BEHIND THE PAPUA NEW GUINEA WEWAK MUTINY

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Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Australia In Focus Pacific March 17, 2002

The mutiny by soldiers in PNG’s Wewak Barracks is being blamed on poor management and political retribution.

Papua New Guinea Defense Force chiefs are considering the demands of a group of soldiers who mutinied at Wewak Barracks a week ago Saturday, ostensibly over their retrenchment.

The government regards the crisis as an internal Defense Force matter, with the Prime Minister refusing to personally accept the mutineers' petition -- which was instead left with his Secretary by the Opposition Leader and MP for East Sepik, Sir Michael Somare.

ABC’s Pacific Correspondent Kevin McQuillan reports that as the siege enters its second week, Defense Force chiefs are preparing for long negotiations.

 

KEVIN MCQUILLAN

In the early hours of the morning of Saturday, March 9, about eight soldiers went on a rampage, burning down two buildings and taking over a section of the Wewak Barracks, which is home to about 150 soldiers.

The group was later joined by about 40 more soldiers, who broke into an armory and seized an unknown number of handguns and M-16s.

Since then, the mutineers have issued two sets of demands. Some relate to a retrenchment program the PNG Defense Force is undergoing; others are political -- bearing a striking similarity to demands by soldiers who seized control of the Murray barracks in Port Moresby a year ago, as well as demands by students in June last year during a protest at the University of Papua New Guinea, which resulted in the deaths of four students.

Defense chiefs believe the demands relating to retrenchment are the result of poor local leadership, and say the mutineers were not given correct information about the retrenchments.

 

CHIEF OF STAFF, COLONEL TOM UR

"Anything that has political connotation I will not comment on. I will leave that to the government. But we're only concerned with the retrenchment package, which we know all about it and we can respond.

"Other issues, the resignation of the Prime Minister or the Commander or whatever - it's a process. It's not for the soldiers to do that. It's the people who decide, or the parliament. We don't want to comment on that. That's an issue the government can take up."

 

KEVIN MCQUILLAN

Lieutenant Colonel James Laki of the National Research Institute says the retrenchment program, which aims to reduce the defence force from 3,400 to about 2,000, has been mismanaged.

 

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JAMES LAKI

"Downsizing is the overall strategy which the government has, which is a good thing. But if they were done properly with all the practical problems addressed, then it would have gone quite smoothly. In fact, there were 1,300 that were earmarked earlier this year, in addition to about another 500-800 that were yet to be dispensed with. But they were still coming back in a piecemeal situation, trying to get what was not paid out or to get what they claimed to be entitled to, so that has prolonged the whole situation."

 

KEVIN MCQUILLAN

Colonel Ur describes the atmosphere at Wewak Barracks as tense, although soldiers not involved in the mutiny are moving freely around the barracks.

 

CHIEF OF STAFF, COLONEL TOM UR

"The whole atmosphere is slowly simmering. They're just waiting for feedback; they're just waiting for feedback from their petition."

 

KEVIN MCQUILLAN

The mutineers want the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Defense Force chief; a review of the new Value-Added Tax; and a pardon for three soldiers, now in jail for the part they played in the 1997 Sandline mercenary affair.

Colonel Ur says he believes outsiders -- ex-soldiers and others -- have instigated this latest crisis:

 

CHIEF OF STAFF, COLONEL TOM UR

"It's a mixed bag. Some of them are ex-soldiers, some are serving soldiers, but who is driving it from outside we are suspicious, but we have no evidence, no concrete evidence to say yes, these are the people.

"We have some suspicions, but we have no evidence to prove but we hope that we can get some evidence soon."

 

KEVIN MCQUILLAN

A five-member team of senior Defense Force officers arrived in Wewak Thursday to begin talks with the mutineers, who've given the government and Defense Force seven days to respond. Colonel Ur says that means they have until Wednesday to respond.

Mindful of last year's crises, defence chiefs say the mutineers need not fear an assault.

 

CHIEF OF STAFF, COLONEL TOM UR

"It is also not our nature to fight against each other. We don’t have an enemy. We're supposed to be working together. So we're not planning any drastic contingencies. We want to solve this diplomatically and tactfully by just negotiating until we have some solutions."

 

PNG DEFENSE CHIEFS NEGOTIATE WITH MUTINEERS AT WEWAK BARRACKS

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 17, 2002 – Radio Australia)---Papua New Guinea Defence Force chiefs say they're willing to spend time negotiating with 48 soldiers who mutinied a week ago Saturday, rather than bring in troops to oust them.

Radio Australia Pacific Correspondent Kevin McQuillan reports that the mutineers are holding a section of Wewak Barracks in the north of the country with heavy weapons.

"Defense Force Colonel Tom Ur says although the situation is tense, life at the barracks is continuing normally.

"He says the weapons the group seized from the armory include handguns and M-16s.

"Their demands include an end to a retrenchment program, the sacking of the government and a pardon for three soldiers involved in the 1997 Sandline mercenary affair.

"He says five senior officers are currently at Wewak talking to the mutineers. ‘We're not planning any drastic contingencies,’ Colonel Ur said. "We want to solve this diplomatically and tactfully by just negotiating and talking to each other until we have some solutions.’

"Kevin McQuillan, Radio Australia News."

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

For additional reports from ABC Australia News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/ABC News Online.

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