An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
INTERVIEWED on camera for the 1999 documentary, Coconut Revolution, the late Bougainville leader Francis Ona stated these as the goals of the revolutionary war: “We are fighting for man and his culture, land and environment and independence.”
The 1988 armed protest to show BCL and PNG that Bougainville was for Bougainvilleans, and that nothing should come between them and their land, resulted in a 10-year war and the loss of perhaps 10-15 thousand Bougainville people and huge loss of property and infrastructure.
The art of war was new – by and large the World War II veterans were not around - but Bougainvilleans learned quickly and, through stealth and bravado, got access to PNG military resources.
The fighters also learned how to re-condition wartime ammunition and guns.
In another 1999 documentary, Bougainville: Our Island our fight, the former Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) commander, Sam Kauona, said: “All weapons that the BRA has presently are from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Like my weapon there are now hundreds and hundreds of them.”
The BRA had rapidly learned the art of guerrilla warfare and felt confident in taking on the PNG government.
A generation of youngsters grew up and joined in the fighting in the 10-year civil war. They fought effectively enough to demoralise the PNG army and to witness it leave their island.
But the way in which young men were drawn into combat and support roles and the consequent gun culture that developed provided anything other than a normal upbringing for a Bougainvillean teenager.
Internal Bougainville refugee Maryanne Moses observed in Bougainville: Our island our fight, that, “We have deprived the children from what was rightfully theirs. Children are growing up without [formal] education, they are in a war situation and that’s all they know.”
The Bougainville Peace Agreement, when it eventually was signed in 2001 after many failed attempts, unlike previous initiatives had a more concrete emphasis on the gun culture and the weaponry available across Bougainville. It stated bluntly that Bougainville must be free from guns.
It made clear that the proposed Bougainville referendum on independence to be held between 2015 and 2020 was conditional on Bougainville being weapon free.
In 2010 Aloysius Laukai on the New Dawn on Bougainville news site (No Bougainville referendum until weapons are gone) quoted a Bougainvillean lawyer as saying: “Although the referendum is guaranteed under the PNG and Bougainville constitutions, there first must be weapons disposal before it can take place.”
So far this directive has not being upheld by the ex-combatants and a new generation of Bougainvilleans that loves to own a gun and many people blame the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) for not putting in the effort.
Many ex-combatants believe the ABG should look at the Bougainville crisis through a Bougainville lens since the issue is still fresh in the hearts and minds of the people.
The ‘half success’ of the UN backed weapons disposal program has failed to fully dispose of weapons for a reason and, as Bougainvillean, it is about time politicians recognised that and acted.
There are still sources of conflict in Bougainville as to how the ABG should function and how the peace agreement should treat Bougainville.
In Anthony Regan’s book, Light Intervention: Lessons from Bougainville (2010), the author stated: “Despite agreements, diverse sources of tension and conflict usually tend to simmer, even once the main conflict is resolved—the previous intensity just finds new outlets.”
On Bougainville many ex-combatants do not want to throw away their guns, pointing out that they risked their lives to seize arms from PNG government and other forces want their stories of war to be recorded for the future.
A notable Meekamui group leader, Chris Uma, is one such figure holding out against the weapons disposal exercise.
He told an Al Jazeera TV documentary, Bougainville: Reopening the old wounds, in 2009: “I fought the PNGDF, I got the rifle, I grab it from the enemy [and] that is why I cannot give [up] my arms. People who are putting their arms to containment [are] stupid.”
These combatants do not want to destroy their weapons but want to keep them safe for future generations, they claim to have touch with Bougainville history.
These are the issues Bougainville is caught with today. But despite the only partial success of the disposal program, Bougainvilleans are not reckless gun wielders in the post-conflict Bougainville.