ACCORDING to Ulukalala Lavaka Ata’s 1998 work, The Bougainville Crisis and PNG-Australia Relations, “it is a feeling deep down in our hearts that Bougainville is totally different from PNG, geographically, culturally. It’s been a separate place since time immemorial. Ever since God created the universe, Bougainville has been separate, has been different.”
This difference, of course, was exacerbated by the reckless influx of non-Bougainvilleans after 1900. As historian James Griffin, who had a close relationship with Bougainville, wrote, when over 1,000 Bougainvilleans attended a United Nations mission visit to Kieta in 1962 and they told the UN to remove the mandate from Australia and give it to the US, they were treated like pigs and dogs.
Bougainville’s anti-Australia, anti-mining and anti-PNG campaign, despite being ignored as baseless, slowly developed over time.
And, on 1 September 1975, the first peoples’ attempt to unilaterally declare independence occurred.
It shocked Michael Somare’s PNG government that was to receive its own independece in just two weeks’ time.
The UDI got nowehere, of course, but the powerlessness of the then North Solomons Provincial Government (NSPG) to control the massive exploitation of Bougainville resources kept conflict going.
This resulted in armed militancy which ended the buck-passing between PNG, BCL, NSPG and Australia in 1990.
The swiftly instituted an unwanted NSPG had failed to cater for the pro-secessionist Bougainvilleans.
And so arose the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG), the political arm of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), led by the late Joseph Kabui (pictured).
There is no proper record of what really happened within BIG politics. The main players are all dead.
But as a child, I do remember a Sunday soon after the second UDI in 1990 at Our Lady of Mercy Church.
Joseph Kabui told my father, “I have named my daughter Victoria for Bougainville has achieved victory against BCL and PNG.”
No independence declaration documents were circulated within Bougainville for public consumption, although there were few awareness speeches by political leaders.
But some work was done on promoting and seeking recognition for UDI at the international level through letters to which were attached the Declaration of Independence. These were disseminated through the BIG/BRA office in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
On 16 May the ‘Interim Government of the Republic of Bougainville’ sent the following letter to diplomatic missions in Port Moresby and foreign governments (from The Bougainville Crisis by RJ May and Mathew Spriggs):
Dear Your Excellency
RE: REQUEST FOR RECOGNITION OF BOUGAINVILLE AS AN INDEPENDENT REPUBLIC
I come to you and your government with many heartfelt greetings from the new Republic of Bougainville and all her people.
In case your Government may not be aware, the history itself will show that it has taken the people of Bougainville almost forty (40) years with our continued struggle to eventually achieve this important and historical day of political independence for our people. The road we have had to travel to reach this occasion has certainly been the most difficult one. We also acknowledge that there is still a lot more work to be done yet in the years that are now ahead of us.
However in the task of our nation building, we also realize that first of all we would need to secure international support and formal recognition from the world community on this attainment of political freedom from Papua New Guinea for Bougainville.
It is therefore to this view in mind that I, as the President of the Interim Government for the Democratic Government of the people, by the people and for the people of Bougainville would request the support of your government for Bougainville to be recognized as the separate Republic from an independent State of Papua New Guinea.
Meanwhile, I have the pleasure of enclosing you a copy of the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Bougainville for appropriate attention, please.
With my highest consideration.
Mr Francis Ona, President.
The declaration of independence attached to the letter read:
Declaration of Independence
Republic of Bougainville
In the name of God the merciful Father, ruler of nations and the Lord of the universe.
WHEREAS Bougainville Island was politically separated from the Solomon Group of Islands and seeded to the German colony of New Guinea by an agreement made in 1886 between England and Germany, and was subsequently included in the Australian Trust Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1918,
AND WHEREAS Bougainville was then included in the Independent State of Papua New Guinea despite the objections of the people of Bougainville, on the 16 September 1975.
AND WHEREAS Bougainville is geographically apart and its people culturally distinct from Papua New Guinea.
AND WHEREAS it has been a long standing wish and aspiration of the people of Bougainville to become a separate independent nation.
AND WHEREAS in 1989 Papua New Guinea declared and fought a war against the people of Bougainville the result of which has been the withdrawal of all police, army, navy and judicial functions from Bougainville.
AND WHEREAS Papua New Guinea still declares that it has jurisdiction and authority over Bougainville and has begun imposing an economic embargo against Bougainville.
AND WHEREAS the Bougainville Revolutionary Army has since been in total control of Bougainville on behalf of its people.
AND WHEREAS Papua New Guinea has again declared its intention to invade Bougainville and subjugate its people.
AND WHEREAS Papua New Guinea has refused to recognize the democratic rights of the people of Bougainville.
AND WHEREAS it is the inalienable right of a people to be free and independent.
Now therefore, I Francis Ona, Interim President of the Republic of Bougainville, DO HEREBY PROCLAIM AND DECLARE on behalf of the people and the government the Republic of Bougainville that as from today the seventeenth day of May in the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety Bougainville shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation; founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society.
(dated 17th day of May 1990)
The problem with these political manoeuvres was that the politicians had no power over the reckless BRA men who over time had carved their own mini-spheres of influence as they pursued a lawless grab for the spoils of war gains and the opportunity to remedy past grievances.
Thus the UDI came short of achieving freedom for Bougainville.
Bougainville might have had the military capacity to demoralise the PNG government and its Defence Force but it had no political power to influence change in the mids of its own people.
Footnote: Chapter 11 of my Bougainville crisis memoir, Brokenville, tells of the 1990 UDI celebrations in Arawa, Bougainville