MT HAGEN, PAPUA NEW GUINEA — I’ve been spending this past month in the Papuan Highlands, in a paranoid little town called Mt. Hagen. My motel’s pretty typical for New Guinea: there’s a huge, corrugated-iron wall around the perimeter with a sheet-metal gate you have to bang loudly every time you want in. You knock on the gate, the doorman peeps through a little hole and lets you into the carpark. There are two more checkpoints: one to your immediate left, which leads to a hut full of pokie machines — you can see gamblers getting pat-downs on their way in — and a moat at the other end of the carpark, with yet another gate, another guard post, which takes you to the inner courtyard with the actual motel rooms.
Luckily, there aren’t any bedbugs here, which is always my biggest fear. There’s everything else, though: ants, wasps, moths, scarab beetles, butterflies, praying mantises. Motel owners here stuff their gardens with as many tropical plants, thatched gazeboes and pseudo-Japanese bridges as money can buy. A few fancier places keep hornbills and tree kangaroos in cages; anything to soften the paranoia, pad the cell, keep things looking less fortress-y. At the place I’m staying, someone even found time to braid ponytails out of the vine-tendrils hanging along the perimeter fence.
The moat’s half-dry now, thanks to water rationing, leaving a school of very claustrophobic koi squeezing through shallow green water while their ceiling closes in on them like some computer dungeon trap. Nearby, the inner-courtyard gate is made from the same latticed iron barrier-material you’ll find fixed to car windows and bank teller booths around town. Stuck to the wall where the guards are sitting is a list of customers banned from the hotel bar: “Councillor Jim Kuri,” “Dr. Samu,” and “Mr. Jacob (Lawyer?).”
Mt. Hagen isn’t the most violent place in Papua New Guinea, but it’s still a scantily policed dystopia where women and tourists can’t go out at night — not alone, anyway — for fear of being mugged or raped by PNG’s notorious raskols. Speaking to Kaiglo Ambane, the Provincial Police Commander for Western Highlands Province (which includes Hagen), I learned that about a thousand serious crimes — that is, rapes, murders and armed robberies — are committed within his jurisdiction every year, leading to about three or four hundred arrests.
Why does Hagen have such a serious crime problem? Most likely because it’s the capital of a province with 600,000 people and only 388 police, far lower than the UN minimum requirement of one cop to every 450 people. According to Ambane, his police force has barely grown since 1975, when PNG gained independence from Australia. Not only does it lack funds for recruitment, but it doesn’t even have a large enough barracks, with enough dorm rooms, to house all those needed recruits.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what a Radley-Balko-style libertarian paradise would look like, a frontier town where rent-a-cops keep the peace, just fly to Mt. Hagen, to many happy evenings pacing around in your own little courtyard of ferns, mantises and privatized safety.
* * *
If you have some time to waste during the day, though, you might try chewing betel. PNG [Papua New Guinea] is the second country I’ve visited where people do that; Burma was the first. Only, Papuans chew it differently. The Burmese dry out the nut, slice it into discs and wrap the discs in a leaf with a slurry of calcium hydroxide (that is, slaked lime that’s been slaked again) and various aromatic seeds and herbs. The lime reacts with the nut and turns it bright red, sort of like the dirt in my old town — seeing betel-cud splattered on a sidewalk always reminds me of Roebourne on a rare, wet, muddy December day — while releasing arecoline, the actual drug behind the betel high.
Papuans can’t be fucked with all that delicate drying and slicing. They get their betel (“buai“) fresh — the fruits look like little green coconuts — and crack open the husk with their side-teeth. (You can see dried husks by the thousands lying across town, like mini grass skirts for a mountain of Hula Barbies.) If the nut inside is white, that means it’s good for chewing; the whiter the better. Red-brown, oxidized-looking nuts are thrown away, replaced by the vendor for no extra charge, since they supposedly smell bad. You pay a kina ($0.50) for a nut, crack it open, chew it, spit out the latexy sap, grab a little loofah-shaped seed pod (the “daka“), bite the tip off, moisten it, dip it in a bag of lime (“kambang“) and try to chew on the nut-pod-lime mixture for as long as possible.
Betel nut spittoon
Before plastic bags, Melanesians carried their kambang in the same kind of gourds they used as penis coverings. The lime, you’ll find, is pretty diluted — plenty of carbonate mixed in with the hydroxide, I’m guessing — so it tingles more than it burns, unless you’re up to your third nut or so. If you’ve ever worn bleaching trays to whiten your teeth, you’ll know the feeling. As for the high, it’s okay, I guess. A bit like smoking, only you’re more spaced out, like the afterglow from a bulb of nitrous. Cigarettes, betel nuts, nangs: All quick disposable highs, magazine ammunition.
As far as other drugs, Papuans have naive, innocent tastes. Booze and weed seem to be it. The Highlands might possibly be a good area to cultivate opium, being cool and mountainous with the same subsistence crops of banana and taro I saw in the Golden Triangle, but none of the Highland clans have anything close to a cartel mentality. Their concerns are still Feudalist ones: who has the most wives, the most pigs; who owes “compensation” (that is, blood money) for running over whose drunken nephew on a rainy night; who has the oldest claim to which piece of land; who’s the land owner (“papa graun“) and who’s the peon. If Papua New Guinea ever does come to resemble Mexico — in any way besides murder rate — I bet it’ll be thanks to some enterprising Chinese or Indonesian syndicate. There aren’t any Chinese triads in this country, though, except in coastal cities like Port Moresby and Lae. The Highlands aren’t on their radar yet.
At the moment, you’ve just got all these feudal battles. Traditionally, a Papuan Highland battle was more like a duel — a duel with tens or hundreds of extras, like one of those Trobriand Island cricket games — than an episode in a “true” war. The two sides shouted at each other for hours then settled questions of honor with arrows and axes. Even today, when nearly every tribe has access to high-powered assault rifles, there are still apparently special areas — traditional “battle grounds” — reserved for fighting. If a Highlander catches another Highlander getting too close to his land, wife or pig, the traditional solution is to challenge him and his “wantoks” to a mass duel. If he backs out, and refuses to pay compensation, it’s then perfectly cool to assassinate him, usually in town. (One of this year’s assassinations happened directly opposite the police station, outside the Shangrila Kai Bar. It was around four in the morning, though, and as you’ll see, Papuan cops aren’t always that fussed about guarding their posts.)
Sound money in PNG
The “compensation” itself, when it happens, is usually a mixture of cash and pigs. Pigs are how you gain status here. The Papuan Kina ($0.50) is all but pegged to those hairy black squealers. It’s the Pig Standard, sound money. A fully grown swine can fetch over a grand on the open market and it’s not unusual to see women breastfeeding younger animals, or taking them for walks with a rope tethered to their left trotter. In a recent spat between the Provincial Governor’s cronies and some settlers from neighbouring Enga Province, the Governor’s clan paid a blood fee of 2000 pigs, plus a few pythons and tree marsupials, for shooting the settlers with high-powered rifles.
The current Governor, Tom Olga, is one of those pollies, so common in PNG, who go for the “Gotham’s White Knight” look, crusading against graft and institutionalized corruption and… we’ve heard it all before. Except there was a strange incident where one of Olga’s supporters burned down Kapal Haus, the provincial government HQ, presumably to hide irregularities in the crusading Governor’s accounts.
I heard the full story on a ride-along with Senior Constable Peter Makalus, head of the SWAT-like “Task Force” section of the local police. Makalus was comically unpunctual. He arrived 40 minutes late to pick me up from a local pub, and couldn’t leave his 4WD unattended for long because his AR-15 was resting on the front seat. His “boys” — 16 cops in total — were stretched out, taking 12-hour shifts, chewing all the betel they could get their hands on to stay awake.
They were the best armed squad in Mt. Hagen involved in regular policing. The paramilitary “Mobile Squad” — three sections, 105 men total — spent most of its time in other provinces, acting as muscle for big mining and natural gas projects, getting private kickbacks for it, and doing seemingly nothing in their home province except taking 1-2 weeks R&R time for their 3-4 month stretches as semi-private mine security. (To learn more about the Mobile Squad’s heroic exploits in the service of Barrick Gold, the Canadian gold mining giant, you only need to read this Amnesty report which details how they forcefully evicted hundreds of people, burned down their homes and beat the shit out of anyone who didn’t flee in time.) As for the cops who weren’t in the Task Force or the Mobile Squads, they were pathetically under-armed, with (Makalus estimated) one pistol or pump-action shotgun to every ten officers.
Still, riding through Hagen at night, all I got to see the Task Force doing was making examples of a few betel vendors, burning the cardboard crates they used to prop up their wares. They had that triumphant look cops always have when they’re incinerating contraband, “making a big dent” (as they say) in Mt. Hagen’s supply of Maggi Noodle boxes, busting a random nut-peddler or two pour enc. les autres.
Next evening was when I heard about the arson attack on Olga’s HQ. One of his supporters had done it, a guy named Jerry Kevin, who resisted arrest armed with a .3-something revolver. Here’s the weird part: there were four private security guards from the Wapa Security company on duty outside the HQ when Kevin burned it down. A few of them were arrested as accomplices but later acquitted on lack of hard evidence. Their story? They saw Kevin entering the offices with a “small” gas tank but weren’t too concerned. You wonder how “small” it was, considering it held enough gas to raze a pair of joined, three-storey blocks. There’s nothing left of the interior today, except a charred photocopier and a few pools of algae.
Later, chatting to Tom, a former detective with the Serious Crimes Squad (who now works for one of Hagen’s many rent-a-cop companies) I found these arsons were more common in PNG than I’d imagined. The same thing happened once to Sepik Provincial Headquarters. That time, Tom said, the arsonist was a police officer married to the Governor’s sister. He was based in Lae, a different city, so he took special leave, went home to Sepik and razed the offices.
Why would anyone earn himself a five-year sentence just to cover up for his brother-in-law? Because Papua New Guinea has something called the “wantok system,” an “all for one, one for all” code of morality that trumps every other obligation, including Western law. A Papuan is expected to help out his wantoks (“onetalks”) — cronies he’s bound to by blood, marriage or some other close tie — even if it means going to jail. It’s one of those weird, indigenous things that doesn’t fit any Western model — not libertarian psychopathy, not Leftist community-mindedness, but a nepotistic politics that lies in between.
It gets even more interesting when you’re a cop with wantoks who happen to be raskols. A few days after he told me about the Sepik Provincial HQ case, Tom introduced me to Dokta Kewa, a long-time raskol on the brink of retirement. It wasn’t hard to guess why — the guy was a cripple. His leg had (according to him) been hit in a firefight with cops so he was starting to consider Jesus as a serious possibility now. A few of his friends had already gotten religion and Dokta was just about ready to join them.
(In case you’re wondering: yes, ‘Dokta’ was his real first name. Just before independence, a lot of parents named their kids “Dokta,” “Loya,” “Kiap” — a colonial Aussie policeman, “Luluai” — a chieftain, and so the craze went.)
Where were we? Religion. If there’s one superstition that dies hard, it’s that criminals who believe in a personal God are more “changed,” more sorry, than crims who stay as atheist as ever. It seems some idiot judges and idiot juries really think metaphysics counts as good behavior, that Jesus really is something more than the dregs of a cornered animal’s adrenal glands. But, funnily enough, Jesus never does the sensible thing: appear to crims and reform them while their careers are still going good, while they can still exercise freedom to choose. You’d know what I mean if you’ve ever seen a doco called “The Redemption of General Butt Naked.” It’s about this Liberian war criminal famous for fighting in the nude because he thought it made him bulletproof; this guy now having to cope with peacetime: his fellow war-crims facing trial, constant harrassment, having to stay on the move (and sometimes even live in exile) because of serious death threats. Is it any wonder he finds Jesus? Becomes a preacher? Blames his war crimes on demonic possession? Goes from victim to victim, begging for forgiveness?
It happens in every culture. A Bangkwang inmate I spoke to once — old-time Aussie drug-runner who knew Terry “Mr. Asia” Clark — said Thai gangsters all went monastic when they retired. Monasteries, he recalled, used to be great places to cop smack. But now he was Christian, of course, (at least when he wasn’t boasting about the good old days). Sometimes, I wish the legal system could be reformed so atheists could grovel without the embarrassment of getting “saved,” so they could choose some other embarrassment (“Phlogiston cleansed my serial-killer soul!”), but then, what difference would it make? Embarrassment’s the whole point; submission, islam with a lower-case “i.”
That’s why Dokta met us at a big outdoor revival event (and also because it was the only place in town he felt safe recounting his 25-year raskol career). He’d started at 12, with B&Es, then graduated to bank hold-ups. He wasn’t comfortable discussing bank jobs with me, but I did come away with the story of how he and his friends robbed the police barracks at Kimininga. Thanks to the wantok system, Dokta’s gang had plenty of accomplices on the Force, usually “one or two people within each unit.” One of these friendly tipsters suggested barrack security was practically non-existent in the early hours of the morning, and, sure enough, Dokta found the armoury completely unguarded. His gang cut the locks and made off with 72 rifles, including a few high-powered “M16s” (Dokta may have meant AR-15s, but same diff).
I haven’t been able to chase down much raskol slang and I’m not even sure PNG has a true system of thieves’ cant, but raskols apparently refer to their guns as “pipes” or “mambu” (Pidgin for “bamboo”). A “pipe” can be any gun, but you can guess where the term came from: the galvanized water-spouts used to make homemade pistols, horribly inaccurate weapons, prone to misfiring. Like the gun that killed Pushkin, probably, when he’d duelled his last Frog. Or worse, like the Polack’s gun that wounded Casanova’s hand (temporarily, though the Pole-doctors tried to amputate it as revenge; everyone was a bit more Papuan back then).
Another thing I’d kill to find out is whether raskols have their own ballads, like vory or narcocorridos. If they do, it’s nothing anywhere near as public as all those Mexican groups that sing drug-lord elegies to sell-out crowds. The closest thing I could find was an ex-raskol called K. Dumen who turned to reggae in prison, which won him an early release. This was PNG, though, not De Gaulle’s France where Genet could get pardoned on pure artistic merit. K. Dumen bought his freedom dearly, by devoting his career henceforth to songs glorifying cops (“Police Fos,” “Highway Patrol”) and other songs that were little more than government public service announcements (“Cholera,” “Violence Against Woman,” “Innocent Pikinini”), sold in cassette cases stamped “SAY NO TO ALCOHOL AND DRUGS.”
(Papuans, for some reason, haven’t quite discovered CDs yet, and still buy everything on $8 tapes. One person mentioned MP3 players, but only as an infernal Chinese introduction, threatening PNG’s vulnerable recording industry.)
K. Dumen’s music didn’t sound like much, either, when I heard it. The only tune that stood out was a synth version of “Hotel California,” the most depressing song ever written. Not because of the lyrics, but because, somehow, this piece of tormented rich-kid bathos escaped its small, L.A. microcosm and became the anthem of Naipaul’s universe, the song that’s greeted me in every fucked-up corner of the Third World I’ve ever visited (except Aboriginal Australia, whose gods were Slim Dusty and Sherbet). I saw a market stall in Tachileik, Burma that literally played it non-stop, in a continuous loop from opening to closing. You’d hear a snippet each time you walked past: “…that speerit here since 1969.”
It always creeps me out a bit, this tune about fake imprisonment, enviable imprisonment, which keeps appearing near the real circles of Hell.
Dokta did mention one singer popular with raskols, someone called Simon Tazi (or Tasi) whose tapes I haven’t been able to get hold of, though the bartender at my hotel was kind enough to transcribe K. Dumen’s “Highway Patrol,” in exchange for a $25 tape player:
Highway Patrol, lusim [illegible], Southern Highlands,
go long Enga Province, pairap long Western Highlands,
Chimbu, Goroka, putim try long Lae City.
That’s the upbeat chorus, tracing the patrol’s route from the Highlands to the coast, exactly the sort of cheery, artificial image of national unity postcolonial governments always kid themselves with. But with raskols, strangely, a kind of pan-Papuan unity does exist. Thanks to the central, maximum-security kalabus (“calaboose,” prison) in Port Moresby, a raskol from Hagen like Dokta can make connections in coastal cities like Lae and go on inter-province crime sprees with his new wantoks. Dokta himself has spent most of the past fifteen years as either a prisoner or an escapee, escaping five times (which, if PNG’s calabooses are as well guarded as its armouries, seems hardly unusual).
I asked Dokta what changes he’d noticed in raskol culture over the quarter-century he’d been part of it. Raskols in his day were more selective, he said. They targeted banks and other big businesses. Today, anyone’s a fair target: “Raskols are lazier now.” When he started, there were less than a hundred raskols in the whole province, “maybe fifty, maybe sixty.” Now there were at least a thousand. There wasn’t so much private security in the old days, either: “Fence and one guard standing, tasol. People weren’t thinking about robbing banks. They were thinking more about their schooling.”
* * *
The first, and friendliest, case of denial over the raskol issue I saw came from a local headmaster. He was in the hotel bar with a bunch of teachers, having end-of-school-year drinks.
I had a fairly cordial chat with the woman who taught English; she was a Chinua Achebe fan, the sort of rosy postcolonialist who’ll talk your ear off about “emerging voices” (a nice, long way of saying “new writers”) and how wonderful it is, I mean, that we’ve got all these voices just emerging from new corners of the Commonwealth. That kinda thing. Her friend, a woman from Rabaul, PNG’s cassette-recording capital, taught performing arts and introduced me to K. Dumen (“He sings songs about bad people becoming good people…”). She wasn’t sure what I meant when I asked for “other” raskol songs, that “weren’t about redemption.”
I tried explaining slowly and cautiously (“You see, my mother’s Russian, which makes me half-Russian, and in Russia… and my father speaks Spanish, which is the official language of 21 countries, of which Mexico is…”) but it was hopeless. Songs about self-respecting criminals were an alien concept to her. When her English-teaching friend heard I wanted to write about raskols, she urged me to vary the ups with the downs: “People write a lot of negative things about us. I hope you understand it’s not all…”
The headmaster was a whole different breed of denialist. The thing about raskols, he told me, was a kid could be completely well-behaved in their home town but go out and be a raskol in another province: “These raskols are not Hagen kids. They all come from somewhere else.”
(Later, interviewing Dokta, this Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario became less and less plausible. Even if *some* raskols commit robberies away from their home turf, they’re unlikely to visit towns where they don’t already have contacts, since anything more than petty theft takes group effort and familiarity with your surroundings.)
I had a tenser encounter in the gambling hut. It was full of old “State of Origin” pokie machines from ’94, same ones every gambling place seems to have in this town. I’ve never understood the appeal.
A trio of local councillors came in, ordered their crappy South Pacific (SP) Lager and started on the pokies, hitting broken “Double Up” buttons with cracks in the plastic and faulty lights, trying to line up three little footballs or whatever the point of the game was. One councillor was unusually swinish, even for a politician. Gray bristly moustache. Millions of chins. Stray tusk poking through his fat lips. Huge belly rippling, a little out of orbit with the owner, each time he slammed that broken “Double Up” button.
This hog-alderman came from a district called Warrakum, built around the Kum river. I’d driven through there twice, first with rent-a-cops, then with Senior Constable Makalus, who also happened to live there. On both nights, it looked like a rough area. Whole streets full of drunks staggering around, bumping into each other, starting fights. Homebrew vendors keeping warm around little fires. Muddy streets. Drizzle. Bits of tropical scrub here and there. Migrants from neighboring provinces, the ones who got shot by Governor Olga’s cronies before the pig-and-python compensation. Lushes hobbling right in front of our Land Cruiser, nearly getting run over — according to Makalus, their wantoks would demand compensation regardless of who was in the wrong.
So it seemed like a pretty safe question: “Warrakum? Wow. That’s a bit of a rough area, isn’t it?”
Councillor Hog said nothing, just glared at me with his bloodshot eyes. Then he furiously denied there was anything rough, even slightly disorderly, about Warrakum and demanded an apology.
“Ok, sorry then.”
That’s when his friend intervened. “You are a tourist so relax, mind your own business and enjoy Hagen. This is a beautiful town. What you heard is rubbish. You have not been to Warrakum.”
There was no further discussion, no attempt to prove why anything I “heard” (or saw) was rubbish. Even the idea that Warrakum needed defending was too insulting for them to contemplate.
* * *
Then there was the Hagen Club, the town pub, the last bastion of macho, colonial Australian wankerdom since the lawn-bowls club had fallen to the blacks. I never realized how much truth there was in outback melodramas like Wake in Fright until I stepped into the Hagen Club and sat down next to a pure, bored-shitless Aussie passive-aggressive. He was a bald, scruffy geezer with bad teeth who seemed to be going through a nasty period of male menopause where he just wanted to pick on someone — someone youngish and literate — and decided I was perfect pub-bait.
So he started haranguing me for not stopping to notice him in the middle of a busy crowd. The subject obsessed him.
“What if I was a raskol? I could’ve stabbed you.”
“Then I’d be fucked, regardless.”
“You’ve gotta pay more attention, son. Even in here.” He boasted about beating up the Hagen Club’s native staff for trying to pick his pockets, then gave me a dressing-down, for not being man enough to keep the blacks in their place.
“I have shirt pockets,” I said. “With velcro flaps. Hard to pick without me noticing.”
“They could still get it.”
“I keep track of all my cash. Nothing’s been stolen. One kina at the very most.”
“One kina? That’s still stealing.”
“I never said it was stolen.”
“Nup. Still stolen. Doesn’t matter if it’s one kina or–”
“I never said anything WAS stolen. I said a kina was the most that COULD’VE been stolen.”
“So you dunnoe! You dunnoe!”
“It’s petty cash!”
“Still stolen, mate. Let me tell you about something that happened the other day. One of these guys–” (he meant Papuans in general, not someone in the pub) “–got done by a pickpocket. Took a thousand kina [$500] right out of his trousers.”
“Again. Shirt pockets. Not my problem.”
“Don’t interrupt, son. So he caught the thief by the arm and dragged him to the coppers–”
“You don’t expect me to do that, do you?”
“But the money wasn’t on him. They work in groups. Everything changes hands. So he took the boy right back to where he caught him, held a knife to his throat and said ‘If I don’t get every kina back, I’ll do ‘im.’ They did nothing so he took the knife and slit his throat. Just like that. Look, I said this two weeks ago and I’ll say it now: get out of Hagen.”
This guy was the paranoid opposite of the Warrakum hog-alderman: he was pissed off that I hadn’t been mugged yet, because it made his own expat survival look less rugged. Which it wasn’t. If he could walk through town safely after dark, it was only because he was married to a Papuan woman and had in-laws, wantoks, to protect him. If he wasn’t harrassed in general, it was being white that did it. Papuans might kill Papuans every day (for all kinds of stupid, macho, honour-culture reasons) but PNG’s murder rate doesn’t really apply to whites all that often.
The last time a white guy got killed in Hagen was 2004. Alan Mourilyan, a pilot at Airlines PNG who flew workers in and out of Barrick Gold’s Porgera Mine, had just withdrawn cash from an ATM when a group of raskols held him up and fatally shot him. No one seems to know why it happened, but it wasn’t supposed to. Not to a white guy. It was so not-s’posed-to-happen that his daughter speculated it might’ve been a contract hit.
The raskol who fired the shot was quickly arrested. His accomplice, Samuel Manda, went into hiding for seven years, protected (Senior Constable Makalus suspects) by wantoks in the Criminal Investigation Division. Earlier this year, on the night of April 1st, Manda reappeared in town, and, for reasons we’ll never know, attacked a rent-a-cop working for the Guard Dog Security Company, slashing at his head and buttocks. Makalus and his “boys” chased the raskol on foot. He fired back with a .44 Magnum, wounding two cops before the Task Force filled him with bullets. His wantoks dragged him away as he bled to death, too slow (or frightened) to hospitalize him.
Manda might be dead, but the mass hysteria he created — by killing one white guy — was enormous. The people of Hagen erected a memorial to the dead pilot in the middle of their main street. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier ran front-page inserts reading: “How many more memorials like this must we see before guns are eliminated from our communities?” That’s what stirred the Post-Courier to action. A dead white Queenslander who flew other Queenslanders in and out of a toxic gold mine that only enriches a few lucky bureaucrats and a fly-in-fly-out workforce while Papuans get mercury poisoning and forced evictions. (Even Commander Ambane admitted to me that big mining projects bump up the cost of living in Hagen to almost-European levels, feeding further crime.)
Yep, that dead white Queenslander. Who cares about Papuan deaths, anyway? Papuans get killed every day; Queenslanders don’t. It’s the scarcity theory of value.
That was all the tabloids needed before mounting a campaign against guns, or, more specifically, dastardly Indonesian gun-runners. You need a foreigner to blame, of course. Blaming Papuans would be too divisive; it’d go against all that postcolonial “national unity” rhetoric you’re supposed to be spouting, pretending all these warring tribes are just bursting to get together under one flag. So you have to pin it on foreigners. Wait! But not whites! So, how about Indonesians? They’re already sorta evil. (Seen the Western half of the island lately?) Ok, we’ll run it like this. Captain Alan Mourilyan died tragically because Papua New Guinea is full of guns. Huge stockpiles of AKs coming from Indonesia inside a secret, landlocked river submarine. The sub arrives full of guns and leaves loaded with weed, not just any weed, but the ultra-potent Niugini Gold, famous even in Europe. All Papuans must unite against this new menace of Indonesian submarine gun-smuggling!
I’m not kidding. Almost everyone here believes that PNG is threatened by massive, hidden stockpiles of foreign weapons. Names of specific owners don’t get mentioned much, but that’s only proof that every tribe has three mountains of AKs and RPGs stashed away somewhere very secret. Like I said, everyone believes this: the media, the cops, the rent-a-cops, the macho expat bullshitters, the Indian coffee-growers who keep to the countryside on weekdays. Tom the ex-detective fears this country will become “like Angola.” A local grower told me a “warlord situation” was “one possibility.” Maybe the tribes who supposedly own the AK stockpiles know the truth, but they’re not denying the rumors. Why the hell should they? If a big pile of phantom RPGs — or ammo-less Potemkin weaponry — is what it takes to keep your bigger, scarier neighbour from coveting your pigs, then bluffing is your best strategy, especially during election season. And bluffing comes pretty naturally to Papuans — they’ve got the same, deadpan sense of humor you’ll find with Australian Aborigines. It’s one of their basic survival strategies.
After a month here, I haven’t met anyone in Hagen who’s seen these tribal stockpiles in person. It’s always a friend-of-a-friend thing. An electorate officer from neighboring Southern Highlands province told me his village had one rifle, but nothing close to the arms buildup hyped-up in tabloids and pub talk. He believed in the stockpiles, or at least that some tribe out there had them, but then, he also believed that Papuan weed was potent enough to impress jaded Eurotrash.
The only comprehensive report I’ve seen on the topic comes from a Sydneysider named Philip Alpers who travelled around Southern Highlands Province, trying to estimate the number of guns in circulation. Based on sightings and interviews with local gunmen, Alpers’ highest estimates came to: 300 M16s (and AR-15s), 150 SLRs, 25 AK-47s, 400 other high-powered rifles, 150 pump-action shotguns, three submachine guns, 12 high-calibre machine guns (likely jammed beyond local repair), and zero RPGs.
Notice how the most common guns are all military and police issue? Now remember how easily our friend Dokta liberated those M16s from the Kimininga armoury? Yep, when Alpers wrote his 2005 report, the Papuan police had about 30% of their guns missing, probably leaked to their raskol wantoks. That’s a lotta “pipes.” Nearly fifteen hundred. By comparison, the military had 1501 firearms missing, or 16% of their armoury.
Never mind AKs and machine guns; as one gunman told Alpers, the ammo for them just wasn’t around. Legendary tribal stockpiles are mostly just electoral saber-rattling. (In an especially weird case, a district administrator named Stanley Kopiango claimed aircraft would be shot down by SAM-7 missiles if they tried to deliver ballot boxes into his district during the ’02 election.) It’s unlikely anyone’s ever seen an RPG in the Highlands. PNG’s real gun problem is the wantok system. Alpers assures me by email that PNG’s new batch of Aussie-built armories seems to be leak-free so far, but I still wonder how crony-proof they’ll turn out to be, how long technology can last against the good old human factor.
Even with high-powered guns, though, PNG’s tribes still seem more interested in fighting their traditional duel-battles than taking war to a whole new, guerrilla level. To me, those Potemkin stockpiles seem like a distraction from the real threat hanging over the Highlands: mining companies like Barrick Gold, and the explosion in raskol activity their presence has caused. (Incidentally, the Barrick company was co-founded in the 80’s with an arms dealer’s money, cash from Bush Sr’s friend, Adnan Khashoggi, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
So here we are, in just another hellhole created by Big Mining, where law and order is half-privatized, half-non-existent; where there’s no relief but crappy beer and short betel buzzes.
Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”
Would you like to know more? Read other stories by Ramon Glazov including “Burmese Daze: Making Sense of Myanmar’s Mess” and “How an Australian Oligarch Is Using Dirty Tricks and Libertarian Lies To Fleece Aborigines Out Of Billions”.
Read more: weed, swat, australia, gold, radley balko, Australasia Dispatch, barrick gold, betel nut, mining, papua new guinea, png, mt. hagen, kina, triads, ar-15, m16, naipaul, Ramon Glazov, Australasia Dispatch
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