Photo by Ben Bohane, ANU

Pacific Wayfinder: Finding local solutions to PNG’s security challenges

15 September 2021

Looking local may be the best way to address Papua New Guinea’s national security challenges, such as transnational crime and gender equity, Eliorah Malifa writes.

Whilst Papua New Guinea (PNG) has had a number of successes in its development journey since achieving its independence in 1975, it has also faced its fair share of challenges. Sitting as the gateway between the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and as Australia’s closest neighbour, PNG’s security setbacks can have reverberations far beyond its borders.

However, historically development partners have sought to impose external solutions rather than local options, the latter often being more culturally appropriate and effective.

To discuss some of the most important challenges to PNG’s security – gendered discrimination, corruption and transnational crime – Geejay Milli and Michael Kabuni from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) sat down with the Pacific Wayfinder podcast to discuss their PhD research on the issues.

Geejay, who is studying the intersection between gendered security and women’s representation, pointed out that the Autonomous Region of Bougainville provides an important case study for the ways gender interacts with security in developing nations. This is because, unlike in neighbouring regions, Bougainville is a matrilineal society where customary land ownership is handed down through women.

Despite Bougainville suffering from its own lack of representation at the highest levels of government, Geejay argues that the region’s ‘nation building’, which involves a more gender-balanced approach to both social and political issues, can offer a number of lessons for PNG. This is particularly important as PNG has one of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence.

“Leadership for women in Bougainville – it’s very important that women are equal stakeholders in terms of decision making there. We see a big lack of that in Papua New Guinea,” said Geejay.

Traditional models in Bougainville’s community governance and the ‘reserved seats’ model of elections would be a good way forward for women’s representation in PNG’s parliament, Geejay argued. Encouragingly, whilst PNG has seen very few women elected over the years, the government recently endorsed a plan to reserve five seats for women.

While Geejay’s research highlights internal aspects of PNG’s security, Michael studies the dynamics of money laundering and transnational crime in PNG, and their effect on national security and stability.

Michael noted Australia’s role in the issues of transnational crime and corruption in PNG. Nearly a decade ago, the head of the country’s anti-corruption taskforce reportedly referred to Australia as ‘the Cayman Islands’ of the Pacific because of its alleged role as a hub for money laundering in the region.

Previous research on corruption has focused on public servants and politicians, with a serious investigation into political money laundering being carried out in 2012.

This investigation, along with Michael’s own research, has led him to believe that “billions” of kina from politicians in PNG may have been sunk into the Australian property market, especially in Cairns. The eventual findings of the 2012 inquest that influenced Michael’s research established that much of the money being invested into property in Cairns came from government funds.

“…they realised that the big funds [were] coming from the politicians. And (yet) they don’t have that much money, they’re not businessmen.”

His thesis examines the ‘three-layer’ process that appears to take place, whereby funds enter PNG’s financial markets and are subsumed into the country’s banking sector – making them look legitimate – before making their way to Australia and into the Cairns property market. Michael urged Australia to work with PNG law enforcement and its corruption task force to tackle this issue.

Both Geejay and Michael investigate vital elements of the security discussion in the Pacific and do so with a local lens. They also highlight the importance of looking inwards to critically analyse and search for local solutions to national security problems. As Geejay says:

“We need local solutions to local problems.”

This article is from our Pacific Wayfinder series, bringing you voices from the Pacific Island region. It is produced in conjunction with the Pacific Wayfinder podcast, produced by the Australia Pacific Security College.

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