LEONARD FONG ROKA
THE LATE FRANCIS ONA’s will to reign over Bougainville met with disaster early in 1990; and BRA strategist Sam Kauona’s smell of Bougainville’s political jeopardy was too late to rescue the island’s 100,000 people.
Amidst this chaos, two figures stood out as the key leaders of the Bougainville rebellion – Francis Ona and Joseph Kabui. But their views of the conflict were not harmonious and this greatly affected the Bougainville people.
The late Joseph Kabui got into the wheelhouse of the provincial government in 1987. The following year brought challenges - militancy against the Panguna mine and the PNG government being the most outstanding.
From late 1988 Kabui’s office was flooded with letters or proposals from ordinary people and leaders seeking help, compensation and ways to address the conflict on Bougainville.
With these responsibilities for decision-making weighing on him, he received his first brutal bashing from the PNG police on the first day of July 1989 whilst returning from a church service in Arawa.
PNG’s suspension of the North Solomons provincial government on 29 August 1990 might have relieved Kabui, but he was angered by the PNG Australia blockade of the province.
Kabui and his elder brother, Martin Miriori, were also subject to harassment and looting by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. This led to the formation of a BRA contingent to protect him in his home, the Tumpusiong Valley.
Francis Ona, Kabui’s counterpart on the other side, was a hero. He received no flood of claims to his Guava village. People saw him as having a divine right to liberate and rule Bougainville.
After the 17 May 1990 Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Kabui was in action as president of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG). BIG soon established a Honiara office headed by Martin Miriori. At home, BIG was equipped with Radio Free Bougainville that was donated and set by some Australian sympathisers to spill its political discourse.
Without the presence of Francis Ona, Joseph Kabui attempted to establish order on Bougainville. There were police and a military academy known as the Erama Barracks, where young men were trained by Bougainvillean former PNGDF soldiers.
But all these developments were happening without Ona and other popular BRA greats like Ishmael Toroama, Glen Tovirika, and Chris Uma and others, who had already created their private armies which were executing their own rules in the name of Francis Ona.
According to the Australian government’s Outline History of the Bougainville Conflict, in July and August 1990, Joseph Kabui led BIG in signing the Endeavour Accord with PNG to restore services on Bougainville.
Then in January 1991, Kabui led BIG in signing the Honiara Accord with PNG to bring a range of services into Bougainville. And in August 1991, he led BIG to the hearing of UN Committee on Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, accusing the PNG of atrocities.
Upon his return, Kabui did an all-Bougainville speaking tour; in much of Central and South Bougainville he was being attacked by people for not delivering services. The North was not toured since the invading PNG army was there in most areas.
All these BIG achievements were without Ona, who accused Kabui of trying to betray Bougainville; often leading to heated debates on the two-way radio networks that BRA and BIG had established.
The PNGDF also snailed closer to the heartland of Bougainville politics in Kieta and the civil war got nastier and nastier. Ona kept silent. He never came public on Radio Free Bougainville. The little sessions he agreed to were recorded in his Guava village and brought to the broadcast station.
In October 1992, when the PNG army landed on Tunuru and moved to the Morgan Junction, Kabui had a two-front political war to wage.
He was attracted more to peaceful means to address the conflict because there was disorder in the BIG/BRA and there was also the problem of getting the founding master of the conflict, Francis Ona, to get to the midst of the people and lead.
Kabui travelled from village to village in central Bougainville encouraging people to stand firm in the face of PNG attacks and to overcome their fear. In all these tours he called in at Guava to brief Ona, the boulder that never moved and where often his entourage went hungry because no proper care was provided.
Thus Kabui was lured to engage in peace with the Australia-backed PNG government. This led to the Honiara talks between Sir Julius Chan and Sam Kauona in September 1994, where an agreement on a ceasefire was reached and a foundation for further talks set.
This led later to the formation of the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG) in April 1995. All of this, of course, with Francis Ona isolated.
The moment of shock for Ona came in September 1995 when the BRA/BIG and the BTG met in Cairns, Australia. He began to send his teams on speaking tours throughout BRA controlled areas of Bougainville, especially Central Bougainville.
He even began to engage in his own international deals and began paying visits to communities outside Guava village. In one of these tours he visited Oune village, where he attacked the peace lovers and Kabui as ‘betrayers’ of Bougainville.
Ona’s men led by his commander, Moses Pipiro, terrorised people from the Panguna area who were seeking vital services like health and education or getting Red Cross supplies in Arawa.
Following this political nightmare of his vice president and most of his best BRA commanders isolating him, Ona formed his Meekamui Government and Meekamui Defence Force. He also got himself a radio station, known as Radio Meekamui, that aired from Guava.
After the successful BRA defeat of the PNG’s military operation High Speed, in 1997 BIG/BRA established their base next to the former Aropa International Airport in a place known as Kangsinari. The spot was easier for negotiations with PNG controlled areas like Arawa and for travel to the Solomon Islands for negotiations and peace talks.
With Francis Ona’s anti-peace campaigns gaining momentum in Kieta, and leaders like BIG Premier Theodore Miriung and peace negotiator Thomas Batakai murdered by the PNG government, BRA/BIG called for a meeting with the Meekamui to reach common ground for a better Bougainville.
The talk was held but, like in 1988 and 1989, Francis Ona, was not satisfied and walked off. Thus the break-up of the Bougainville leaders into Meekamui and the pro-peace Bougainville People’s Congress, locally referred to as the Kangsinari Coup that happened in 1997.
Francis Ona influenced the likes of Chris Uma and Moses Pipiro to his side of the divide, which strengthened his Meekamui Government.
Joseph Kabui went his way, pursuing peace efforts on Bougainville.