WHEN ONE OF THE MOST RESPECTED writers in Papua New Guinea urges his peers to show clear-thinking and steadiness on the Bougainville issue (see Monday’s PNG Attitude article, Rationality & calm required on Bougainville), it behoves the rest of us to listen.
Writing from a hospital bed in Kundiawa, composing his words on nothing more elaborate than a mobile phone, author and essayist Francis Sina Nii has called for “a harmonious, balanced and non-aggravating history” of the civil war of the 1990s.
The war initially pitted Bougainvilleans against fellow Papua New Guineans and then, in its perhaps more tragic phase, saw Bougainvilleans killing each other.
Francis Nii, at the time an economist and development adviser making a mark for himself in business, was rendered a paraplegic in a road accident and has since been confined to hospital and a wheelchair.
A serious battle against bed sores has restricted him to his bed in the intensive care ward for many months now.
But it is has not stopped Francis expressing his deep concern about what he terms “the written librettos [which] have the power to make or break a nation.”
If I may make so bold as to articulate the allusion in a more direct Aussie way: the protraction of old battles through the written word can cause continuing psychic damage and the perpetuation of bitterness. It may even encourage further future conflict.
There has been a tendency, including in some writing about Bougainville in PNG Attitude, to escalate stories that need to be told about the civil war (real history that must not be forgotten) into hurtful dogma about the divisions (in reality largely illusory) between Bougainvilleans and redskins – which I think we must now accept to be a derogatory term when applied to other Papua New Guineans.
As Francis says, elegantly, “it is futile vanity to point fingers at people of any one region or ethnic group”.
The editorial dilemma in these matters can be exquisite – to enable the truth to out but in doing so not to cause injury to people who need and deserve peace and reconciliation and not a prolongation of disharmony.
PNG Attitude takes Francis’s position: “Given … the granting by the PNG government of autonomous status for PNG’s island of Bougainville, what raison d’etre is there for emasculating the peace accord and propagating a sensationalised separation ideology?”
Francis chooses his words with care. He is not arguing against separationist arguments being posited. He is railing against the sensational articulation of such arguments.
The former Australian Labor Party luminary Bill Hayden once said that ‘words are bullets in politics’. They can be mortar shells in the hands of a talented polemical writer.
The literary community needs to bear in mind that powerful writing is not a mere adornment – because of its power to persuade, reinforce and mobilise, it can bring to bear awesome force.
If words are bullets, as the figure of speech has it, then the keyboard is a weapon that requires responsible supervision.
Francis Nii wrote that he wanted to “avoid digging the old graves” and that he did “not wish to interfere with the dreams and aspirations of Bougainvilleans”. But he remained “mindful that wounds heal, memories fade but scars remain”.
It is sensitivity to this construct that should inform writers in bringing to the surface the potent forces that roil within them.
There is always a requirement in the kind of public writing we offer in PNG Attitude – whether polemic, propaganda, opinion, criticism or disagreement - for us to do no harm.