Who’s Policing Manus Island?

By Kristian Lasslett
PNG police in 2009.

PNG police in 2009.

‘They will knock a few heads in, shoot a few pigs.’ PNG’s mobile squads, involved in the Manus attack, have a fearsome reputation – and Australia is their paymaster, writes Kristian Lasslett

Warning: This article contains graphic accounts of violence.

Facts on the recent riot at the Manus Island detention facility, and subsequent death of an asylum seeker, remain sketchy. It appears at the very least that live ammunition was employed by Australian-funded mobile squad officers, a paramilitary wing of the Royal PNG Constabulary, which has a well-earned reputation for brutality.

If this is indeed proven to be the case, it should not come as a surprise to the Australian government. The mobile squads, which have been stationed on the island to secure the facility, have a documented history of “solving problems” through extreme violence.

In an interview I did back in 2006 with a former Assistant Police Commissioner the mobile squads’ modus operandi was described with disarming frankness:

“Basically the mobile squad people are semi-military, they are aggressive, they don’t do what normal policeman do, they go in there and they beat a few heads in. I am talking frankly, they will knock a few heads in, burn a few houses down, shoot a few pigs, shoot at cars … That is not policing, that is not normal policing … The mobile squads operated with a modus operandi of frightening people.”

By then, however, I was familiar with their methods. The mobile squads had been deployed on the island of Bougainville during 1989 at the behest of Rio Tinto subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited, when local landowner activists shut down the Panguna copper mine.

With logistic assistance from the mine operator, they tortured and executed civilians, raped women and torched homes, in an action locally referred to as “destructions”.

At the time, the Australian government was right behind the mobile squads, believing they were better equipped to deal with internal security “problems”, rather than the PNG Defence Force who were geared towards the unlikely prospect of an external threat.

Australia has funded, trained and armed the mobile squads for a long time. The Immigration Department, in 2013, was funding the mobile squads to the tune of around $100 a day, in a country where the average wage for security staff is $1.50 an hour, according to a report from Fairfax’s Rory Callinan.

Callinan also reported an incident in July, when mobile squad officers had beaten 21 year old Raymond Sipuan to death in front of other islanders. He wrote that the mobile squads also police domestic tensions resulting from the Manus detention centre.

“The presence of the paramilitary unit on the island suggests PNG and Australian officials fear a major clash with landowners who have already threatened a protest if they do not get a cut out of the asylum seeker detention centre projects.”

Over a decade earlier, at a 1990 parliamentary inquiry, Michael Commins, the Director of the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau’s Pacific and PNG division said “the main program … [was] about $19.7m worth in support for the mobile squads”.

This support was premised, a Defence Department colleague explained, on the Australian government’s belief that the mobile squads were “relatively effective within the norms and conventions of Papua New Guinea”. A subtle nod to their fearsome reputation, orientalised as normal “tribal behaviour”. Those who have had their homes burnt, or loved ones killed, regularly contest this neocolonial view of PNG’s “conventions”.

A "glory photo" of a mobile squad member posing in front of a burned village. Photo supplied.

A “glory photo” of a mobile squad member posing in front of a burned village. Photo supplied.

Despite the fact the mobile squads roamed the island of Bougainville for years sacking villages and murdering civilians, no one in the police command was held to account, nor has there ever been a subsequent inquiry into the atrocities committed by PNG’s security forces during its decade long civil war, in which Australia was deeply enmeshed.

Forums for acknowledging abuses, and redressing them, have thus gone wanting. As a result, mobile squads continue to play the role of trouble-shooter in zones of contention that often centre upon controversial resource projects. Exxon’s massive liquefied natural gas project is one example.

Back in April 2012, for instance, unarmed workers stationed at the project’s Tamadegi Camp confronted mobile squad officers, who had allegedly manhandled local landowners and burnt several homes. Live ammunition was purportedly used to disperse the crowd.

One local worker was injured, and another was killed. Exxon claimed the deceased worker died from an asthma attack. An inquiry was promised. Its results, at least, were never made public.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Human Rights Watch recently noted, “physical and sexual abuse of detainees — including children — by police and paramilitary police units is [still] widespread”. This echoed findings made by HRW in 2005 where they documented numerous cases of gratuitous human rights abuses by the mobile squads.

Sharon, a 16 year old, is one of many cases:

“At 11:00 PM on the 15th March, 2004, I was at the post office walking towards Boroko police station. I was walking with a girl friend of mine … the 10 seater [a mobile squad vehicle] stopped in front of me. I was asked to jump in the vehicle. But I refused. But one member came out from the back of the vehicle with a cable wire and belted me twice at my buttock and forced me to jump into the vehicle … [The] driver forced, me to suck his penis and I kept resisting … he managed to put me down at the back of the vehicle and had sex with me until he released sperm into me. He did that without a condom. He left me and went away. I tried to lift my pants and jean. Another policeman, in uniform came to me and forced me to have sex.”

After hearing atrocious cases like this, it is tempting to blame police violence at Manus Island on the “grunts”. But the reality is these men are trucked across PNG on gruelling schedules to solve problems they have not created, and which they have no direct interest in.

A "glory photo" of mobile squad members posing with beers and a rifle. Photo supplied.

A “glory photo” of mobile squad members posing with beers and a rifle. Photo supplied.

Their wives and families often live far away in dilapidated accommodation. They have developed a culture of violence, bravado and drinking, principally because they are thrust into heated and contested situations by governments and resource operators in need of a quick fix.

These criminogenic arrangements are often cloaked in a superficial garb of voluntary human rights agreements that regulate the mobile squads’ conduct.

That brings us to Manus Island. Once again, Australia is outsourcing policy challenges to PNG — as if the country did not already have enough on its plate — and oiling palms with promises of political tribute.

If it is indeed proven that the mobile squads are responsible for violence at the Manus Island facility, this is not an exceptional event, it is part of pattern. It is a pattern Australia has ignored, and when inclined, applauded and sponsored.

Sadly, it is aggrieved landowners, and vulnerable urbanites who often pay the price. Now asylum seekers are too.

3 thoughts on “Who’s Policing Manus Island?

  1. Amnesty International says:

    Two months ago, Amnesty recommended 70 ways that appalling conditions on Manus Island could be improved.The Immigration Minister responded to none. Now a man has died. Tell Scott Morrison that you want answers.

    These numbers tell a shocking story…

    Number of recommendations Amnesty has made to improve the cruel, humiliating and dangerous conditions on Manus Island — 70

    Number of recommendations Minister Scott Morrison has responded to — 0

    Number of days since Mr Morrison promised to make improvements — 66

    Number of asylum seekers injured during violence on Manus Island this week — 77

    Number of deaths — 1

    That’s why we’re calling on Scott Morrison to respond to Amnesty’s recommendations and come clean with Australians about what’s going on at Manus Island.

    As you’ve probably heard, terrible violence broke out at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea on Monday night. Details of what happened are still emerging. But what we do know is that 77 people were injured and one man, tragically, was killed.

    When we visited Manus Island last year, our report made clear our concerns for the safety of the asylum seekers there.

    As a country, we’re denying asylum seekers things required for basic human dignity — things like shoes, adequate drinking water, soap and sanitation, privacy, proper healthcare and contact with loved ones.

    Put simply, we’re breaking people.

    These revelations shocked Australians, prompting Scott Morrison to promise that “where things are presented that can improve, of course, we will do that”.

    Given the tragic events of the last three days, Mr Morrison must keep his promise and show how he plans to improve things on Manus Island.

    This is not an issue of national security, it’s an issue of national responsibility.

    Amnesty’s Manus Island recommendations include potentially life-saving improvements at a detention facility that we, as Australians, are responsible for.

    Let Mr Morrison know that he cannot continue to ignore our findings. Now more than ever, Australians have a right to know what is being done in their name.

    For human rights,
    Graeme McGregor
    Refugee Campaign Coordinator
    Amnesty International Australia

    PS. Our report from last year exposed some shocking truths about the way asylum seekers are being treated under our watch. Tell Mr Morrison that, given the tragic events at Manus Island, he must now respond to these concerns as a matter of urgency.

  2. Murder most foul! says:
    Murder most foul, as in the best it is.
    But this most foul, strange and unnatural
            — Shakespeare's Hamlet


    reza beratiThe asylum seeker killed on Monday night in the Manus Island detention centre was a 24 year-old Faili Kurd. He was one of the first people sent to Manus Island by the Rudd Labor government in August 2013.

    The man was also a resident of the Mike Compound in the detention
    centre that has been at the centre of the detainees’ accounts of the
    events on Monday night.

    “This is not a ‘tragic incident’ as Minister Morrison has described
    it. It is a murder probably perpetrated by PNG police that Australia
    has contracted to provide security on the perimeter of the detention
    centre,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action

    “It is also likely that the man was killed in the grounds of the Manus
    base, hardly a place where asylum seekers ‘place themselves at great
    risk’ as Minister Morrison has described, unless it is the contracted
    PNG police that are the danger.

    “We are appealing to the government to ensure that there is a full
    coronial enquiry into the man’s death and that proper arrangements are
    made with the man’s family.”


    “Minister Morrison has also been very selective with the information
    about the serious injuries inflicted on the asylum seekers by PNG
    police and local employees of the G4S,” added Ian Rintoul.

    “It is passing strange that Minister Morrison neglected to mention
    that among the injured evacuated from Manus Island was an Iranian man
    was flown to Port Moresby private hospital after having his throat
    slit at the detention centre on Monday night.

    “Without a full and transparent inquiry into the events of Monday
    night, no-one can have confidence in the account being presented by
    the government.

    “It is quite clear that the Australian government cannot guarantee the
    safety of people in detention on Manus Island. There must be an
    immediate moratorium on any transfers of asylum to Manus Island and
    arrangements made to bring the asylum seekers to Australia. “

    For more information contact Ian Rintoul 0417 275 713

  3. PNG Guards Turn On Manus Detainees says:

    Traumatised staff at Manus Island detention centre have resigned after being asked to resume “business as usual” at the centre on Wednesday, a source has told New Matilda. NM understands that staff felt it was unethical to continue working at the centre after Monday night’s attack on asylum seekers.

    Others chose to remain but are shocked at the Immigration Department’s handling of the incident. “There’s been no acknowledgement for this guy [who was killed]. We could have had a moment’s silence. He’s just not even been acknowledged,” one told NM.

    Other local sources said there was evidence emerging that Monday night’s attack had been well co-ordinated.

    Detainees have claimed they were told before the attack that if they didn’t want to fight they should go into their rooms, where they would be left alone. Later, there were reports that those who had retreated to their rooms because they did not want to be involved in the altercation were attacked in their beds.

    “I do think it was quite planned,” said one source. “These people were told to go into their rooms if they didn’t want to fight, and that was where they were attacked. [The attackers] cut the power first. They’ve come in and cut the electricity, so they couldn’t see,” the source said.

    Meanwhile, as Immigration Minister Scott Morrison tries to contain the fallout from this violent event, management at the centre have allegedly moved shipping containers into position so that passersby can no longer seein to the centre.

    Sources say detainees inside are “absolutely traumatised” and many of them still badly injured. Internet and phone services inside the centre have apparently been cut off…https://newmatilda.com/print/24903

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