In mid 1996, frustrated at the lack of progress in negotiations with the Bougainville rebel leadership, Prime Minister Chan authorised an operation (‘High Speed II’) against the BRA in southern Bougainville. The operation resulted in a defeat for the security forces, and several PNGDF personnel were taken hostage by the BRA. Angered by this (and facing a national election in June 1997), the Chan government became involved in negotiations which culminated in the signing of a contract with ‘military consultants’ Sandline International for a covert operation against BRA leaders. The contract was subsequently exposed, and widely criticised, both within Papua New Guinea and beyond [the Sandline Affair has been discussed in detail in Dinnen, May and Regan (1997), Dorney (1998) and O’Callaghan (1999).
In March 1997, less than four weeks after the exposure of the Sandline deal, the PNGDF commander, Brigadier General Singirok, delivered an address to the nation, in which he denounced the contract, saying that he had cancelled all further activities involving the PNGDF and Sandline (the Sandline personnel had in fact been detained and were deported soon after), and called on the prime minister, deputy prime minister, and defence minister to resign. There has been some speculation about Singirok’s motives in this. The commander had been a party to the negotiations with Sandline International from an early stage, and had apparently initially accepted their proposed action on Bougainville. By mid March he clearly had second thoughts about the impact of such an operation in Bougainville, and its wider political repercussions. Several commentators have suggested, however, that a more significant factor was Singirok’s resentment at Sandline’s effectively taking charge of the operation.
Prime Minister Chan accused Singirok of ‘gross insubordination bordering on treason’, and dismissed him. He subsequently appointed as commander a controversial officer, Leo Nuia, who had attracted a degree of notoriety while commander on Bougainville and had been decommissioned by General Singirok.
Singirok’s actions, however, won widespread popular approval, and after some initial resistance, and with volatile crowds demonstrating outside the National Parliament, the three ministers agreed to step down pending an enquiry. The enquiry reported in May 1997; Chan declared that it had cleared him of any wrongdoing and resumed office. But in the national elections the following month both Chan and his defence minister lost their seats. This was the first time in Papua New Guinea’s political history that an incumbent prime minister had failed to gain reelection.
Another fallout from the election was the arrest of Major Walter Enuma – the officer who had led the operation to oust the Sandline personnel – and thirteen soldiers under his command. Enuma (who earlier had been seconded to the Electoral Commission to help coordinate security during the elections) had been in the highlands, where he and his troops were said to have provided support to particular candidates favoured by Singirok. The soldiers were charged with setting up an unauthorised force. Subsequently armed soldiers forced their way into a police station in Port Moresby where Enuma and others were being held, released them, and then proceeded to PNGDF HQ where they briefly placed General Nuia under ‘house arrest’.
By this time, divisions within the PNGDF, partly along regional, ‘ethnic’ lines, had become a serious threat to the cohesion of the Defence Force. The Special Forces Unit, which had been set up by General Singirok in 1996 following a recommendation of the 1996 Defence White Paper, and had played a prominent role in the operation against Sandline, was effectively disbanded under Nuia, and a Special Operations Group, set up by Nuia, was allegedly used to harass Singirok supporters within and outside the PNGDF.