IN many ways, Tommy Baker is the embodiment of a social bandit.
Despite a major national security operation to hunt him down and repeated pleas for community members to turn him in, Baker appears to have considerable support among certain communities in Milne Bay, and possibly elsewhere, who place familial and social loyalty before State interests.
Just as another candidate for the title social bandit in recent PNG history, the criminal William Nanua Kapris – who allegedly pulled off one of PNG’s largest bank heists in 2008 and several spectacular escapes – Baker is at pains to use his platform to rally against perceived corruption and injustice.
In a newspaper exclusive, Baker painted himself as a nationalist fighting against foreign control over his native Milne Bay (his father is from Gulf, his mother from Milne Bay).
While we have no wish to justify or romanticise Baker’s actions, his popular appeal to many Papua New Guineans is both undeniable and understandable.
There are widespread concerns about the country’s economic decline, endemic corruption and deteriorating service delivery.
These include concerns around the integrity of the police and their well-documented propensity for violence.
Empathising with a criminal who is seemingly striking out against the State and the political establishment is one manifestation of the frustration among ordinary citizens over the apparent impunity afforded the crimes of the powerful.
When it was reported that Baker’s criminal predecessor, Kapris, had been killed, a crowd gathered at Port Moresby’s Boroko Police Station, and according to The National report back then, “many people from many different parts of Papua New Guinea wept”.
He has since been celebrated in a popular rap song and is the subject of numerous YouTube clips.
It is uncertain how Baker will be remembered, but he appears intent on securing his position in PNG’s growing pantheon of memorable outlaws.