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.