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Bougainville independence evokes Belgian Congo parallels

Back from Bougainville
Forced to retreat from Bougainville by guerrilla fighters in February 1990, weary PNGDF troops return to the PNG mainland


TUMBY BAY - During the ceremony marking Papua New Guinea’s Independence Day in September 1975, the new nation’s first Governor General Sir John Guise spoke some famous words.

"It is important the people of Papua New Guinea, and the rest of the world, realise the spirit in which we are lowering the flag of our colonisers. We are lowering the flag, not tearing it down."

What was probably at the back of his mind was the way de-colonisation in many other new nations, especially in Africa, had been characterised by violence.

That the run-up to independence in PNG might be accompanied by violence was also uppermost in the minds of the many expatriates living in the country, particularly planters in the highlands.

This fear was not assuaged by what appeared to be the Australian government’s unseemly haste to divest itself of responsibility for PNG, despite widespread advice that the time was not yet right.

Apart from wanting to be rid of Papua New Guinea the Australian government had assessed, encouraged by Michael Somare, that if there was a delay, even for a year, the opposition that was building and the secessionist movements that were festering would “put the country in great danger of breaking up”.

This assessment and the escalating breakdown of law and order in Rabaul, Bougainville and the highlands would have further fed fear of an African-style outcome.

One of the most popular books being read by expatriates in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s was American writer Robert Ruarke’s ‘Uhuru’ about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

‘Uhuru’, Swahili for ‘freedom’, was the rallying cry of the Mau Mau.

The unbelievable violence that accompanied this uprising, carried out by both Africans and British, was felt by some expatriates to be a chilling portent of what might happen in Papua New Guinea.

Following the Mau Mau uprising there were even more appalling events accompanying independence in the Belgian Congo in 1960.

Given freedom from one of the most brutal colonial regimes in history, the Congolese went on a  murderous spree of revenge visiting horrifying atrocities on any whites left in the country and, ultimately, on each other.

What is interesting about the Congo are some of the parallel elements that seem to have developed in Papua New Guinea.

In the Congo the mineral resource rich province of Katanga saw independence as an opportunity to separate from the other provinces and form its own independent nation.

The cruel civil war that followed, and which saw Katangan aspirations buried, was particularly bloody. There was also an influx of some very nasty mercenary outfits.

When PNG prime minister Julius Chan invited a bunch of these ex-African mercenaries to help solve the Bougainville crisis in 1996, Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok was probably well aware of what had happened in Katanga, even if Chan was not, and acted immediately to stop it.

(I note that even the most authoritive accounts of the so-called Sandline Affair, including that by eminent journalist Sean Dorney, fail to mention the Katangan parallels.)

The reason I find this interesting is that I can see how the process leading to the Bougainville independence referendum scheduled for June 2019 fits nicely into the same sort of narrative of what happened in Katanga.

Peter O’Neill is making exactly the same noises and is being similarly obstructive as was Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba before all hell broke loose in Katanga.

On the other side of the fence, clan and landowner resentments are still simmering and could explode at any moment if the Autonomous Bougainville Government puts a foot wrong.

I’m not suggesting that anything like the appalling mess that developed in the Congo will happen in Papua New Guinea but I would suggest that, as the June 2019 date of the referendum draws close, it would be well to recognise the potential for danger.

Australia was asleep at the wheel when the 10-year Bougainville civil war erupted in 1989.

One would hope they will be paying closer attention as the referendum in 2019 draws near.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Just about every race in the world is capable of atrocities and PNG is no different.

Look at what the German Nazis did and they were supposedly one of the most civilised people in the world.

Some terrible things happened in Bougainville during the civil war for instance and could be repeated.

In the highlands people are torturing women and burning them alive for goodness sake.

And as Arthur points out most other countries just sit by and watch. I can recall in the 1960s that Biafran jokes replaced Irish jokes in Australia.

When it was discovered that Idi Amin the African dictator had a freezer full of human body parts in his kitchen we all thought it was hilarious.

Australia will need to have soldiers and equipment standing by and ready to move come June 2019.

Or will we leave it to the Kiwis to sort it all out again?

Arthur Williams

Phil, a timely reminder of the negatives of nationalism at its extremity.

Just having had my 79th birthday I too can recall the terrible carnage of Congo before and after its so-called independence.

I often think of it as the war the West doesn’t want to talk about. A few killed in Iran and the media plasters it by the hour. Hundreds killed. Raped maimed in the Congo gets a few paragraphs.

Seem to recall reading how at I-Day for the Congo there were almost no citizens possessing sufficient degrees in medicine, law, sciences, education to make the new nation a viable state. This apparently was claimed as deliberate Belgium policy.

The mayhem continues 58 years later while its mineral wealth leaks away. Only one example is Uganda which exports more gold than it digs out of the ground.

I have a deeper remembrance of another example of unrequited demand for so-called Independence. It still evokes 1960s images of the starving children from Nigerian’s breakaway Biafra. It was the first time for me to see the horror of civil war on a TV screen.

I can still sing the jingle about the cessationist’ leader Col Ojukwe, ‘We are all Biafrans fighting for Ojukwe, with Ojukwe leading we can be victorious….’

Sadly 48 years after it ended there is a growing groundswell calling for that thwarted Independence.

I often think it was not copper or gold but oil that was behind the 1967 uprising in Nigeria’s far south and the continued failure of equal development much talked about by politicians there and all over the 3rd World with its shaky corrupt cronyism administrations when pushing their own agendas with the miners, loggers and oilmen.

Witness how the people of the Gulf have spoken many times of wanting their LNG developed in their impoverished province yet the oily-ones ignore them and plan for getting their hands on the cheap gas from Papua into the Moresby refinery.

There must be many Gulf people wanting to copy Bougainville and get their own freedom from Waigani too. Their swampy wetlands are similar to the Oil Rivers area of Nigeria and perhaps could become the scenario for a Gulf insurgency.

Yesterday amid a gale force wind I was stopped by a 90 year old Italian wanting a New Year’s chat. He had a philosophical question for me, “Why is the world in such a mess and talk of war increasing?” Some 10 or minutes later, wet and cold we agreed that major problem is caused by greed and the lust for power.

Will the rural Bougainvilleans really gain from Momis and his ilk as they clamber for more power. All I can advise is atleast make sure the referendum must have atleast two-thirds wanting the political act of secession.

Not like Wales which had 0.01% majority and that on a mere 50% turnout.. ’Democracy in action’ we are told not like the nasty Russians or Chinese.

Michael Geketa

Phil, this is really thinking outside of the box; a great anticipation of the possible negative consequence if nothing viable is done by all stakeholders concern including Australia, PNG Government, the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Bougainville Copper inclusive of the Panguna landowners.

However, if all is well, nothing Congolese or Kenyan in nature would ensue.

Something worthy of mention is that Bougainville or PNG for that matter is not Africa. If the reconciliation process is done the Melanesian Way with a bit of modernity embraced, I' am pretty sure the 2019 Referendum is well and truly achievable.

For example, Bougainvilleans have fought the Civil War and have ended it too. No countries in the world seemingly had achieve such feat but despite fully-resourced efforts conflicting countries continue to be subdued by unending conflicts like in Africa and Mid-East.

Paul Oates

Wasn't it Territories Minister Ceb Barnes who when asked what was in it (BCP) for the locals and landowners responded a terse 'Nothing'?

The long conduit between those working with the actual people and those detached from the coal face but creating the policies that the nation follows is just as tortuous and dismissive as it has ever been.

This very blog, thanks to its founder, Keith Jackson, put together a serious, thoughtful and detailed proposal concerning PNG. The proposal incorporated views and knowledge from both PNGians and Australians who had actual knowledge about PNG and her people.

This proposal was given to the current Australian Foreign Affairs Minister and received.... You guessed it! Nothing.

It's probably fair to say that the current Australian Foreign Affairs Minister had many other projects on her mind as she flits from country to country and occasionally graces our tv screens with a dissertation about the world problems.

So we have neither advanced nor improved from where we were and presumably have no expectation of any significant change in our relations with PNG until something dramatic happens. At that point, we will again be offered that same platitudes that were offered by the Foreign Office to PM Jim Hacker in the tv series 'Yes Prime Minister': A four stage constructive approach to do nothing but employ useless public servants while the real problem goes unchecked.

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