Wednesday 10 January 1973 - I sat just behind then Chief Minister throughout that “fiery four-hour meeting outside Kieta sub-district office”. While there can be no doubt that the invasion of Bougainville by outsiders was an issue, it was not one of the main reasons for the heat of that meeting.
No one could doubt the anguish behind what I, and others, believe to be the first reason; the assassination in Goroka of two highly respected public servants from Bougainville - an event that had occurred on Christmas Eve 1972, just 17 days before the meeting. A vehicle driven by Dr Luke Rovin, with passenger Peter Moini, struck a six-year old girl and killed her near Goroka airstrip. The Bougainvilleans attempted to give aid, were set upon and stoned to death.
In his autobiography, Somare related: “I witnessed the emotional reactions to the killings ... at Kieta. I found many people had painted their bodies and faces with clay as a sign of mourning. They carried bow, arrows and bilums... A weeping woman rushed through the crowd and came right up to me. She fell to the ground in front of me and began to dig the ground with a knife. She was Luke Robin’s (sic) mother...”
The second reason for the heat of that meeting was that the venue was changed from the Council Chambers to outside the sub-district office. The night before the meeting, Barry Middlemiss approached the Chief Minister and secured his approval for the change.
Again from the autobiography: “I will never forget Leo Hannett’s angry performance at the meeting … Leo Hannett burst through the crowd and started hammering his fists on the table. He screamed that it was an insult to the dignity of his people for the venue to be suddenly changed. He and many Bougainvilleans had wanted to demonstrate in front of me… He demanded that the murderers be dealt with immediately…”
Thursday 11 January 1973 - Chief Minister Somare was not flown out of Panguna by helicopter. Paul Lapun and John Momis did not express fears for his safety. There was no cancellation of a meeting at Panguna. I was with the Chief Minister throughout the visit to Panguna. It went according to schedule and the party left in several vehicles to travel by road to Buin. Well to the east of Panguna, we stopped and had a roadside meeting with a large group of armed villagers. It was a rowdy meeting and the Chief Minister apparently decided that the presence of the small police escort was the cause of the hostility. He told me to send the police on ahead, to Buin. The six police constables, who were travelling in their own vehicle, left for Buin.
We had several more stops, and each meeting was more fiery than the last. At each, the villagers were armed with traditional weapons, ignoring earlier requests made to them to leave their weapons at home. I had serious doubts about the Chief Minister’s safety, and I had absolutely no way of protecting him against any violence from a group or from a crazed individual. (Six police were not much protection, but they made a larger party and might have been dissuasive.)
I decided that I had to ensure Mr Somare's safety, and called for the helicopter. The Chief Minister left us by helicopter.
From the Somare autobiography: “Another unfortunate incident occurred when I travelled from the big mining town of Panguna down to the south-east coast of the island. Word came up to Panguna that a group of village people in traditional dress and carrying spears and axes were waiting for me on the roadside. Government officials had asked them to leave their weapons in the village but they had refused. My officials, thinking I was in personal danger, overreacted. So instead of driving, I was taken by company helicopter to the south-east coast. I felt uneasy when this modern machinery lifted me over my own people for ‘safety’ reasons.”
Maybe Sir Michael was being kind when he did not identify me as the ‘official’; maybe it was a deliberate omission.
Bill Brown MBE was District Commissioner on Bougainville when the events in question occurred.