PNG. No amount of “briefings” was going to cure that.

“The cultures of the RPNGC and the AFP were quite different from each other, the former being an armed constabulary with very military traditions. The AFP, albeit armed, is a very civilian outfit.

“In addition, people of PNG had very low tolerance towards former colonial masters telling them what to do.”

Another view relates to the many ‘adventures’ of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Papua New Guinea and their disregard for history, including taking advice from old hands who know the place better than they ever will.

Among those old hands he possibly needs to include himself because on numerous occasions when he was in the RPNGC and the AFP his advice was ignored.

The book is a very measured account and the author, using old world diplomacy, has been careful not to include material that would reflect badly on individuals and organisations.

The author’s experiences, as described in the book, still have, both historical and current relevance.

It would be good to see an appropriately abridged version of the book published for a wider readership.

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