It was a long few hours for Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, but it wasn’t long enough for Sir Michael Somare — who claims to be the rightful leader of the country. Yesterday about 100 troops, led by retired Colonel Yaura Sasa, took the commander of the PNG armed forces, General Francis Agwi, hostage. The mutiny effort barely lasted a day before the soldiers withdrew.

Why mutiny, why now?

In a press conference following the mutiny, Colonel Sasa, while sitting at General Agwi’s table, proclaimed:

“My task is restoring the integrity and respect of the constitution and the judiciary. I am now calling on the head of state to immediately implement the Supreme Court decision relating to Sir Michael Somare’s position as the prime minister.”

Somare, who was the PM from 2003-2011, has been seeking to be restored as prime minister after a Supreme Court ruling last December declared him to be the “rightful” leader of Papua New Guinea.

Ken Boutin, who teaches International Relations at Deakin University, explains to Crikey that such events are not unusual for developing states: “Papua New Guinea is kind of typical of a lot of developing states; they don’t have a history as a state.” This, he says, leads to the clamouring of power that we see among figures such as Somare and O’Neill.

“Basically the country incorporates a lot of different ethnic types under one banner,” he says. Which, not given a concrete foundation of history, leaves developing countries prone to these sorts of issues.

What’s the feeling inside PNG? Can this short action even be counted as a coup?

On the blog Malum Nalu, run by a journalist in PNG by the same name, former PNG Colonel Reg Renagi is quoted as saying:

“A military coup is a violent action taking by the military to over throw a government. Today, this did not really happened but the rogue elements of the PNGDF’s action were still mutinous in nature.”

O’Neill is seen to generally have the support of the people, with prominent PNG activist Noel Anjo threatening a call to arms yesterday following the coup:

“The O’Neill government is the legitimate government of Papua New Guinea. I’m giving them 24 hours to stop what they are doing, if not, NGOs and civil society will march to Murray Barracks. They are criminals. Apologise to the 6.7 million people of Papua New Guinea.”

What are the repercussions for the bigger picture in PNG?

Reg Renagi is very blunt about the consequences of these recent events:

“This very critical incident has now not only tarnished the good image and professional reputation of the PNGDF, but whatever credibility the military had until now with the government and public has been lost forever. The military never crosses the line into the realm of politics, but sadly today it did, where it should not have dared ventured into; no matter what may be the compelling reasons.”

In terms of how this will affect Australia, Boutin says if such events become a regular occurrence then there could be a problem: “Countries that have crises such as these are vulnerable to population flows, that’s something that Australia has to worry about.”

But in terms of how this will affect our other neighbours, Australia needn’t worry too much.

“There’s not very many states in the broader Asia Pacific region that have crises along the lines of Papua New Guinea, except maybe some like Malaysia and Mahathir,” he says. “But basically PNG does stand out along with the Solomon Islands in the region.”

Peter Fray

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