BOUGAINVILLE 1970-73 – Bougainville is a magnificent gem of an island; and its people are warm and generous in that customary Melanesian way.
Kieta, which had become the Bougainville district headquarters just before I arrived in late 1970, was an idyllic seaport nestling on the side of a steep ridge; its deep harbour protected from the ocean by Pokpok Island.
Kieta was a place made for a pleasant life. There were white sandy beaches, nearby islands for picnics, the joie de vivre of plantation life, an embracing community- and I had a wonderful new job.
But there was an ominous black cloud lurking over this utopia.
A few years previously, geologists from Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia had found copper, gold and silver in the mountains above Kieta, a discovery that signalled the end of the island’s age of innocence.
The Bougainville people’s relationship to their land – like the thousands of clans of Melanesia – was intensely spiritual.
Land had traditionally been part of their soul and was integral to social cohesion. It was not a commodity to be bought, sold or traded.
So when a vast tract of land stretching from east coast to west was acquired for the mine and its dumps, towns, roads and wharves, this act of acquisition offended every sensibility of the affected villages, and of the people in the adjacent lands who feared the same would happen to them.
And when migrant labour was brought in from the rest of PNG to develop and work the mine, Bougainvilleans’ innate sense of difference - characterised most vividly in their jet black skin - became a matter of profound consequence.
Bougainvilleans began to talk about, and some began to advocate for, secession from Papua New Guinea.
My observation at the time was that Bougainvilleans felt ambivalent about us whites, who they largely tolerated. But they regarded Papua New Guineans from the mainland – referred to as ‘redskins’ – as unwelcome interlopers.
Radio Bougainville was my first job as a fully-fledged manager. Twenty employees, a good-sized office on stilts, two air conditioned studios and a record library in an adjacent besserblock bunker, and the pleasant manager’s house, with a view of the harbour, perched just a few metres distant on a hillside.
Next door was the post office and next to it the Burns Philp supermarket with the Kieta Hotel and Kieta Club close enough to allow a quick dash for a quick beer. Across the road a bevy of Chinese trade stores and further away but within easy walking district the district office and police station.
All very convenient. But Radio Bougainville, like Radio Rabaul from where I had just been transferred, was encountering resistance from the people to whom it was supposed to be broadcasting.
Soon after my arrival, I did a stock take of the station during which I found the storeroom crammed to the rafters with boxes of new radios.
In those days, to encourage radio listening, the government handed out sets to the villages free of charge.
I asked why the radios hadn’t been distributed. The people won’t take them, I was told.
That was an understatement. In recent times, information had reached the station about villagers burning their radios and chopping them to pieces with axes.
‘The government station broadcasts lies,’ it was claimed. ‘They say the copper mine is good for us. We know it isn’t. We don’t want their radios.’
The conclusion was inescapable: Radio Bougainville, which had been operating only since April 1968 and received with great fanfare, was in big trouble with its listeners.
Having just arrived from a similar experience in Rabaul, and sensitive to the threats that involved, I didn’t want a repeat.
I now realised what Controller of Broadcasting Jim Leigh had meant when his only instruction to me had been: “Get down there and fix the place.”
Talking with the station’s staff, I learned how notorious it had become, especially amongst the people of central Bougainville where the station and the mine, about to go into production, were located.
The station was seen as a pro-government, anti-people propaganda machine. Its local nickname was ‘Radio Ashton’, after district commissioner, Des Ashton.
Leigh had told me to regularise this situation as best I could. My strategy was to cleanse programs of explicit propaganda, rebalance the station’s operations to encourage greater listener participation and get ‘recording patrols’ into the villages to improve face to face contact with the people.
In practical terms, my first step was to ease the district commissioner and some of his cohorts off the air and to remove their influence over programs. A police guard, appointed after some earlier altercation, was removed from the studios. We consulted with village leaders and put more Bougainville voices and opinions on air.
We initiated many new programs like Kivung Bilong Wailas (Radio Forum) to broadcast a spectrum of views from listeners and a forthright current affairs program, Tede. Broadcast hours were doubled and we reached out to groups hostile to the station.
This all put more pressure on the staff but they seemed to enjoy the challenge.
Regular outdoor concerts and string band and dance contests were introduced, and we sent ‘patrols’ into rural areas armed only with tape recorders to record music, traditional, legends and interviews.
I was also determined to recruit and train more Bougainvilleans to work at the station, especially from those disaffected areas affected by the development of the mine. Most of our staff to that point had come from the north.
Receiving my memo proposing this step, the matchless Jim Leigh called me on the radio-telephone to proffer some advice.
“Father, there are only three rules in interviewing staff,” he lectured. “One, be rational not emotional. Two, put them under pressure. Three, check their references. Over.”
As luck had it, Jim was in Kieta for his annual inspection of the station a month or so later when one of the young hopefuls came in for her interview.
Jim said he’d sit in on the session to see how I performed. ‘Oh, bloody great!’ I thought.
The applicant was a good-looking 18-year old from Guava village near the mine site. When she walked into my office, Jim was immediately infatuated.
“What’s your name, dear,” he said, almost sweetly. “Perpetua Tanaku,” was the reply,” but my friends call me Pepi. You can call me Pepi.”
“Pepi,” Jim sighed. At which the delightful Ms Tanaku added, “Pepi is an abbreviation of Perpetua and comes from the word perpetual which means everlasting.”
These preliminaries over, I was just about to jump in and ask my first rational question which I hoped would put Pepi under pressure when Jim leapt to his feet and exclaimed, “You’re hired.”
Pepi’s charms were not matched by her love of radio and she left the job after only a few months to do other things. They turned out to be seismic things.
Many years later, in 1989, watching the ABC news on television in Sydney, I saw Pepi being interviewed in a jungle hideout to which she had fled with her cousin, Francis Ona, the Bougainville rebel leader.
Perpetua Serero, as she now was, had emerged as a key voice on the side of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in the devastating civil war that raged on the island between 1988 and 1998.
As chair of the Panguna Landowners Association, she had championed an independent Bougainville and the cause of landowner demands against the mine and the PNG government. She looked exhausted and ill.
A few months later, I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that Pepi had died of pneumonia. She would have been aged about 36.
Bougainville leader Simon Pentanu has written: “Perpetua Serero had remarkable poise and presence. Had her voice … been heeded when she spoke, some of the fiasco and hurt amongst the landowners could well have been mitigated, if not largely avoided.”
The civil war led to the deaths of 20,000 people and destroyed Bougainville. Twenty years later, the PNG province, which has just voted for independence in a referendum, has still not recovered.
My thoughts about my time there – a period of challenge and personal satisfaction with my mission – are coloured by the great tragedy which overtook this wonderful island and its proud people.
There’s much more I could write about my time Bougainville. For example, the day political education officer Graham Dent pulled me aside and whispered urgently that “the powers that be” wanted me off the island.
Then there was Michael Somare’s turbulent visit in January 1973 when, believed to be under threat by landowners, the chief minister was helicoptered out of danger to the west coast.
It was a hectic visit: the day before he'd faced an angry protest in Kieta about the killing of two Bougainvillean doctors on the mainland,
And there was that first shipment of copper from Bougainville on the Margid Brovig in April 1972. The minerals that made PNG independence so much better economically-based and Bougainville society so tragically fractious.
And the time I was asked to accept a promotion as the department’s superintendent of broadcasting in Port Moresby and refused - because I wanted to stay ‘in the field’, as we called it.
Then I received a letter from Unesco asking me if I could spend six months as a consultant in Indonesia to set up an educational broadcasting operation. I’d been recommended by a colleague.
When Department of Information boss Lyall Newby refused to approve the leave, I threatened to quit and he relented.
And so it was that by April 1973, along with Sue and Simon and Sally, I was settling into a new temporary home at Yogyakarta in central Java.
For some excellent reading – a true insider’s account - about Bougainville at the time of the development of the Panguna copper and gold resource, link here to Bill Brown’s continuing series, A Kiap’s Chronicle
In case you missed them.....
You can read earlier gripping episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues here: