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By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY, Australia (March 14, 2002 – Asia Times Online)---Another day, another military insurrection in the Pacific. No wonder regional statesman Noel Levi feels insecure in his own back yard.

Levi, the Pacific Islands Forum secretary general and a former provincial leader in Papua New Guinea, picked up a familiar refrain on a recent visit back to his native shores. A steady decline into political impotence was wrecking economies and undermining livelihoods. Corruption and social instability were rife. Reform was needed badly, but who was up to the task?

As he was speaking, mutinying troops were blockading an army barracks at East Sepik on the north coast of Papua New Guinea in protest at a downsizing of armed forces strength that was partly mooted by Levi's office. It was the latest in a series of rebellions over the issue.

Thought to number fewer than 100, the mutineers -- with extraordinarily vocal support from their wives -- were demanding their own social covenant: secure jobs, better pay and improved living conditions. Oh, and they also wanted the government sacked for failing to lift the cloud of uncertainty that has hung over Papua New Guinea's ailing Defense Force since a reforms initiative got under way two years ago.

The crux of the package, mandated by the World Bank as a condition for continuing its development aid, is that more cash needs to be freed up for neglected operational duties such as policing territorial waters and deterring illegal arrivals.

Internal studies have painted a bleak picture on the declining capability of the 4,150 defense personnel, who are so under funded that their budget is absorbed by payrolls. Only one naval vessel is still seaworthy; the others lack parts or fuel. All aircraft are grounded for the same reasons. Infantry personnel have virtually no serviceable vehicles, meager rations and obsolete equipment.

At government request, an Eminent Persons Group assembled by the British Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum drew up a restructuring plan late last year that reduced overall service numbers by half to 1,900. Money saved in wages was to be used to improve the lot of those remaining, and even allow the Defense Force to once more venture out of its barracks and perform a proper security role.

The trouble is, the government allowed vested interests to hijack the plan while it was being implemented. There are suggestions that political or business persuasion was used to determine which soldiers would get the cut.

The East Sepik mutiny happened because the downsizing didn't go ahead fast enough, keeping the army in the dark for too long. Now the entire reforms package is in jeopardy as Papua New Guinea grapples with an unprecedented array of security threats, ranging from an influx of land refugees from West Papua to increasing sea arrivals and bubbling ethnic tensions.

Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta confided to other participants at a summit of Commonwealth leaders in Australia this month that the Defense Force no longer has a deterrence capability and might soon need regional help. Morauta is the most liberal political leader Papua New Guinea has had, at least in recent years, and the failure to pursue the army shakeup could cost his country dearly if he is defeated in coming general elections. The reforms are now so divisive that they are unlikely to be adopted by the next government without significant concessions to public opinion. In bowing to this pressure, the solid foundation of governance so desired by Levi and other regional observers would be undermined.

Yet the restructuring could have worked if politicians had had the sense of purpose to move swiftly and keep military personnel fully informed of their fate under the pending changes. Not only did the government err in not consulting the armed forces, but it also failed to provide for the social impact of decommissioning 2,000 personnel. Only vague references have been made to compensation, a point that was subsequently made by the mutineers.

"The immediately obvious problem," the Eminent Persons Group had cautioned, "is how to reduce the numbers ... and to do it calmly but quickly, in a way which is fair to those leaving and which avoids getting bogged down in endless litigation."

What the group didn't say was that the impact goes far beyond a cutback in a modest military detachment. Implicit in the World Bank's demands is a concurrent overhaul of other key institutions, including the civil service, that will now be difficult to complete.

Rescuing the economy will be a critical challenge if development agencies pull out. Even harder will be to rebuild a sense of trust between government, military and public, all victims of what Levi termed the rapid transformation of a region once better known for its image of enduring peace and stability. What stability remains in the Pacific is determined by the ebb and flow of internal power plays, backed increasingly by the ugly rule of force.

For additional reports from the Asia Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Asia Times Online: Oceania.

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