For Commander Peter Tupma, nation building is an important pillar of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.
After 26 years of service, the naval officer, believes there is a lot the PNGDF can do through its naval and engineering capabilities to bring together the nation. These are functions that don’t always come out to the fore when one thinks of the PNGDF.
But a conversation with the Commander, provides a whole different perspective of the PNGDF. One that is not only about combat troops and infantrymen on the ground. But also about important contributions that the army can do for the country, using methods tried and tested in other countries.
“Naval patrols to the most remote islands and coastal areas of Papua New Guinea are crucial. This is how we extend the reach of the government and fly the flag.”
In 1992, while studying mathematics and physics at the University of Papua New Guinea, students went on strike for several weeks. As he was coming out of the university’s physics lab, he was confronted by a group of armed policemen.
“I turned and ran and they shot at me. I think they used buckshot and some of those pellets hit me. It didn’t penetrate. But I was angry with the police and angry that all this had happened.
“I said, this is not the kind of environment I want to live in. I went and joined the military the next day. I waited in the hot sun in a long line until my turn came and I joined.”
Peter Tupma never told his parents that he was dropping out of university for the military.
This marked the start of a 26 year journey. Peter Tupma served in various capacities after receiving training in the US, Australia and New Zealand. He was previously the former Commanding Officer at the Lombrum Naval base in Manus.
For many years, his role as a soldier wasn’t well defined in his mind until one patrol to a small remote island off the main island of Manus.
“For seven months, the people had no water. They had eaten all the coconuts.”
For the people, there was little possibility of getting help from the mainland without risking a long journey over open seas by canoe. The ship’s crew found out that the village pump, the only one in the area that supplied water to the whole island had broken down.
Commander Tupma sent the ship’s engineer to the village to check on the pump. He found that a relatively minor fault had rendered the pump useless for seven months.
“He fixed the pump. Then we headed to the other part of the island to fix the radio which had also broken down.”
For Peter Tupma, this one incident shone the light on the importance of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force in peacetime.
“The owner of the pump had gone fishing when we fixed the pump. When he came back, he brought a bunch of buai and paddled all the way to meet us.
“He was lost for words. I had not been able to find the satisfaction in my job until that day.”
While there has been a lot of effort in rebuilding the Papua New Guinea Defence Force since the end of the Bougainville Crisis, the force still suffers from funding problems in crucial areas. It is something that many senior PNGDF officers will not openly talk about because of army protocols.
Commander Tupma sees the PNGDF from various perspectives. As an engineering hub of skilled personnel paid by the government, it has the ability to build roads, bridges and key infrastructure into areas that commercial contractors find unprofitable.
Currently, the PNGDF is building a road from Baiyer in the Western Highlands to Madang. It’s a link that provides an economic corridor into an area that has a rich agricultural potential.
In the Sandaun province, the PNGDF is also looking at the possibility of linking Telefomin to Tabubil. By air, it is a 15 flight minute over cliffs and deep gorges. An engineers nightmare and commercially unattractive for civil contractors.
“We call them missing links. The PNGDF could be at the forefront of delivering services in places where government services are unreachable.”
Commander Tupma sees the PNGDF as an important part of the development of the younger generation.
“For those who want to join the PNGDF, it is important to remember that this job is about the service. It’s not about the ranks, or personal achievements.
“We are servants of the state. We do what the government wants us to do for the people of the country.”