Upheaval in a garden
Prominent PNG businessman accused of gun-running

BRA was the root of bloody civil conflict in Bougainville


IN OCTOBER 1992 I WAS A KID roaming around parts of the Kieta and the Bana districts in South Bougainville with Bougainville Revolutionary Army ‘A’ Company bodyguard unit.

The unit was attached to my relative, the late Autonomous Bougainville Government president Joseph Kabui, who at the time was vice president of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG).

I provided escort duties to my leader and partook in no armed operation except one assault on, as I see it today, an innocent Bougainvillean in Bana.

Despite the fact that my father was killed by the BRA in 1993, I consider myself a Bougainvillean nationalist.

This is because of the awareness I have for the ill treatment of my island of Solomon / Bougainville by colonisation and later by Papua New Guinea, especially as a result of the copper mine on my land of Panguna.

As Panguna people, we sparked off a conflict that saved Bougainville from the brutality of Bougainville Copper Limited, Papua New Guineans and the squatter settlements that grew on our land. (I carry a scar on my face caused by kids at the Arawa’s Morobe Camp in 1988).

But it was not our fight alone. It was a struggle for self-determination that went back to the so-called cargo cult movements like the Hahalis Welfare Society and other groups that sprung up in Bougainville, especially after the onset of the works to construct the mine.

These were groups condemned publicly but silently assisted by Catholic missionaries and a few expatriate cocoa and coconut planters. They demonstrated without violence against ‘rascals’ on our island.

Engaging the barrel of the gun, we did the old timers proud in 1988 by sending the ‘rascals’ packing in fear and pain from our beloved island. Thus did they realize the fact they were ‘rascals’ in Solomon exploiting and suppressing a people they were not related to.

In that fight we created the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. I know this name shocked the Pacific and even our Papua New Guinean rulers, or Ivitu, as we know them in Buin.

But the big question is, why did we turn on each other? This is the question that must be answered today so that we take Bougainville in the right direction.

In 1990, I was a Grade 4 student at Kaperia Community School in Arawa when the first ceasefire was signed by Sam Kauona (BRA) and Leo Nuia (PNG), known as the ‘Butcher of Bougainville’.

All the BRA men were stationed at Panguna. Law and order was observed for a month with the late Francis Ona as the supreme head.

But, as these BRA men got out of this cage, they started calling themselves redeemers of Bougainville and began to harm businesses in Arawa by looting.

Once after school, I encountered two BRA men wearing shoes they ahd not paid for, saying to the cashiers in a store known then as the Haus Bilas: “We have suffered in the bush fighting for you”.

To the late Francis Ona and his followers, closing down the Panguna mine was the bliss that blinded them. Keeping order and governing Bougainville was neglected. Thus the BRA recklessness grew and spread.

The BRA men, most of them illiterate, went astray grabbing private and ex-BCL property, looting shops and exploiting women often with the gun.

These unorganized BRA bands falsely accused innocent people of being PNG spies and tortured them. Others were accused of sorcery and killed.

The politically incompetent Francis Ona was nowhere to be seen or heard in this anarchy created under his name.

I was hearing that the BRA’s ill treatment of innocent Bougainvilleans was executed under the ‘standing orders’ of Ona. But this was a lie as I heard later that Ona was not aware of any ‘standing orders’ and he was not responsible for the suffering endured by Bougainvilleans.

The BRA posed as a body with a central command fighting for Bougainville freedom when in fact it hosted dozens of independent individuals or bands who operated at will across Bougainville.

To many of these BRA men, Buka was a strange place with beautiful women and unarmed men. So, with their new-found privileges, they invaded Buka in ex-BCL or robbed vehicles, exploiting women and terrorizing the peace.

This led Buka leaders like Sam Tulo to invite the PNG government into Buka in 1990 and resulted in the creation of the Buka Liberation Force (BLF) that fought on behalf of the PNGDF after an agreement signed in New Ireland.

The BRA response was: “The Bukas have sold off our island to foreigners” instead of admitting that it was the BRA that was dividing the people of Bougainville with their irresponsibility and recklessness. (Joseph Kabui was politically capable, but the ruler then was the barrel of the gun and Francis Ona.)

In South Bougainville’s Siwai district, responding to this BRA-BIG insanity through its creative leader the late Anthony Anugu and a few others, was created the South Bougainville Interim Authority (SBIA) to provide services to the people who now had no leader to guide them. This initiative shocked the sick BRA and BIG.

But in early 1992, these kind and valuable leaders were betrayed by Siwai BRA lunatics and they were killed in Panguna.

Thus, today it is the BRA that ought to re-evaluate its irresponsibility in the past and lead Bougainville in the right direction instead of sitting down and waiting for miracles and creating fear in the hearts and minds of my people on Bougainville.


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Trina Talu

I am a final year student at UPNG in the Bachelor of Law program. For my major research paper, I am writing a case study into the Panguna mine as well as The Crisis and Bougainville.

I would really appreciate any first hand information, such as the article here. Please contact me through [email protected] if you have any information that would be useful or anything at all. Thank you!

Xavier Pirigi

Bro, nice piece of writing, and definitely the truth.

As a Bougainvillean who lived through the crisis what you said was absolutely the truth and none of our leaders rarely say or merely mention these true facts about what happened.

Thank you for your part in telling the truth about some of the hidden truths in our islands saga. Keep it up someone needs to tell the truth.

Heather Rogalski

Enjoyed your well written piece.

Having been a resident on Bougainville for 17 years, I had some inkling of how the conflict unfolded and applaud the Bougainvillean people for what was initially a well managed, well intentioned movement to regain rights over their land and traditional way of life.

It saddens me that all those good intentions were marred by the self serving unruly few. Thanks for your piece. It cleared a few misunderstandings up for me.

John Peter

A thousand tears for the late Anthony Anugu, a humble, kind and dedicated leader.

May he dwell and rest in peace in the house of the Lord, Jehovah.

Veronica Hannette

That is one wonderful and interesting piece.Inspiring I would say.
Though some of the things mentioned were not known to some of us ( whom are also Bougainvillians) but revealing such information brings frustration and also sympathy.
I feel for those who have been through the trauma of that civil war because this would not have happen if the government did considered the people's demands.
The apathy from the government had now left the people of Bougainville the scare in their memories..... and that would be for life.
Again thank you for sharing that piece.....

Nick Piakal

Thank you Leonard, for yet another insightful look at Bougainville, the crisis and the aftermath.

There is indeed more work to be done, and as in the case of development across this region, only through pure, all-rounded education can we progress forward for the betterment of our land and our people.

In saying that, our leaders most keep an ever watchful eye to pick up insightful observation and analysis from the likes of Leonard Fong Roka.

Keep championing the truth, bruh, for "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make your free." (John 8:32)

Juanita Meke

Well said. This is an eye opener for those people who do not understand well the root of the bloody civil war.

I assume not all the indigenous people of Bougainville knew about this stuff about the BRA falsely using Ona's name in the ill treatment of the innocent people whose suffering was long endured in the 10 year war period.

For those who knew about this may have a daunting feeling to raise the issue. Thankyou for the initiative to raise it.

Roa Jude

Well written my brother, but sad to miss your dad.

From my own perception of the Bougainville crisis, there is not one single factor that should be isolated as a sole cause of the conflict.

Instead there is a series of predominant causes which can trace the roots directly to the Panguna mine.

According to Bougainville history, the mine at Panguna had been perhaps the major spearing point between Bougainville and the mainland.

The mine was the largest non-aid revenue stream of the Government of Papua New Guinea from the nation’s independence in 1975 to the mine’s closure.

In fact, as a devoted Papua New Guinean, I upkeep the distasteful action that is done by the BRA, regardless of any interpolation they have done.

They have the human rights to fight for they own interest and so for their families.

They also claimed that Bougainville Copper had set up a system of apartheid on the island, with one set of facilities for white workers, and one set for the locals.

They accused Bougainville Copper Ltd of being responsible for poisoning the entire length of the Jaba River, and causing birth defects, as well as the extinction of the flying fox on the island.

We all have human rights based on integration.

In fact, the BRA will not be formed if our government does what that needs to be done right, at least puts a hand to show its concern but rather they are ignorant.

What they need is justice.

Kauvi De Villiers Korave

Thanks for the insight, mate. It surely shows how the PNGDF and the BRA fought each other and how the revolution began.

And coming from someone who has see the events that occurred. It is our history and will be remembered.

Stephen Cox

Leonard, well written. Possibly some insight as to why it went off the rails.

It seems all was based on reaction thinking and therefore when the goal is secured there is no actual way forward planned or even a common cause for the future.

That then brings about the splintering and what was once cameraderie can often then become bitter bloody feuds as happens all to often across the region.

Mosika Waike

Quess what, there was a recent march in Buka led by the ex combatants (top brass of BRA and resistance) seeking review on the Peace Agreement amongst other issues.

From the onset this is a positive move, but why did it take this long for us to come up with initiative?

There are underlying issues that need to be taken into account as well. Have these group leaders reconciled their past with the civil populace? Can they reveal to their loyal troops how much wealth they have acquired in their reign?

There is no time to waste here, i.e., Mr Kauona, where are the benefits from the Canada deal? Just food for thought, the well that supplied the manna must be drying up.

Mosika Waike

Leonard, you have a broad mindset and have raised the very issues that seem to be swept under the carpet in the high offices.

Bougainville seem to be stable but the undercurrent cannot be underestimated. We are sitting on a timebomb or monster we created. Mi nap lo hia, nogut oli kolim me suspect gen

Tony Flynn

This is certainly a developing story. Whiteskin, redskin and blackskin appear to be at fault to some various extent.

White and black could not get together without red. CRA wanted to give, Bougainville wanted to receive, PNG politicians could not organise to renegotiate the agreement for 21 years.

The most important message to come out of Bougainville is that if we wish to live together we have to talk together with a good will.

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