REMEMBERING PNG’S VANUATU EXPERIENCE

Commentary

REMEMBERING PNG’S VANUATU EXPERIENCE

By Moale Rivu

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Aug. 5) - The deployment of Papua new Guinean troops in the Solomon Islands this week to join a regional peace keeping force provides an opportune time to cast our minds back to our first experience in peace keeping duties abroad.

I refer to the situation in 1980, when our Defense Force deployed soldiers to Vanuatu to stop rebel elements from disrupting that country’s transition from a colony to an independent sovereign nation.

As I surveyed the news reports this week of what the peacekeeping force is doing in the Solomon Island, I couldn’t help but dig deep in my memory to recall the events that led to our intervention in Vanuatu 23 years ago

Academics could at some later stage put the story into proper historical context but from what I can recall, this is how it all unfolded.

Our Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan was on his way to Kiribati for the South Pacific Forum leaders meeting scheduled for July 11, 1980, when he learned that a delegation from Vanuatu would be at the meeting to solicit support from the Forum to put down rebel elements trying to disrupt the declaration of independence. 

Sir Julius immediately sent word for Defense Force Commander Brigadier-General Ted Diro to join him at the meeting.

Vanuatu, then New Hebrides, was a rare case. It had two colonial masters — Britain and France - who ruled the islands through a joint administrator since 1906. 

The country was scheduled for independence on July 30 of that year and Anglican priest Father Walter Lini had been named the Prime Minister designate. But on Vanuatu’s biggest island, Espiritu Santo, rebels opposed to independence had other ideas.

At the Forum meeting in Kiribati, regional leaders led by Australia and New Zealand heard the case put forward by Vanuatu but appeared unwilling to commit troops. They issued a statement calling on Britain and France to do all in their power to make sure Vanuatu’s transition to independence was peaceful. As Fr Lini returned home empty handed, rebel leader Jimmy Stevens had already taken steps to declare a separate nation. 

Backed by French elements and foreign businessmen who feared independence, Stevens set up a radio station and began inciting people to overthrow the elected government. His followers commandeered all Government vehicles, blew up bridges and threatened violence against those who supported independence. 

His plan was to declare Santo, the biggest and richest island in Vanuatu, the independent Republic of Vemarana. Fr Lini was a worried man.

On July 17, 1980, Fr Lini wrote to Sir Julius asking for the Defence Force to help.

"The rebellious activities on Santo not only threaten the stability of New Hebrides, but also the Pacific region as a whole. We are anxious to handle the problem in a way that will minimize big power intervention in the region," Fr Lini said in his letter.

"Given that we have virtually no police or other defense force at our disposal, we would be very vulnerable to subversive activities engineered from within or outside the county."

Sir Julius then asked the Governor-General to authorize a special sitting of Parliament to debate the issue. At the same time as all this was going on, the Defense Force was preparing to send its military band, the now defunct Pipes and Drums of the Pacific Island Regiment, to Vanuatu for the Independence Day celebrations

The Defense Force hierarchy used the opportunity to add other units in preparation for deployment in Vanuatu. Altogether, two patrol boats, one landing craft, two DC 3s and one Nomad aircraft carrying 150 soldiers went to Port Vila to take part in the independence ceremonies.

The landing craft carried vehicles, stores and ammunition. The idea was that if Parliament approved, the Defense Force would have a big enough force, armed and ready sitting in Port Vila to begin early operations against the rebels while waiting for other units to join them.

On July 30, 1980, and with our soldiers marching on the streets of Port Vila, Fr Lini presided over the independence of his country. 

Soon after seeing off his VIP guests, he traveled to Port Moresby to formally appeal to our government for help.

On August 5, the National Parliament met in a special sitting (in the old Parliament House in town) to debate the deployment of troops. 

Only two members from that Parliament remain in office — Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare who was then Opposition leader and Member for Bouganville Regional John Momis, who was the Minister for Decentralization in the Chan/Okuk government. Governor-General Sir Silas Atopare was the Member for Goroka.

Sir Michael was opposed to the deployment. He told Parliament the Defense Force had acted illegally in sending troops overseas without Parliament’s approval.

"These troops are there now. They are sitting in Vanuatu. They are already practicing operational maneuvers," Sir Michael said. 

"They are there despite the National Constitution saying quite clearly prior approval of Parliament must be given."

Defense Minister Gerega Pepena told Parliament the initial deployment of 300 troops to restore law and order in Vanuatu would cost K750,000.

After three days of heated debate, Parliament voted 55 to 40 to send our troops on their first overseas assignment. 

The force deployed in Vanuatu was known as the Kumul Force and was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Huai who later attained the rank of brigadier-general and served two terms as Defense Force Commander. Another officer who served in Vanuatu was Major Leo Nuia who also went on to command the Defense Force.

Some two weeks after the fighting units were deployed in Vanuatu, the Kumul Force launched Operation Wantok Durua (Halivim Wantok — Durua is Motuan word for help) on the island of Espiritu Santo to neutralize Stevens and the rebels. The operation lasted several weeks and Stevens eventually surrendered to PNG soldiers. He was later sentenced to 14 years in jail.

At the height of the military operation, the number of troops in Vanuatu was roughly around 1000 men. They included the infantrymen, the air and sea elements, and the supply units supporting the fighting men. 

When it all ended in about October/ November of 1980, the military had achieved the following goals: 

They put down the rebellion that threatened the stability of Vanuatu;

Restored the authority of the government of Vanuatu;

Helped formed and trained scores of new recruits for the newly formed Vanuatu mobile force that would take over from them; and

Returned home without any major casualties. 

As our soldiers embark on their second overseas military assignment to help another Melanesian neighbor on the brink, Vanuatu remains a functioning democracy.

The problems in the Solomon Islands are different and military planners will tell you they will require different strategies to deal with them. Comparisons and strategies are better left to more qualified military analysts to dwell on. But one thing is clear — in 1980 Papua New Guinea single-handedly and successfully dealt with the Vanuatu crises.

Sir Julius and his government obtained parliamentary approval for the deployment. 

Our own senior bureaucrats dealt with the diplomatic, legal and financial issues that followed. 

The military understood the problem and took the appropriate course of action that resolved the issue successfully without great financial and human suffering.

There was very little help from any of our neighbors, including Australia and New Zealand now leading the peacekeeping force in the Solomons.

Since then, two of the principal architects of the policy that took us to Vanuatu, Sir Julius and Diro have on numerous occasions called for a regional force to help island countries in times of war and natural disasters.

Sir Julius and Diro argued that Pacific Island nations were too small and did not always have adequate resources to respond to security threats and natural disasters.

The arrival of our soldiers in Honiara to join the Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians and Tongans completes the make up of the regional force that will restore law and order in the Solomons. 

This is the kind of force and the level of regional co-operation Sir Julius and Diro foreshadowed more than 20 years ago.

August 6, 2003

Papua New Guinea Post-Courier: www.postcourier.com.pg/ 

 

Moale Rivu covered the Defence Force operations in Vanuatu in 1980 as a reporter for the National Broadcasting Commission.

 

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment