POLICE report seeing villagers in the Samberigi area walking around with rocket launchers and rockets similar to the ones they have seen carried by soldiers in Iraq on CNN.
These and other powerful assault rifles are displayed so openly in absolute defiance of authority in many of the oil and gas rich communities of the Southern Highlands.
The authority is indeed powerless. When Mendi police recently dispatched six mobile squad members to the Samberigi area to contain a raging tribal conflict there, they came across such open display of powerful weapons by the tribesmen.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the police merely resorted to broker peace which by their own admittance is fragile. They could not arrest anybody out of fear of their own lives.
The recommendation coming to police high command from Samberigi is cautious. To remove these weapons by force will result in high casualties on both sides. Any such operation would have to be big, sustained and done only after police are adequately resourced.
There is the option to broker peace and appeal for arms surrender but as experienced in the past, the people will only turn over home-made weapons. The expensive and powerful weapons will never be surrendered. This, the police understand.
What to do?
The National proposes the call out of the PNG Defence Force for a long and sustained operation throughout PNG, beginning in the Highlands region to go after gun-totting communities and individuals.
Police on their own do not have the capacity presently to sustain such an operation while also maintaining their traditional civic policing duties. They will need assistance from the PNG Defence Force.
The PNGDF, now some 3,000 strong, is basically holed up in the various barracks and we only get to hear about the force when there is an exercise on. PNG’s must be one of the few forces on the earth which is overtrained and underutilised. It is time they were utilised in this emergency.
For it is an emergency out there. The gun culture alone stands to stop even the LNG project itself. Indeed, guns in Poroma and again on the outskirts of Port Moresby at the Konebada Petroleum Park have halted very important early works on the LNG project.
The Constitution, at section 204, provides for a callout of the force in aid of a civil power, in this instance the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.
The Police Commissioner has to make such a request for a call out to the the PNGDF specifying the task and the number of personnel required. Soldiers on callout are under the command of the Police Commissioner.
Specific task allowed by the law for call out duties include, but is not specific to:
(a) Cordon and search operations; (b) Traffic control; (c) Control of entry into an area; (d) Protection of specified installations and Government property; (e) Patrolling to support the civil authority; (f) Specialist assistance in respect of ships, vehicles, aircraft, radio equipment, arms and ammunition; (g) Protection of property and staff of missions of overseas countries within the meaning of the Diplomatic and Consular Privileges and Immunities Act 1975; (h) Provision of escorts for any person; (i) Enforcement of a curfew proclaimed under the Curfew Act 1987; (j) Overpower or neutralise any armed resistance made by any person; and (k) Using force, disarm any person, carrying an offensive weapon.
Quite clearly, there exists a situation in PNG that warrants the callout of the Defence Force.
Guns are now controlling the lives of communities. The police, as the Samberigi incident reveals, are quite powerless and their members do fear for their lives when faced with civilians who have far superior fire power. It is not a comforting thought when police fear criminals and when the police are relegated to negotiating peace and appealing for criminals to turn from their bad ways.
Before the callout, Parliament ought to pass laws and amend existing ones pertaining to gun possession and ownership with a view to increasing the penalties. Authority must be given to use all necessary force to remove guns from whoever is illegally in possession of one.
There is no other way out of this but to bite the bullet and go for the hard option. There are no other options which will bring to an end this single biggest threat to our way of life and a decent and prosperous future.