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BRA’s Kauona looks at Bougainville’s future

Sam Kauona
Sam Kauona,  former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general now a leading independence figure (Ben Bohane)

BEN BOHANE
| Sydney Morning Herald | Extract | Read full article here

BOUGAINVILLE - China is also showing considerable interest in Bougainville, offering K3.4 billion worth of infrastructure and seeking Bougainville’s mineral wealth in ‘collateral’ as part of the deal.

Also revealed is the scale of a Chinese master plan for Bougainville as it heads towards a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea.

It’s expected a clear majority of Bougainvilleans will vote in the next few weeks for independence, and if PNG’s Parliament ratifies the outcome, then Bougainville is on track to become the newest nation in our region since Timor Leste.

A public presentation by former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general Sam Kauona, filmed by a crew from 60 Minutes in recent weeks, shows Mr Kauona unfurling a large satellite map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, a port at Torokina on the west coast (where US forces landed in World War II), a highway linking Buka town in the north with Buin in the south, an airport and a luxury resort, among other proposed developments.

Mining is almost certainly part of the deal.

“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” Mr Kauona told attending ward councillors and MPs.

“Where is Australia and the US and Japan? Earlier this year I met representatives from Fortescue mining but I have been waiting 10 months for them to make a commitment," Mr Kauona said.

"So far they are keeping me at arm’s length, so we don’t know if they are genuine. At the moment China’s offer is plan A.”

Mr Kauona, one of the leading candidates to become next president of Bougainville, says he is not necessarily “pro-China”, and wants companies who can help partner in nation-building.

“We are a treasure island. As we move towards independence we want partners who are interested in helping us build a nation, not just exploit our resources.

"It seems that Western banks are closed to us but eastern ones are open. China has made a proposal and we are still waiting to hear from our Australian and American friends if they have any proposals.”

If PNG seriously delays or does not ratify the vote, there is the prospect of a Bougainville unilateral declaration of independence that could well be recognised by some Pacific countries – and China.

As Bougainville’s war for independence was beginning in 1989, Mr Kauona, then a young officer in the PNG defence forces, was being trained in explosives by the Australian Defence Force in Portsea, Victoria. He left Australia and switched sides, running the naval blockade of his island via the “back door” of the Solomons and taking command of a nascent guerilla force.

Successfully resisting the PNG defence forces takeover of Bougainville, he later brought the rank-and-file revolutionary army soldiers into the peace process when women chiefs had had enough of the war.

Yet despite bringing his fighters into a lasting peace process and working towards economic development, Australia denied him a visa for more than 20 years, only recently allowing him and his wife Josie visas.

But the damage was done. In recent years he says he was forced to conduct most of his business meetings in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Although still well disposed to Australia, he is angry at his treatment and wants Australia to apologise to him and to Bougainville for its role in the war, at a time when reconciliations between Papua New Guinea Defence Force and Bougainville Revolutionary Army soldiers have already begun.

Mr Kauona, speaking in the Bougainville capital Arawa, said he feels responsible for helping rebuild Bougainville and is open to offers from anywhere.

“As Commander of the BRA I was responsible for the destruction of infrastructure on my island during the war, so I have a responsibility to rebuild it now. I am very open to Australia and the US but they are not offering any integrated development plans for Bougainville.”

Mr Kauona says he doesn’t want to be caught up in a big power competition.

“Don’t talk to me about military bases and this or that strategy. Come and talk to me about economic development for our people and how you will help us with nation-building”.

Ben Bohane is a Vanuatu-based photojournalist who has covered the Pacific for 25 years. He is the recipient of this years’ inaugural Walkley/Sean Dorney grant for Pacific journalism

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