PNG security callout: a holiday for Hela's warlords?

11:36 am on 23 January 2017

There are warnings that a major security forces callout to Papua New Guinea's Hela province will not provide a long-term solution to ongoing tribal fighting.

Late last month, 300 police and military personnel were deployed to Hela, which is home to the lucrative LNG gas project, after months of tribal fighting and a build-up of high-powered firearms.

Hela Province Tribesmen

Hela Province Tribesmen Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Dozens of people are understood to have died last year in fighting and lawlessness which has been particularly bad around Hela's capital Tari.

Since the callout, police have been on a province-wide drive to collect illegal firearms in Hela, with an amnesty is in place for tribes to surrender their guns by the end of February.

The proliferation of high-powered guns in the region is not a new concern, but remains a concern for the operations of the ExxonMobil-led LNG project.

Deputy governor of Hela Thomas Potabe said that since the callout, fighting had largely cooled off.

"Now the province is quiet and we have almost 300 police and soldiers on the ground, so I don't think we will get big fighting like before we did," he said.

However there's scepticism from NGO worker James Komengi, who has worked with facilitating mediation between warring tribes since 2008.

He said merely taking some guns out of the equation would not help in the long term because tribal fighting was entrenched in Hela as a result of the lack of public services and development.

The Highlands' warring tribes have a source of illicit firearms trade which they can tap, along the border with Indonesia - both via Indonesian military and West Papuan tribes.

In Mr Komengi's view, warlords could easily seek more weapons if they felt exposed.

"We are giving a holiday to the warlords," Mr Komengi said of the current callout.

"It looks like it's only a callout for the arms, and they don't have any programmes that will be left behind to help us transform the communities. And that's something I think the politicians will seriously have to get into to transform the province. Otherwise it's more like a temporary break for the warlords."


For others, addressing the lawlessness and fighting is a question of leadership.

A Hela community leader, George Tagobe, said local police had the resources to deal with fighting before a callout was needed, but that direction was lacking.

"Our leaders, when they are in there, when they show their presence in the area where the fighting is, people respect. When there's no leaders, people run around like animals," was Mr Tagobe's summary.

"Now the local police, they can be able to perform, but they're waiting for orders to come. They can't just go in and conduct raids and go into the fighting zone without any orders from the hierarchy," he said.

Police operations commander, Assistant Commissioner David Manning, said Hela people had lost confidence in the region's governance, and that needed to be restored in order to end lawlessness.

Tribal divisions are entrenched in Hela Province, Papua New Guinea.

Tribal divisions are entrenched in Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

"Over the years the thinking of the people of Hela has been that the national government has abandoned them, has really not given much focus on addressing some of the socio-economic challenges that the people face up here," he said.

"As such, there was a building resentment towards the government [at] the national, provincial and district level."

Part of the resentment that exists in Hela stems from the perception among of communities in the LNG Project area that promised benefits from this massive commercial venture have not materialised.

While their grievances have tended to be with government rather than developer, landowners mounted various protests last year, demanding outstanding project payments, and greater share of equity in the project.

Both police and local authorities deny that the tribal fighting is directly related to the LNG project, yet the project's footprint, and expectations surrounding it, remain important and potentially epxlosive in Hela.

Mr Manning said that ending the fighting was a huge task that wouldn't be completed quickly.

"The success of this operation hangs all over the shoulders of the people of Hela and how we - the operations - can engage in effective and productive partnerships with them in resolving the future of the province."

Hela provincial government officials said the security forces callout had sparked constructive peace talks between warring tribes, and they were hopeful of a lasting settlement.

As PNG's five-yearly general elections are due in mid-2017, it's likely the government will maintain a boosted security forces presence in Hela.

With unrest around polling having hampered previous elections in parts of the Highlands, prime minister Peter O'Neill has indicated that security around the upcoming elections will be a priority.

However, people in Hela are concerned that settlement of tribal fighting may collapse after the polls.

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea's Hela province.

A school burnt out as a result of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea's Hela province. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Dialogue and understanding

James Komengi has been involved with the Ambassadors for Peace programme which was instrumental in the signing of a peace agreement between 32 warring communities in Hela region in 2008.

He said that since then none of the communities had resorted to violence.

Mr Komengi said the programmes which civil society facilitated have brought warring tribes together at workshops to develop the skills to dialogue and understand each other as well as the causes of conflict.

These workshops and dialogues were generally mediated by trained local facilitators like him.

He said that peace agreements between previously warring communities or tribes were based on their own agreements, publicly declared, and monitored by facilitators.

These were the types of programmes he said were needed to cope with Hela's current wave of conflicts.

Drought a factor

Adding to the sense of despair and frustration among people in Hela, and other parts of the Highlands, is the hobbled government response to the recent drought.

Farmers and crop gardeners in many parts are still recovering from devastation caused by the El Nino-induced drought from 2015 to 2016.

Dry creek bed

A dry creek bed during the drought. Photo: Supplied

Mr Komengi said that in response to the drought there was little effective help from provincial or central government.

According to him, government relief supplies or funds were often misused or misdirected.

Now, the National Agriculture Research Institute is partnering with civil society in the Highlands to help build resilience to future droughts.

Mr Komengi said that NARI has chosen the United Church to work with in Hela because it led the drought impact assessment and response programmes.

The notion of not waiting around for government to help, but instead of getting on with a community-driven response, has gained currency in PNG's Highlands.

But taking matters into one's own hands, particularly where justice is concerned, is also at the heart of the tribal fighting problem.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs