BY LEONARD FONG ROKA
This is an extract of a chapter in my unpublished autobiography. It is based on stories I heard— and saw for myself— around my blood family consisting of the late Autonomous Bougainville Government president Joseph Kabui and Martin Miriori. These brothers are my grandmother’s small brothers - LFR
BOUGAINVILLE IS PART-AND-PUZZLE of the Solomon chain of islands in the South Pacific, but enslaved by the impacts of colonialism under the rule of Papua New Guinea which is one of the big but unstable democracies in the Oceania region.
Since the 1960s, Bougainvilleans resisted the rule of Papua New Guineans and the development of the Panguna mine in Central Bougainville that, as Bougainvilleans say, was purposely built to finance the then newly independent state of PNG and its ‘redskins’ (Bougainville’s term for Papua New Guineans).
As one of Bougainville’s political icons, Martin Miriori [right] wrote in 1993, that Bougainville and its people were Australia’s independence gift to PNG.
The resistance was there, but the uncreative PNG leadership ignored it by offering the people of Bougainville the provincial government system, that I should refer to as puppet-like in nature. It did not satisfy the Bougainvillean desire for progress; but instead, brought harm and relegation to the natives.
Squatter settlements, crimes against the natives, and denial of access to economic and social benefits pouring out of development projects like Bougainville Copper were unbearable, and I saw them.
That long history of intimidation by PNG was released from the hearts and minds of Bougainvilleans in late 1988 in the form of armed confrontation. The late Francis Ona [pictured left], as I remember, toured a couple of places in the Kieta district in the early months of that year, telling the people that things were seriously wrong with the Panguna mine and the landowners. One of these meeting places was at Piruana sub-parish east of Arawa which my father attended and later talked about.
Beside Francis Ona’s campaign, there were also various little groups that were holding meetings to find ways to eradicate the threats posed by the redskins and the slums that encircled the town of Arawa and all urban centres. Matau’neri Naving was one my father was in, and the list goes on.
There was a group based at Piruana as well. But its operations were legal, that is it was pressuring the provincial government to address its issues of concern.
All these resistance movements were autonomous in their actions, timing and approach. But, the significant factor behind them was that Bougainville allowed them to happen, though they had no central leadership. But had common ambition and inspiration from early secessionists like Father John Momis (now ABG President) at the heart.
So, how actually did the crisis start in 1988? It was sparked and intensified by a number of independent incidents that were not in reality political.
The protest marches and declaration of independence for Bougainville in 1975 was planned and executed by leaders like Moses Havini from Buka, Michael Aite from Paruparu and many others, with the backing of popular figures like John Momis and Leo Hannet from or near the village of Dupanta in Onove just west of the Panguna mine. After this gathering, they marched through the mine and Arawa and ended up declaring independence on 1 September 1975.
Ten years later in 1988, two weeks before Francis Ona’s walkout from the BCL-landowner meeting at Panguna, just below at the Dupanta village the Tumpusiong valley people were protesting against the uncontrolled tailings disposal, even though the pipeline had just been completed. These protesters were led by local politicians Wendelinus Bitanuma and Martin Miriori.
The Tumpusiong protesters brought all the BCL equipment that regularly worked on the tailings river banks from their resting areas along the Kavarong River (Java to Whiteman) and assembled them, blocking the Panguna-South Bougainville highway at Kavarongnau, which was the home of the brothers Martin Miriori and the late Joseph Kabui.
Whilst all this was going on at Panguna, areas around Aropa, Toniva, Kieta and Arawa on the east coast were spontaneously struggling with the squatter settlers. Thus all these uprisings had no common binding factor. Nor central control in terms of leadership.
Francis Ona, after walking out of the Panguna meeting, immediately left for the jungle saying, ‘Well the war has started’ when he heard about the Tumpusiong protesters struggling with police led by Commander Luke Pango.
So the war started, but without any management strategies to guide the whole operation; or to know where to stop. Who to recruit to fight and everything else was not prepared for. Thus, any able man entered, migrating to the Panguna area to join the militant movement. The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ went in to fight.
Small bands of men from all over the Kongara area joined in support of the Panguna people and their cause. But, mostly, young men got involved because off the ‘anti-redskinism’ that for so long had kept them imprisoned in their own land.
This was well demonstrated in the killing of redskin settlers at Lake Momau in the Tumpusiong west. Here, a young girl offered herself for sex to be spared, but a shotgun barrel was placed into her vagina and a shot fired by the Bougainville rebels.
Anti-redskinism and the Panguna mine conflicts (actually, family originated) combined and gave birth to nationalism and the fight to attain Bougainville independence.
But, as I saw it, the issue of independence came in because there was widespread support of the militant’s activities and the complete withdrawal of the PNG government in 1990 followed by the blockade of our island.
Leadership was the problem. Francis Ona lacked the charisma to be able to politically influence and control his fighters and the Bougainville people. He denied them by hiding from them in his Guava village.
Immediately after the 1990 ceasefire, his loyalists barricaded the village and kept him guarded. To see him, people had to cross checkpoint after checkpoint. Or witch doctors had to screen you if you had an intention to see the ‘Founder’, as he was called then.
Ona was not allowed, for unknown reasons, to be in the public places. Thus we Bougainvilleans, who thought that freedom was now at our disposal, were lost. Lost because Francis Ona, who the society saw as the liberator of our island, was now hiding for a reason no one knew.
The power to maintain law and order was nowhere to be felt on the streets of Arawa and the Kieta area. Ona remained hidden in his mountain home of Guava. The society descended into chaos during the weeks of the first 1990 ceasefire signed by Sam Kauona and Leo Nuia.
What was happening, in terms of leadership? Immediately, after the ceasefire all the militants were ordered to station at the Pangunat township. They did just that, and ate in the BCL mess facilities under orders to protect all property. Except Ona and certain BRA seniors, who were given ex-BCL cars to use for their operations.
But, after just a few weeks of stabiity, Francis Ona gave orders to move all BCL cars and other things of value to him to his Guava village. Conflict erupted. BRA men from other areas saw these developments and began to grab whatever that was of interest to them, especially cars.
When the possible gains of war were depleted in Kieta, they went on to other districts like Buka Island in the north. Bougainville was now out of control and the leader was not prepared for the outcomes of his own actions.
A period of warlords was born. Each BRA commander ruled his own men based on their respective village areas. No one was in Panguna, for it was deserted as men began to pursue their own interests.
There was also fighting amongst the BRA groupings. A well known incident was the killing of the Bazaar brothers in 1991. Seven brothers from Kongara, the first group to capture police weapons, were rounded up and killed at Camp 5 along the port-mine access highway.
The reason was a power struggle. Ona was not there for the men who had sacrificed themselves to defend his mission.
Each BRA commander was his own decision maker and implementer. And for this innocent Bougainvilleans lost their lives as anarchy spread like fire. The once united Bougainville was gone—divided by greed, terrorism and disorder.