LEONARD FONG ROKA
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
IN 2012, Central Bougainville politician Jimmy Miringtoro and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill were chatting in O’Neill’s office in Parliament House, Port Moresby, when the PM unexpectedly suggested he was interested in visiting Bougainville.
It wasn’t until late January 2014 that the proposal took form and the pair landed at Buka airport in a chartered jet, touring Bougainville for three days in a convoy of cars with three helicopters buzzing around in the skies above.
Late last year, as he was preparing the way for O’Neill’s visit, Miringtoro told the Panguna people that the trip would be a ‘family visit’. It was the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) administration that came up with the more far reaching idea of a ‘goodwill visit’.
Across central Bougainville, many people think some of Miringtoro’s actions in recent times have gone well outside what should have been the responsibility of the ABG. One of these was a Panguna landowners’ deal for an agricultural investment by Chinese firm, Beijing Aerospace Great Wall.
The ABG was shocked by the deal, signed at the Lynchar Hotel in Buka town late in 2013, and wondered what other surprises Jimmy Miringtoro might have in store.
But Waigani’s respect for the authority of Bougainville president Dr John Momis made it clear that even Miringtoro had to play along with the protocol of the ABG taking responsibility for the visit.
Before the ABG took over the PM’s tour, however, arrangements Miringtoro had made with the divided Meekamui factions had created a tussle in Panguna - money and recognition being the catalysts.
Today, the self-style Meekamui ‘government’ in central Bougainville is a divided band of individuals striving for status. In Panguna there is a Meekamui group led by Philip Miriori who, together with Moses Pipiro from Pangka village, claim a line of leadership from the late Francis Ona.
But Guava villagers condemn them and say Ona died without any official announcement that Miriori or Pipiro should be leader.
Meanwhile, down on the east coast is Chris Uma from Kerei outside Arawa, the man who runs the Morgan Junction checkpoint on the Loloho port – Panguna mine-access road. Uma’s right to rule, he claims, was also bestowed upon him by Ona.
Uma is not a Panguna man but has followers in the mine affected areas. Uma, whose group bear arms, is a power in the area. But, whereas Miriori and Pipiro have a hatred of the ABG, Uma follows and respects the Panguna Peace Building Strategy, which he says upholds the principles Bougainville went to war for.
Uma’s growing harmony with the ABG through the PPBS means Miriori and Pipiro are sidelined by the Panguna people. They saw Peter O’Neill’s visit to Bougainville as an event that somehow could be manipulated to restore their influence in the eyes of the people.
So, without the knowledge of the Meekamui and in a surprise move, they took steps to support the ABG’s Panguna District Administration invitation to O’Neill to visit Panguna with the financial support of Jimmy Miringtoro and the ABG.
Thus Panguna was designated for a visit by Peter O’Neill by a few people without the rest knowing. When they found out, this shocked Chris Uma and the people of Panguna.
Seeing the threat, Pipiro and Miriori began a media campaign saying that the PM was welcome at Panguna, but their about-face led them to being shamed by Uma and his followers.
And Uma took action. In the fortnight leading to O’Neill’s arrival, he was on the road seeking support from other men to stop the PM visiting Panguna, by words or guns, whichever they chose.
People were divided. So the Panguna organising committee came to Uma’s followers with K15,000 if he and his allies allowed the visit.
Uma refused the cash leading to more ABG ministers joining behind the scenes to negotiate a solution. Eventually nearly K40,000 was spent to allow the Peter O’Neill to visit Panguna.
The final meeting ended at 3am on 29 January only when O’Neill’s team personally got involved and promised to uphold the belkol or, in Nasioi language, domangtamiri - a process towards peace and compensation after conflict resulting in destruction and death.
So the rewards of the visit were not with Philip Miriori and Moses Pipiro.
Earlier the Panguna people had heard, wrongly, from Meekamui followers that the prime minister was visiting Panguna to recognise Meekamui as a legitimate tribal government. The Meekamui leaders also wanted O’Neill to have a private moment with them.
But O’Neill made Miriori and Pipiro laughing stocks in the midst of the Panguna people and Bougainville.
In his Panguna speech, O’Neill announced, as Miriori looked on shocked, “The ABG is the only legitimate government in Bougainville. Meekamui you have come under ABG and work as one Bougainville people to bring about development and progress in Bougainville.”
After the official program, Miriori approached O’Neill but was told the PM had no time for discussion.
O’Neill’s visit to Bougainville was important and influential. It empowered the ABG as the legitimate government standing for the rights of the people of Bougainville. It further exposed the little warlords in central Bougainville as trying to hold the Bougainville people to ransom.