AT 3.45 on the afternoon of Tuesday 9 January, 1973 – just before the regular afternoon thunderstorm moved through – chief minister Michael Somare stepped off a flight from Buka at Bougainville’s Aropa airport.
I’d never met Somare before and he was not in a good mood. The previous night in Sohano a Bougainville Copper company village relations officer had gate-crashed a cocktail party and taken the chief minister to task for refusing to officially open the copper mine at Panguna.
The culprit, who was to leave the company the following month, was ordered to fly to Kieta and apologise personally to Somare, and the chief minister didn’t think that was much of a solution.
Somare settled into the Davara Motel at Toniva near Kieta and I sat down with him to discuss a press statement about his visit and to arrange a radio broadcast for later in the week. Having been a broadcaster himself, Somare was easy to work with and we soon had the statement worked out.
The next day I found myself reporting on a rally of 2,000 Bougainvilleans outside the Kieta sub-district office where Somare was meeting local leaders. The event lasted four hours and was at times fiery, but peaceful.
However it left officials on edge the next day, Thursday, when Somare visited the copper mine at Panguna.
Some 80 villagers bearing weapons approached a meeting place where the chief minister was due to address people from mine affected areas.
Everyone was on tenterhooks and, when Bougainvillean politicians John Momis and Paul Lapun expressed fears for his safety, Somare was flown out of Panguna by helicopter.
The villagers were upset, saying they meant no harm and the weapons they carried were symbolic. Reflecting on the incident later, my Bougainvillean colleagues felt the cancellation of the meeting and Somare’s precipitate departure were mistaken.
On the Saturday morning, I arrived at Davara Motel at 11.15 to meet with Somare, who turned up two hours late. When the chief minister arrived, looking relaxed despite a hectic week, he invited me to lunch with him and later we recorded a 12-minute talk reviewing his visit to Bougainville.
When we finished recording, he invited me to dinner and drinks at the Davara that night.
As a group of us waiting for Somare sat around drinking before dinner, there was a commotion as he entered the dining room.
“Look at that kanaka in a laplap,” a mine worker yelled, as the chief minister made his way across the room in his tailored sulu.
Somare appeared angered but didn’t respond, instead pacifying his companions, some of whom looked up for a fight.
Later, in the men’s toilet, a bloke I didn’t know sidled alongside me at the urinal and whispered, “Watch what you say to those locals; and remember you work for the Admin.”
He wasn’t from the kiaps’ intelligence outfit, nor the police special branch – I knew their people in Bougainville. So I concluded the eavesdropper must have been an ASIO gent, giving me what he thought was some considered advice.
Photos: (top) Michael Somare with schoolchildren in 1974; (bottom) My last conversation with Michael Somare at the Australian High Commission in Canberra, 2006