Johnny Blades, RNZI, 02 April, 2012
Papua New Guinea Defence Force soldiers are to be deployed in Hela region and Porgera in neighbouring Enga province to assist police counter rising lawlessness. In recent weeks, illegal blockades by individuals and landowner groups in parts of Hela such as Tari and Hides have disrupted key construction work for PNG’s major liquified natural gas project. And last week, hundreds of illegal miners went on a violent rampage at the Porgera gold mine, seriously injuring several workers and closing operations at the open pit mine.
The government has ordered the callout because, as Prime Minister Peter O’Neill puts it, they cannot allow hooligans to threaten normalcy and vital economic projects. He says such behaviour has placed the lives of innocent people at risk, and disrupted work in the LNG project and at Porgera Joint Venture’s operation which is a key contributor to the national economy.
The Enga Governor, Peter Ipatas, says the mob of over a thousand illegal miners who went on a violent rampage within the grounds of the mine must be dealt with swiftly. “The mine has been given a special mining license to mine. And it is for the government and the people of this country to respect corporate citizens. Those illegal miners, as a result of their conduct, have stopped operations and, in turn, that affects public interest, that’s revenue for the state as well as revenue for the province and Porgera Valley.”
The Defence Force Chief of Staff, Captain Tom Ur, says they are working to determine the number of troops to be sent, but that a number of personnel have been in Hela since the Tumbi landslide in January anyway. “We have people up there, the engineers and other soldiers up there. The Commander just went up and had a quick look over the weekend. He’s back so we’re just going to work on the concept and have the right number of people deployed. It’s an opportunity for us to also do pre-elections operations first.”
An NGO which monitors the gas project, LNG Watch, says that military and police presence could trigger armed conflict in the volatile Hela tribal belt. LNG Watch’s Stanley Mamu has warned about the potential for conflict after Hela locals learnt that defence force personnel will join the three mobile police squads in the area. “The landowners can shoot out in the first place. So they’ll waiting for defence and policemen to shoot out first. They’re prepared, they’re prepared because they heard that the government is sending police men and the Defence Force. Those police men and Defence are there to reopen the project by force.”
However Captain Tom Ur says the army knows how to handle such situations. “Yeah we’ve done many of those before. There’s a big difference between us and the police. The people have no problem with the military. They’re very receptive - they always allow us to get back and provide services. It’s a very complex problem, some they don’t trust the police, some just don’t like the police attitude, it just keeps compounding all the problems. They (police) are more exposed to the people, so they don’t trust them, I think.”
But Isaac Bulube of the Hela NGO, Population Services International, fears that confusion among local people about the callout could turn violent. “Even people, educated and non-educated, they’re so confused about why the military are coming up. The general feeling that people have is they’re not happy with the government sending the military. And some of the landowner reps, they went down to Port Moresby to complain about it. They’re saying it’s not a big issue, why is government doing this? That’s what they said.”
Isaac Bulube has echoed the concerns of LNG Watch and The Institute of National Affairs in saying that some law and order problems could be avoided if compensation owed to landowner groups for environmental damage caused by the LNG project was paid.
While pressure to pay is on both state and developer - which in the case of the LNG project is Exxon Mobil subsidiary Esso Highlands - bogus claims of landownership have only caused more delays for the rightful claimants.