Chan has no regrets over handling of Sandline affair
It’s very hard to win an election

The Bougainville Crisis and the Sandline mercenaries

Sir Julius Chan (Torsten Blackwood, AFP)STACEY N TARURA

An entry in the 2016 Crocodile Prize

THE Bougainville Crisis was the biggest conflict fought on the soil of Papua New Guinea since World War II.

It came about as a result of landowner grievances over unequal distribution of wealth and large amount of environmental damage caused by the mining giant, Rio Tinto.

As a result of relentless rebel activities on Bougainville, the PNG government under Sir Julius Chan resorted to hiring Sandline mercenaries of the Executive Outcome company, the latter being a sub-contractor of Sandline International.

There were several reasons for this including Chan’s desire to restore order in Bougainville, to reopen the copper mine and to remove rebel leaders.

The explosive nature of the Bougainville crisis had taken Papua New Guineans and Bougainvilleans by surprise. The war worsened resulting in the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of assets and property.

Before the outbreak of the crisis a series of events took place. There was the November 1988 blowing up of power pylons and other acts of sabotage which led to the shut-down of the mine. As a result of these criminal acts, an order for police to “shoot to kill” was given by then Minister for Police, Paul Tohian.

The militants formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) under the leadership of Sam Kaouna and landowners’ spokesperson, Francis Ona, who was very vocal. They stated that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause.

As the rebel activities on Bougainville increased, the PNGDF (Army) was troubled that it was unable to establish a stronghold on the island and soon afterwards a blockade was imposed in an effort to force the militants to surrender.

The BRA and other elements declared unilateral independence and established an interim government in May 1990.

This followed the “St Valentine’s Day massacre” which had been carried out by the PNGDF in February  1990 that saw many casualties among militants and civilians.

It was during this time that prime minister Chan and his deputy Chris Haiveta became convinced that the only way to defeat the rebel activities on Bougainville was to engage an international mercenary organisation.

They believed the proposed operation was a last resort to get back the once wealthy province.

The Sandline mercenaries were tasked to “get the criminals,” by which the mercenaries assumed the rebel leaders on Bougainville.

Sandline’s plan was to use helicopters to support and ferry an operational force of contract soldiers to do battle where they would defeat the BRA and force a negotiated settlement.

In addition to armed force, the tactics used by the Sandline involved manipulating the media and using psychological warfare on the people of central and south Bougainville. This instigated fear in Bougainville and PNG as a whole.

The Sandline deal met opposition from Port Moresby Governor Bill Skate, who described it as “a crazy plan” because it reflected a failure on the part of the PNG government to address the crisis and issues of landowner grievance and environmental damage.

Soon after, in March 1997, the mercenaries were flown out of the country as unrest broke out on the streets of Port Moresby and prime minister Chan stepped down.

Historian James Griffin also believed that “long unattended corruption issues were seen as the result of Chan being ousted in Parliament”.

However, Chris Haiveta stated he had no regrets in signing the Sandline contract as he believed it was the right decision at the time.

It was not until 2001 that an official peace agreement was signed by the PNG government and the leaders of Bougainville.

The role of the Sandline mercenaries remains a topic of great controversy in PNG.


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Tony Theomae

I remembered during the crisis lots of refugees cross the boarder into Solomon Islands. One stayed with us until the crisis was over.

Garry Roche

if I remember correctly, the late Bill Skate, who is often criticized for many things, as Prime Minister was influential in bringing about some peace and resolution of the crisis.

Peter Turner

Having been in Bougainville from 1989 to 1991 and able to fly my own plane all round the island quite a lot, as well as having been close friends with Dr. Sir Alexis Sarei, I assess that Stacey's version has been composed at long range and reflects only the barest, and 'politically correct' debatable version, of the origins of the conflict.

The real truth is that the unrequited expectations of the younger generation of a small group in Central Bougainville, both with the Central Government, and their own older generation leadership, was allowed to degenerate into anarchy by the inexperienced political pikaninis' at Waigani at the time, who engineered the disaster, and the poorly trained and indifferently supported PNGDF whose 'hearts and minds' were not in their job.

Actually Chris, there were very few Dimdim Mercs. involved. 95% of the Sandline troops involved were African and they were very professional. There is no doubt that they would have cut a swathe through Bougainville.

Apparently the 'hardware' abandoned by Sandline when they were paid to go away, is still sitting in storage at a RAAF Airbase near Weipa.

Thank God for Jerry Singarok's change of heart.

Chris Overland

It seems that Sir Julius Chan and others who played a key role in the Sandline Affair remain unrepentant about their actions.

At one level this is understandable: after all, no-one much likes admitting they were wrong. However, I would have thought that Sir Julius, after long reflection, might by now have realised that he made a serious error in judgement.

The hiring of mercenaries rarely ends well for anyone much. History is littered with examples of this.

Britain hired Hessian troops to fight the American revolutionaries, with a conspicuous lack of success. Rome's legions never did as well once they were composed mainly of colonial troops motivated by money rather than steadfast Roman lads full of nationalist and imperialist fevour.

In the context of PNG and Bougainville, it seems to me that hiring a bunch of white hit men to do the dirty work against Francis Ona et al was an astonishingly stupid decision.

At one stroke it alienated the PNGDF, which doubtless felt an acute sense of grievance that a quite small group of heavily armed white men were assumed to be able to do something which they could not.

Similarly, it must have hardened attitudes on Bougainville, virtually driving the local population to support the secessionists.

And, of course, it alienated many international observers who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the PNG government's position.

It was, in short, a spectacular own goal.

Sir Julius has remained defiant as is his right, but the judgement of history is highly unlikely to be favourable.

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