The changing role of the military in Papua New Guinea

Author/s (editor/s):

Ronald J. May

Publication year:


Publication type:

Policy paper

Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No. 101

In the decade preceding Papua New Guinea's independence in 1975, there was a lively debate about the possible future role of the defence force. On the one hand there were many among Papua New Guinea's emerging nationalist elite who saw the defence force as a luxury and as a potential threat to an elected government. On the other hand there had already been created, under the Australian colonial administration, a well-trained Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). In the event, the independent state of Papua New Guinea maintained the PNGDF in essentially the form in which it had been inherited from Australia. The constitution defined its primary role in terms of external defence and placed restrictions on its use for internal security purposes. 

From the mid-1980s, however, the PNGDF came to play an increasingly active role in internal law and order operations and with the eruption in 1988-89 of an insurgency in the North Solomons Province (Bougainville) the PNGDF became involved, with the policy, in a costly and controversial internal security operation. In 1991 changing perceptions of the role of the PNGDF were acknowledged in a redefinition of priorities, which recognised the greater significance of international security relative to the unlikely threat of, and limited capacity to respond to, external aggression. 

This monograph documents the changes which have taken place in the role of the military in Papua New Guinea and examines relations between civil and military authorities. It argues that a military coup remains a remote possibility. More likely is a gradual movement towards a significantly more controlled society, in which the PNGDF, though still subject to civilian control, will play an important role; in which the traditional distinction between police and army will become progressively less sharp; and in which the security forces will become increasingly politicised. Such tendencies are already in evidence.

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