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Green Left Weekly (Australia) Issue #443 April 4, 2001

By Norm Dixon

The protest action by rank and file Papua New Guinea Defense Force soldiers - described by the Australian capitalist press as a "mutiny" - came to an end on March 26. Following assurances that the PNG cabinet would abandon plans to sack half the PNGDF and that all soldiers involved in the protest would be granted an amnesty that could not be reversed, the troops handed back weapons they had taken from the Murray Barracks armory.

The dissident soldiers, angry and fearful that they may lose their jobs, had given PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta until noon on March 26 to respond to demands contained in a petition handed to the prime minister a day earlier.

In the petition, the troops demanded that the prime minister reconvene parliament to discuss the future of a defense force "reform" package and that the government establish an adequate permanent retrenchment and retirement scheme for defense force personnel.

The soldiers also demanded that "representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund [IMF] and any unnecessary military personnel from Australia and New Zealand" leave PNG immediately.

The soldiers' petition added, "Moreover, the national government is demanded to immediately cease employing contract officers from foreign nations who will only manipulate the decision-making of the government."

The crisis unfolded after the PNG cabinet on March 7 approved proposals for defense force "reform" made by a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (CEPG).

The key proposal was that the number of PNGDF personnel be slashed from 4,100 to 1,900.

Following rumors that Australian troops had landed in Port Moresby to oversee the implementation of the CEPG's "reforms," rank and file soldiers on March 14 armed themselves and demanded that the government abandon the personnel cuts. In the following days, soldiers at the Taurama and Goldie River barracks also joined the protest.

Morauta on March 17 announced that the CEPG "reforms" had been abandoned. However, the protesting troops demanded a meeting with the prime minister before they would agree to hand their weapons back.

The ranks of the PNGDF - already close to breaking point at the government's inability to provide regular meals and adequate uniforms, and pay wages on time – correctly recognized that the planned sackings were part of the government’s wider program of austerity and deep budget cuts. These are the central components of the "structural adjustment program" (SAP) that has been imposed on PNG by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

PNG reached agreement with the IMF in March 2000 for a US$ 115 million stand-by arrangement, and subsequently with the World Bank for a US$ 90 million structural adjustment loan. The Australian government has applied immense political and economic pressure on the PNG government to adopt and maintain the harsh SAP. Canberra's approximately A$ 300 million annual aid was made conditional on its implementation. The Australian government has also loaned PNG a further US$ 30 million, also conditional on Port Moresby meeting each step of the SAP as demanded by the World Bank/IMF.

While the soldiers' main motive was to protect their jobs (their pay packets often provide the only regular income for their extended families), they also share the PNG people's growing resentment at the deprivations being forced upon them in order to please the World Bank, IMF and Canberra.

Education and health services are being run down dramatically and key public assets - such as water, power, banks and telecommunications - are being privatized. The number of public servants employed is being slashed by 25%. The living standards of poor PNG workers, villagers and farmers are plummeting, even as Australian and other First World corporations are making millions from the exploitation of PNG's extensive natural resources.

"The IMF, the World Bank and Australia should leave PNG immediately because they have only manipulated the destiny of the nation," the soldiers' spokesperson Captain Stanley Benny said on March 22 as he presented Morauta with the soldiers' petition.

"Their foreign ideas have completely destroyed the nation. The World Bank, the IMF and Australian influences - I repeat, Australian influences - have denuded the nation's vast resources under the guise of assistance."

The PNG troops' protest was a revolt against the imperialist exploitation of PNG by Western, especially Australian, big business and the international capitalist financial institutions. Australian capital has huge mining and oil interests in PNG - including lucrative projects like BHP's Ok Tedi copper and gold mine, BHP's involvement in the massive Catawba oilfield, Canadian-Australian Placer Pacific's Porgera and Misima gold mines, and Anglo-Australian giant Rio Tinto's part-ownership of the Lihir and Mt. Kare gold mines - and hopes that Rio Tinto's giant Panguna copper mine in Bougainville will resume production.

Australia is PNG's largest foreign direct investor, accounting for two-thirds of total foreign equity holdings in PNG. Australian capitalists have an estimated A$ 2.7 billion invested mainly in PNG's mining, petroleum and services sectors.

Among the projects that will boost this further will be a A$ 1.5 billion, 2,100-kilometer natural gas pipeline from PNG's Southern Highlands to Gladstone in Queensland.

This financial year's A$ 30 million in military aid to PNG from Australia included an "emergency" grant of A$ 10 million to help "reorganize" the PNGDF.

Clearly, Canberra knew what the outcome of the CEPG report would be. The four-member CEPG included Major General Michael Jeffrey, a former senior member of the Australian army who had served in pre-independence PNG, and Gerard Hensley, a former New Zealand defense secretary. Another Australian military adviser, Ian Gordon, was seconded to help Morauta implement the CEPG report.

The Australian government has for many years pushed the PNG government to "reform" the PNGDF because it has felt that it is not the most reliable force to protect the projects of Australian and Western big business. The PNGDF - structured and trained to deal with largely non-existent "foreign" threats - rarely comes into hostile contact with the "enemies" that the Australian ruling class fears most in PNG: landowners fighting to defend their land or obtain just compensation from the mining corporations; angry villagers whose gardens and rivers are despoiled by mining pollution; workers fighting for better wages and conditions; the urban unemployed demanding jobs; and radical students whose critique of the policies of the World Bank, IMF and the Australian government can galvanize a coherent militant opposition movement.

The Australian government's preferred alternative to a large PNGDF has been the creation of a small, well-trained and disciplined elite force that could be trusted to act against "internal" enemies. The abject failure of the PNGDF to defeat the independence fighters on Bougainville reinforced Canberra's distrust of the army.

For a long time, Canberra concentrated on building up the PNG police. Between 1987 and 1998, some A$ 105 million in "aid" money was channeled to the PNG police by AusAid. Elite cops were trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency. (PNG's cops - especially its Australian-trained elite mobile riot squads - are widely hated by the PNG people, an antipathy shared by the PNGDF ranks.)

In 1996, the PNG government endorsed a policy paper - written with the assistance of Professor Paul Dibb, author of the 1987 Australian defense white paper - which argued that the main threat to PNG's security was internal. It proposed that a joint police-army paramilitary force be formed to protect foreign-owned mineral, petroleum and forestry projects. Opposition within the PNGDF to a merged force prevented this being implemented. The intent of the CEPG's report was yet another back door attempt to achieve Australia's long-term goal of creating such a reliable military force.

Despite the crisis having apparently been defused, Australia's ruling class remains worried that militant soldiers may link up with students, the urban unemployed and other opponents of "structural adjustment," threatening the interests of Australian big business. (The March 21 Sydney Morning Herald editorial had pointedly warned: "The appearance of students on Port Moresby's streets has also significantly escalated the political and military crisis confronting the Morauta government ...".) Members of the militant, anti-capitalist Melanesian Solidarity (Melsol) organization actively supported the soldiers. It is apparent that the soldiers' political demands have been inspired by the views of Melsol and radical students.

PNG's Trade Union Congress also backed the soldiers and their demands. The PNGTUC is opposed to the government's privatization program and is demanding that workers receive a 160% increase in the minimum wage.

Melsol and the PNGTUC issued a joint leaflet in support of the soldiers' demands that was widely distributed amongst the troops. The leaflet stated that the soldiers' struggle is part of "the people's global fight" against the World Bank and IMF. Melsol and the PNGTUC asked the soldiers to "lead us in the fight against privatization."

This revived memories in Canberra and Port Moresby of the 1997 Sandline uprising – in which students and the capital's workers and poor supported a military rebellion - that scuttled the PNG government's plans to employ apartheid-linked mercenaries to crush the independence movement in Bougainville. Melsol activists played an important role in bringing that "parliament of the streets" into being. The uprising led to the defeat of the government of Sir Julius Chan and opened the way towards a final settlement of the war on Bougainville. It was the Sandline uprising that also was the main catalyst for the creation of the CEPG.

The PNG and Australian governments are praying that Morauta's acceptance of the soldiers' immediate demands - the scrapping of the CEPG report and the granting of an amnesty - will be enough to defuse the situation and allow him to quietly ignore the soldiers' popular political demands for an end to World Bank, IMF, Australian and New Zealand interference in PNG's domestic affairs.

Morauta is unlikely to agree to a reconvening of parliament because he knows his government would not survive the inevitable no-confidence motion.

Parliament has been adjourned to July 23 because, on that date, Morauta will be protected by the constitutional provision that prevents parliament voting out a government in the last 12 months of its four-year term.

Similarly, the cravenly pro-Australian Morauta will do nothing to upset his government's dependency on Canberra, Australian and other Western mining corporations and the international capitalist financial institutions. He will not entertain the removal of Australian military (around 30 defense personnel are based in PNG), economic and political advisers or the abandonment of the SAP.

Even as the soldiers' protest was winding up, the Australian government expressed its confidence that Morauta would stay the course of the SAP by releasing the second US$ 10 million tranche of its US$ 30 million loan to PNG.

Australian treasurer Peter Costello described the release of the second tranche as "a further demonstration of the Australian government's continuing confidence in the reform program of Sir Mekere, which has recorded significant achievements in the past year and a half." These "achievements," said Costello, included "measures to establish fiscal prudence and financial stability. . .institutional and public sector reform" and "privatization."

Costello said that the third tranche of Australia's loan was dependent on more of the same. He noted that "further progress in the privatization of the PNG Banking Corporation" was the condition for the release of the next US$ 25 million of the World Bank's US$ 90 million loan to PNG. Its release would also trigger payment of the third tranche of the Australian loan.

All this adds up to greater austerity and suffering for the PNG people - precisely the real cause of the PNG soldiers' rebellion.

"May I take this opportunity to inform the business houses and the international community that the situation is back to normal," PNG defense minister Kilroy Genia said on March 26 following the troops' handover of their weapons.

The minister's announcement may prove to be premature.

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