22 Jul 2013

University attack by PNG soldiers highlights deep disorder

5:26 pm on 22 July 2013

A violent rampage by Papua New Guinea soldiers on a University Campus has highlighted the breakdown in discipline and control within the country's defence force.

Dozens of students were reportedly injured when more than 30 soldiers assaulted students and staff of the University of PNG's Medical and Health Sciences campus connected to Port Moresby General Hospital last Sunday.

Johnny Blades has more.

Reports emerging from Port Moresby paint a picture of an extreme payback for an altercation between a soldier and a medical student two days beforehand. The campus and adjoining medical facility, which is the country's main hospital, became the scene of a one-sided military attack by soldiers using guns, knives and axes. The University's Student Representative Council's Vice President, Nou Vada, says it was hard to believe what was happening.

"NOU VADA: Military personnel opening fire on students and on property. They attempted to set the dormitory on fire. Five rooms were damaged. Many students were assaulted. We understand not one, but a couple are in critical condition. They're trained to save lives, they're not trained to fight, and certainly they're not trained to fight trained soldiers."

Among the chorus of condemnation which followed, the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill promised that those soldiers found to be responsible would be removed from the force. The military police have begun to make arrests. However, the incident has highlighted a chronic lack of discipline in PNG's security forces.The Trade Union General Secretary John Paska says this sort of attack has happened a number of times in the past.

JOHN PASKA: There's been other incidents in the past with this macho, aggro type of behaviour from the military has been exerted on members of society. It's not just the military, though. Even the police force had the temerity, if you like, to also do these kinds of abuses against the civilian population and the security forces that are employed by security companies in Papua New Guinea. So violence begets violence, and it just continues. Something has got to really give and something has got to really happen.

The former Defence Force commander Major General Jerry Singirok says unrest in the military is a ticking time bomb. He identifies a key cause as the failure by successive governments to repatriate and pay hundreds of retrenched soldiers dating back to 1999, leaving many disaffected former soldiers creating disorder.

JERRY SINGIROK: It compromises discipline, because on one side you've got regular soldiers who are supposed to respond to command and control, and on the other side you have soldiers waiting to be discharged. They don't report to any system of command. So you've got two elements in an established institute. And when you can't define proper chains of command you're bound to expect such problems.

PNG recently announced plans to build the size of its military from the current 2,000 personnel to 5,000 within four years. But General Singirok and other former military figures say these plans will fail unless the retrenchment programme is completed and the army's disciplinary shortcomings urgently addressed.