Tom's* last job was providing security for an oil tanker with a $3 billion cargo as it travelled up the coast of Africa, across to India then on to the United Arab Emirates. He was paid US$500 a day.
The ex-military officer tells Mana he has provided security for celebrities and royal families; he's offered security on luxury and commercial boats through most parts of Asia and across the Indian Ocean. With pages full of inky customs' stamps and holographic visas, he's onto his third passport.
Tom is one of a large number of Māori who have transitioned from the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) into the private military security (PMS) industry, where Kiwis are highly sought after and pay packets reflect the size of the risks. It's a secretive industry, one bathed in politics and moral debate. But it is one making an increasingly significant contribution to the "Māori economy."
Māori participation in PMS is the subject of a new book by Victoria University Māori studies lecturer, Maria Bargh. She estimates there are at least 200 Māori working in the PMS industry, and in her book A Hidden Economy she interviews five of them working in distinct areas of the sector. Bargh gives them space to tell their story in the first person, and their unique Māori voices are clear. And in many cases it is their taha Māori that shapes their success in the competitive, volatile world of privatised military.
Mercenary armies have been available for hire for the right price for thousands of years. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have popularised a new type of soldier for hire. Bargh describes two conditions that allowed a privatised military sector to emerge: the first was the downscaling of many of the world's militaries in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War; the second, the influence of neo-liberal policies and the downsizing of the state and growth of private companies to fill the gap. By 2007 there were more private contractors in Iraq (180,000) than US troops (160,000).
Privatised military security companies are a sometimes-controversial modern phenomenon. There are concerns that they rely on violent geopolitical chaos to run a profit, and they work in an unregulated world outside the rules of traditional military. But for the Māori that Bargh interviewed it was a natural career progression—they got to use their unique set of skills, in a highly paid role, where their background was appreciated.
Since the Boer War in the late 19th century, Māori have enthusiastically enlisted with the New Zealand military. The NZDF is now the biggest single employer of Māori, who are significantly overrepresented in the military, making up 22 per cent of the armed forces and 14.6 per cent of the population. Māori military historian Dr Monty Soutar says the desire to go to war was originally associated with a sense of adventure and desire to see the world. Sir Apirana Ngata appealed to Māori to enlist during WWII as their duty under the Treaty of Waitangi. Now young Māori are joining the NZDF because it is part of their family history, in some cases a tradition going back over 100 years.
"Sure it is a great way to see the world, and the income is pretty good for young people starting out today, but a lot of people are going in because their family have a tradition going back to the First World War and the 19th century. That lifestyle is part of their whakapapa," says Soutar.
Now many Māori are being poached out of the military, or head hunted once they leave to join the private sector. It's often as simple as a quick phone call from a former colleague and they're on a plane to a war zone. New Zealand Defence Force personnel are highly regarded and sought after for their ability to fit in with multinational teams. And Bargh discovered Māori were especially equipped to work with locals in foreign environments.
* Not his real name.
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