Papua New Guinea (PNG) recently celebrated forty-seven years of independence. It was a wonderful occasion for Australia’s closest neighbour to reflect on its past and future.
This milestone also presents Australians with an opportunity to reflect on their interwoven history with PNG, a complex topic that often lands in a blind spot of official history, whether by omission or commission. This is a shame. The shared history only strengthens Australia’s special relationship with PNG.
One example is the role that Australian patrol officers, called “Kiaps,” played in providing basic services like security and administration to Papua New Guineans over generations. But despite this, the Kiaps were not granted even an obscure corner of Australians’ collective memory.
Kiaps were Australian government officials who patrolled Papua New Guinea’s remote regions from 1878 to 1978. They helped administer rural Papua as an Australian territory inherited from Great Britain, and New Guinea as a League of Nations mandate and then a United Nations trust territory.
A lecturer who taught the first intake of post-war civilian Kiaps told them at a Sydney training facility in 1947: “Your task is to work yourself out of a job.” In the 1960s, Kiaps started in earnest developing and assisting PNG to transition to statehood as its independence neared.
Theirs was a dangerous job. As field officers, these young Australian men worked in often isolated and hazardous circumstances. The Kiaps’ mortality rate was as high as 4.25 percent, compared to 1.04 percent for Australians serving in the Vietnam War. Of the 2,000 Kiaps who served, 88 died from violence, disease, losses at sea, aircraft crashes, volcanic eruptions, and executions by the Japanese during WWII. The Kiaps received no recognition for this. The Australian government didn’t repatriate their remains. Families were left to deal with that.
Many Kiaps I have met shun praise but fight on for their fallen mates. In Darwin, we’re honoured to have Kiaps like Graham Watts, who told me he “was only comfortable recognising the earlier Kiaps who had preceded us from the end of WWII as they did the hard yards, pioneered the patrol tracks into the unknown villages and set up policies and procedures for us to follow.”
“They were the heroes and we followed in their footsteps,” Graham said.
Mike Press, another local ex-Kiap who spent 18 years patrolling the Southern Highlands and West and East Sepik Provinces, recalls: “My many patrols involved law and order, census taking, promoting health and hygiene, with nurses and health workers often accompanying our patrols, and economic development…
We built roads by hand and improved agriculture by setting up vegetable nurseries.”
King Roman, another Darwin-based ex-Kiap who patrolled out of Ela Beach in Port Moresby, was contracted in Melbourne in 1970. “It was a most amazing time, patrolling through tropical mountain jungle from village to village, and one of which I am proud to have been a part,” he said.
But soon, just as the last Australian veteran of the Gallipoli campaign died in 2002, we will lose all living connections to an incredible chapter of Australian and PNG history. There are only some 300 surviving Kiaps today from the cohort of 1,400 who served in PNG after the war. Too long left in the shadows of Australia’s collective memory, the Kiaps deserve some form of recognition.
What the Kiaps did for PNG is today called nation-building in official jargon. While there remain sensitivities given the legacies of Australia’s colonial past in the Pacific, I’m confident that this shared history can serve to strengthen Australia’s indispensable partnership with Papua New Guinea. PNG leaders have recognised the Kiaps’ contribution to their country’s development. These included the Bougainvillean politician and diplomat Dr Alexis Sarei and former prime ministers Sir Julius Chan and Sir Michael Somare, who invited some Kiaps to stay on after independence in 1975.
One way to show the Kiaps the nation’s gratitude would be to build a memorial in Canberra commemorating those who died during their service. The majority of Kiaps support this initiative. They also support a memorial in Sydney at the school where Kiaps studied before deploying.
The Canberra memorial could be located on Lake Burley Griffin, in a shady grove overlooking the National Carillon and the National Police Memorial. Surviving Kiaps ask for nothing extravagant or expensive, only a nook of the national imagination.
There are bureaucratic obstacles to realising this vision, but the biggest obstacle may be cultural. In the 1970s, many returning officers were made to feel that “Kiap” was a dirty word. Some associated them with Australian colonialism. Colleagues advised them to conceal their work as Kiaps. Some might feel more comfortable perpetuating this tradition of denial and to let us forget.
But how could Australians feel at ease saluting fallen ANZACs, police officers, firefighters, and all first responders with a solemn promise to never forget them while leaving Kiaps in total obscurity? That would be unjust. And it would leave another piece of Australia’s national story incomplete.
There is growing bipartisan support for commemorating the fallen Kiaps in a way that sensitively includes Papua New Guinea, without whose meaningful involvement this initiative cannot succeed. I endorse the proposal for a memorial to fallen Kiaps, lest these brave Australians be forgotten.
“I have always appreciated your ever-ready helping hand,” a memorial might read, quoting Dr Sarei’s tribute to his Kiaps. “I will always remember you…with great respect…On behalf of the Government [of Papua New Guinea], the people and myself, thank you.” It’s time Australia also said thank you.
Luke Gosling OAM MP is the Federal Member for Solomon
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