In
the most volatile province of Papua New Guinea, tribal fighters,
criminals and mercenary gunmen alike swear by the Australian-made SLR, or
self-loading rifle. American made M-16s and AR-15s taken from military and
police armouries are also popular, concealable handguns proliferate in the
cities, and home-made guns are ubiquitous in PNG, but at least in the Southern Highlands, the Australian SLR remains
the experienced criminal’s assault weapon of choice.

In
the mid-70s, the Australian government armed PNG’s fledgling police, military
and prison services, shipping more than 10,000 firearms northwards as a gesture
of neighbourly goodwill. These days, of the 7,664 M-16 and SLR assault rifles
delivered to the PNG Defence Force since 1971, only 2,013 (26%) remain
in stock. Around 1,000 police guns also went missing, with an ongoing audit suggesting
losses of 30%. While damage, loss and attrition account for a good proportion of
the missing government guns, many more were victims of “leakage.”

In
the Southern Highlands alone, upwards of 1,000 illicit, high-powered weapons
are now loose, and even the police minister concedes that the constabulary routinely sells its ammunition to tribal fighters and
criminals.

Very
few guns in the Southern Highlands were smuggled from foreign
countries. PNG’s real arms dealers are much closer to home than the “foreign
gun-runners” so often blamed by public figures. Instead, police and soldiers
within PNG supplied the most destructive firearms
used in crime and conflict.

Gun-running from state armouries in the
cities to the Highlands is financed and facilitated by
politicians and civil servants up to the highest levels of the educated elite.
Many, and perhaps most, illicit high-powered firearms in the Southern Highlands were deployed by
political candidates, sitting MPs, and their supporters to impress and
intimidate both rivals and voters. After winning the 2002 election, Prime
Minister Morauta conceded that “every candidate” was involved.

In
November 2007, PNG faces another national election. Already Canberra is gearing up to assist
and, with any luck, to help reduce the violence which has become a feature of
electoral politics in its closest neighbour. In past years, Australia has done a good job choking
off ammunition supplies to PNG, and of strengthening local armouries to stem
the flow of guns to criminals. But most of the missing assault rifles, pistols
and machine guns were already gone. And now, Australia faces the
near-inevitability of its own peacemakers facing its own guns.

Philip Alpers included the findings above in his research for the
Small Arms Survey , an independent research project located at the
Graduate
Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Established
in 1999
with the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, it
currently
receives additional funding from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark,
Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the
United Kingdom
.

Peter Fray

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