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Bougainville Manifesto 6 - Armed conflict, 1988-89


In which the hostilities in central Bougainville trigger a Francis Ona - Mathew Kove conflict; the family problems migrate from Guava village to infiltrate the Bougainville Copper Limited executive offices at Panguna; and there is assassination and sabotage.

MATHEW KOVE KNEW he and the old Panguna Landowners Association (PLA) were in trouble because of the establishment of a new landowners’ association; a threat to his prestige and power in Guava village.

Francis Ona had effectively counter-attacked, taking on board the problems created for the people by the mine and the issue of political independence for Bougainville.

These developments also brought BCL and the PNG state into the family feud.

Earlier, the environmental protest against BCL had been spearheaded by the peoples of Tumpusiong Valley, Moroni and Dapera. The Guava villagers generally supported the mine and condemned anti-mining protests.

But Francis Ona had a problem. His group was shrinking in power against Mathew Kove and the issue of Bougainville nationalism was dominated by the likes of the late Sir Paul Lapun, Fr John Momis and the Napidakoe Navitu group.

If Ona was to attract wider support, he would need to adopt a hardline stand.

The Bougainville nationalism issue swiftly overwhelmed the family feud and got the attention of the wider Bougainville community. Ona was now not prepared to give in into any systematic conflict resolution.

With growing support and a team of professional followers, Ona and his team, the New Panguna Landowners, established a well thought-out compensation packaged that shook both BCL and the PNG government.

In November 1988, Ona handed a four-point demand to PNG and the BCL. According to Divine Word University Associate Professor Dr Jerry Semos, the demand included: (1) K10 billion for environmental pollution, (2) 50% of profits to resource-owners and the North Solomons provincial government, (3) localization of BCL ownership within five years, and (4)consultation on all new mining projects in the province.

It is believed that Mathew Kove and his men in the old PLA that included people like Michael Pariu, Severinus Ampaoi and others, laughed at the demands as unrealistic as they awaited results from the PNG government commissioned New Zealand consulting firm that was undertaking Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

As Francis Ona’s four-point demand was hotly debated in late 1988, New Guinean squatter-settlers raped and murdered a woman from the Aropa area.

Fighting broke out as frustrated Bougainvilleans, who had for years being victimised, retaliated. The locals mobilised against illegal New Guinean settlers from Aropa to Arawa. In some settlements, homes were torched or settlers shot at with bows and arrows.

The new PLA and Francis Ona were not involved in the anti-squatter settlement campaigns on the Arawa-Aropa front, but they had a direct impact on Ona’s decision-making and strategic moves. He visited a number of villages and chaired meetings.

Meanwhile Ona and the new PLA four-point demand had captured the attention of the old champions of the anti-mining protests since the 1960s, the Tumpusiong Valley people. They began holding protests and blocked the Panguna-Nagovis road.

In the same week, the New Zealand consultant held a public meeting at Guava where it was claimed, as stated by Dr Semos, that BCL was not responsible for the social and environmental problems faced by the landowners and the Bougainville people.

On 22 November 1988, whilst the public meeting was still in progress with Mathew Kove and his cronies in attendance, Francis Ona and his men began arson against BCL and government property and stole explosives.

The explosives were put into action on 4 December 1988 by blowing up the first power pylon at the Police Corner of the port-mine access road.

Fighting against squatter settlers on the east coast between Arawa and Aropa also intensified.

The sabotage campaign around Panguna was infrequent, but the BCL and PNG government attempts to address it were astonishing. Out of nowhere, BCL suddenly opened the door of employment for the locals, but it was all too late.

Ona was not to be fooled again. On 12 January 1989, he kidnapped his relative, Mathew Kove, and executed him in the jungles of Mosinau.

Meanwhile, the PNG government pushed peace deal after deal to quell the crisis and save its revenue, that had been cut off by the mine closure in May 1989, despite police and army brutality against Bougainvilleans that motivated Ona to fight on and not trust the government.

PNG army leader Ted Diro boasted that “the Bougainville problem would be brought under control and solved within two weeks and the militant leader, Francis Ona [who had a K200,000 price tag on his head with eight other BRA leaders] arrested” (Niugini Nius, 4 October 1989).

But the situation was getting out of control for the PNG government, and in his jungle hideout Ona was feeling more secure.

The PNG government then advanced another major peace initiative, the Bougainville Development Package, and according to the North Solomons provincial government’s weekly newsletter, Weekly Brief: Bougainville Crisis (13-19 November 1989), the offer had many benefits for Bougainvilleans.

The two significant promises were that the province would receive K282 million a year for seven years and the province would become a state government and retain 75% of all earnings generated by the province whilst 25% went to Port Moresby.

It was a deal Ona was not willing to accept.

But against Ona’s wishes, the provincial government under Joseph Kabui accepted it.

This alienated Ona further from the provincial government and he responded irately in a letter to his sister, Cecilia Camel, who was to be the spoke person of the BRA at the peace ceremony in Arawa.

The note, with a letterhead ‘Republic of Bougainville’ was dated 20 December 1989 and included these demands: (1) National Government recognise and declare Francis Ona as the winner of the Bougainville crisis and itself the loser; (2) National Government declare North Solomons secession; (3) Property and those killed be compensated before the two parties met for negotiations; (4) Security force and police leave before negotiations where the two parties were to meet to negotiate a 50% refund from the national government and K10 billion from BCL. This letter was signed by a Bruno Kobala for Francis Ona.

It is notable here that now that Ona was in the bush hiding, the provincial government, churches and others were the channel with the PNG government and BCL. But their engagement was often conflicted by their individual leadership characteristics and interests.

Joseph Kabui was open to negotiate and he was a state actor with norms to observe whilst Francis Ona was militant. However, both groups feared one as enemy and that was the PNG government soldiers and police who were so brutal with the Bougainville people.

The most interesting fact about Ona was that he was regarded as a leader, however all BRA groups fighting on the ground were independent without any chain of command whether from Ona or the defected PNG army officer Sam Kauona.

A Niugini Nius article, Shooting puts peace in doubt, of 30 October 1989, told of the PLA, national government and provincial government holding a peace ceremony at Arawa High School on 27 October.

At the ceremony, PNG prime minister Rabbie Namaliu said the K200,000 bounty on Ona was to be removed. Despite refusing to attend, Ona sent a message through central Bougainville MP, Raphael Bele, that the traditional ceremonies of peace would be respected. However, on 28 October 1989, BRA men from the Tumpusiong valley shot a PNGDF soldier.

Ona was a leader to those around him in the jungles of Mosinau but had no influence further away for he was not mobile.

People knew that Ona was a leader in the jungle but translating that leadership in terms of practical strategic influence and control was lacking.

The truth is that Francis Ona was blinded by the political pride of his early success in shutting the mine.


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Steve Gallagher

If Francis Ona had accepted the Bougainville Development Package offered by the government, I think Bougainville will be more advanced than the whole of PNG by now and Francis Ona would be seen as hero by Bougainvilleans and the rest of PNG.

His stubborness has caused him to die as a sad man at the end.

Just a suggestion.

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