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Gun culture threatens security ahead of 2012 elections

The proliferation and use of illegal guns in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is threatening security ahead of parliamentary elections slated for June 2012, and causing misery and trauma to gun crime victims, says the government.

The police, the PNG Electoral Commission and the Inter Department Election Committee (IDEC), a government body overseeing election preparations, are aware of the risks in the run-up to and during the elections.

“We are very much aware of the danger that the guns pose on the elections and are making the necessary preparations. We should come up with a budget to ensure that the rights of the people are protected during the elections,” IDEC Chairman Manasupe Zurenuoc told IRIN.

Police say they need K120 million (US$40 million) to carry out a public awareness campaign on the law and other operations to minimize security risks during the elections.

The central Highlands area, known for tribal conflicts, is particularly at risk: “The build-up of guns in the Highlands is getting out of hand… There are more people dying in tribal warfare now than ever before. The situation is so bad, it has the potential to disrupt major economic projects in the region,” police commander for the Highlands Assistant Commissioner Simon Kauba told IRIN.

“The situation is bad, really bad. We are seeing more and more people coming in for treatment or admitted to the morgue,” Michael Dokop, head of medical services at the Mt Hagen General Hospital in Western Highlands Province, told IRIN.

“We get up to five bodies and more than 10 people with injuries every month. In one recent case, a man and his wife were both shot dead in a fight… I think the situation in Enga and Southern Highlands Provinces [both in central PNG] is much the same as here. There are a lot of guns in those provinces too,” Dokop said.

Former Internal Security Minister Sani Rambi told parliament in July 2010 during a debate on the gun problem that there were four car-jackings a day in Port Moresby: “This is an alarming situation where more than 1,460 vehicles are reported stolen each year… In almost all instances, guns, whether home-made or factory made, were reportedly used.”

 Fabric of society under threat

Police and local leaders in the Highlands say the proliferation of guns in rural communities is threatening the fabric of society.

“Every household now owns a gun illegally... Some of the most modern weapons fetch US$500-1,000. It’s a lucrative business,” Chimbu councillor Joseph Waiang told IRIN, confirming studies into gun violence in the highlands.

Hand grenades are also becoming more common, say the police.

Seven years after the establishment of the PNG Guns Control Committee, the government is making slow progress on the committee’s recommendations to limit gun ownership.

Drugs and guns

“Guns are coming through the border as people are trading drugs for guns from logging ships, and also guns issued to the disciplinary forces are taken out and sold illegally. To contain this problem will involve a concerted effort from all stakeholders, not only police,” Assistant Commissioner Kauba said.

Police estimate 80 percent of all major crimes are gun-related. The problem is no longer restricted to urban areas but has spread to rural areas.

“We are sitting on a serious problem. If it means imposing tougher jail terms as a deterrent, so be it. The government must move on this,” MP and chair of the Constitutional Reform Commission Joe Mek Teine told IRIN.

Southeast Asia has several post-conflict states such as Cambodia and Vietnam where small arms can easily be obtained, according to the March 2011 issue of the Non-Traditional Security Studies in Asia Consortium (NTS), which also noted that “small arms and light weapons proliferation or illegal arms trafficking is often overshadowed by other transnational crime issues such as human trafficking, human smuggling and drug trafficking.”

IRIN interviewed a young man, Peter (he preferred not to reveal his other names), who walked for several days from Chimbu Province in the Highlands to Jimi and then into Indonesia with a bag full of marijuana - on a mission to exchange the drug for guns. He managed to return to his home village four weeks later with an RSL rifle, and two magnum pistols.