Force of Disorder With empty coffers, obsolete equipment and rebellious troops, Papua New Guinea's military is falling apart

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It was mortifying to admit his country was defenseless. But last Oct. 18, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta did just that in a nationally broadcast address. He told citizens the Papua New Guinea Defence Force was almost beyond redemption. "Put simply, the p.n.g.d.f. cannot provide the protection the people of Papua New Guinea need," Morauta said.

Last Wednesday, his forebodings were confirmed when 100 soldiers stormed the Murray Barracks armory in Port Moresby. Seizing dozens of weapons and barricading themselves inside, they demanded an end to the reforms that had begun with Morauta's speech. By Saturday, they had won.

In a stunning reversal, Morauta dropped the entire reform package-which had international backing and had been months in the making. According to Paul Dibb, a former Australian deputy secretary for Defence strategy and intelligence and author of a 1996 report on the p.n.g. military: "This is the last-gasp chance for the p.n.g.d.f. They're in a corrupt, violent, rundown state, almost out of control, a law unto themselves." The p.n.g.d.f. is a decrepit shell. Most of the $27.4 million annual defense budget is wasted or corruptly siphoned off. What little remains is devoted almost entirely to salaries, leaving nothing for operations or maintenance.

Asked by Morauta to draft a blueprint for reform, a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group last December prescribed drastic medicine: cut p.n.g.d.f. numbers from an estimated 4,100 (exact figures are not available) to 1,900; disband the engineers' battalion; decimate the unwieldy defense bureaucracy; commercialize support services; and sell land at p.n.g.d.f. headquarters for the funds to refit operational bases.

Morauta knew the reforms would be unpalatable. "It's an increasingly active volcano we've been sitting on," he told Time last month. Resistance was expected from staff officers, some of whom are clinging defiantly to pay and entitlements despite no longer holding command positions. But Morauta hoped he and his ministers could avoid an explosion. They were wrong. For the soldiers barricaded at Murray barracks -and the officers tacitly supporting them-the first taste of the remedies was too bitter to swallow.

It hasn't always been this way. The two infantry battalions Australia raised from p.n.g. in World War II distinguished themselves in combat and after the war were re-formed and incorporated into the Australian Defence Force. After national independence in 1975, the new p.n.g.d.f. earned a reputation for small-unit and irregular operations. But these days, "no one's proud to have served in the force," says an Australian Defence official. "I'm trying to find a way to join the Australian Army," confides an ambitious young p.n.g.d.f. officer. "I want to actually serve as a professional." Many other officers trained at Australia's Royal Military College, Duntroon, express similar frustration.

So how did things go wrong? "They were left in the lurch," says a source close to the Eminent Persons Group. "A lot has been asked of the p.n.g.d.f. in the last decade [but] they haven't been given the resources nor the support they've needed."

Nowhere is the picture of neglect more stark than at Moem Barracks in Wewak, home of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Pacific Islands Regiment. There, on the 25th anniversary of independence last Sept. 17, rioting soldiers occupied the base, trapping guests-including the provincial governor-as they arrived for a celebratory ball. After torching the HQ, the soldiers tried unsuccessfully to break in to the armory. It was midnight before the terrified guests were led out through the surrounding swamps.

Investigators learned that the soldiers had lived for years on rice and tinned meat or fish. Four of their six barracks were unlivable: sewage overflowed, electrical wires were exposed, windows were smashed. Many soldiers were still owed pay from the 1989-97 Bougainville campaign. They had been "denied the basic requirements of a soldier," says a senior p.n.g.d.f. officer. According to Morauta, when Australian Major-General Mike Jeffery, who commanded the regiment in 1975, returned with the Eminent Persons Group he was almost in tears. The p.n.g.d.f. officer recalls Jeffery saying: "These men are trying to hold up something that's already fallen apart."

The same men are also trying to hold the border with Indonesia's Irian Jaya province (also known as West Papua). At Vanimo, a 45-min. flight west of Moem barracks, a 2RPIR rifle company tries to secure a 400-km strip of land against a steady trickle of refugees and rebels of the Free Papua Movement, who use the area as a haven in their fight for independence from Indonesia-and are occasionally pursued across the border by Indonesian military units. "It's real tiger country," says ex Defence secretary Dibb.

The border is the nation's most serious potential flashpoint. And how has the p.n.g.d.f. responded? "Our border control is 0.00%," says a former intelligence officer. Late last year, Indonesia sent 10,000 additional troops into the border region, deploying about 2,000 soldiers across the border from the p.n.g. settlements of Bewani, Yapsie and Imonda. In response, the p.n.g.d.f. has boosted its Vanimo rifle company to 70 or 80, with one Iroquois helicopter. Foot patrols are conducted only when funding allows: once every two or three months. Says a p.n.g.d.f. officer: "We don't know what's going on out there."

It was the war in Bougainville that first exposed the p.n.g.d.f.'s weakness. Far from wiping out the ragtag secessionists of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the p.n.g.d.f. was unable even to counter them. Part of the reason was lack of supplies and support, says one veteran: "Lives were lost because nobody helped us do our job." Then in 1997 Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan enlisted the mercenaries from Sandline International-a move that ultimately turned the Army against the government.

The affair "was a slap in the face to those of us who'd been in Bougainville," says a non-commissioned officer. "They gave us nothing. Then they wanted to give the millions of kina we should have had to foreign mercenaries. No, I can't bear it." Says another veteran: "We've still had no recognition. Like, say, a medal. The only medal I can show is to roll my sleeve up." He has bullet scars from shoulder to wrist.

Other veterans carry mental scars. One private, who asked to be identified as Solomon, says he's been reliving battles ever since he came out of the anesthetic in a Queensland field hospital screaming, "I'll kill you." Working himself into a rage as he tells his story, he says, "Come with me, I'll kill someone in the street right in front of you. Someone needs to take my brain out and readjust it, make me normal again. If not, my family will become the victims."

The p.n.g.d.f. troops had victims of their own. A 1997 Amnesty International report cited more than 120 extradjudicial killings by the force or its militias in Bougainville. A U.N. human rights report the following year blamed murders and other alleged abuses on a culture of impunity "created by poor discipline and a weak chain of command." One officer told Time that he was ordered to take a man out to sea and kill him. He says he refused, but in private, many veterans admit that atrocities occurred. Others rationalize the brutality as part of the war. "So what?" says one soldier. "The b.r.a. rebels did worse than us, and it was to their own people."

Having spent an estimated $500 million on the p.n.g.d.f. since independence, Australia retains a keen interest in the health of the force it established-and closely fostered for a decade. (Backing for the proposed reforms would have cost another $20 million next year.) But between the mid 1980s until the Sandline affair, Australia shifted its attentions away from its near neighbor, alternating between indifference and bossy prescriptiveness. Says an ADF analyst: "There was a highly cynical and patronizing view within Defence and Foreign Affairs."

"Australia stands ready to assist your reform efforts over the next year and beyond," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told his p.n.g. counterpart last month. Many in the p.n.g.d.f. were skeptical. Did Australia want to reform the force, or take it over? Their concerns were heightened by the ADF's role in planning the reforms-a process from which p.n.g. soldiers had felt excluded. Last month, Australian and p.n.g. officials told Time that talks would overcome the soldiers' concerns. That optimism now seems misplaced.

A week after September's Moem barracks riot, troops in Port Moresby confronted police, angered by the killing of a fellow soldier (and alleged criminal). Last March, they held a street protest over service conditions. By then, funding had become so tight that a desperate p.n.g.d.f. reportedly tried to use surplus Australian aid money to buy helicopter parts.

That desperation has escalated. "They want bargaining power," says an officer whom the Murray Barracks protesters approached last week as a potential p.n.g.d.f. commander. "With the weapons, they have that power. Many of them have feelings against Australia: they believe Australia wants to make our defense force redundant and take care of security in the region."

With the reform process stalled, the p.n.g.d.f.'s troubles are spiraling out of control. Suspicion and resentment are pervasive, and the dilapidated fighting force is turning against former friends. The Prime Minister appears to have given up his effort to stop the rot. For the unprotected citizens of p.n.g., the news from the top offers no comfort-only chills.