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Bougainville combatants want to put respect in weapons disposal

Chris BitunauLEONARD FONG ROKA

SIGNED in Arawa on 30 August 2001, the Bougainville Peace Agreement formally ended the 10-year Bougainville civil war. The Agreement includes three major pillars for Bougainville to uphold until referendum on independence is held at some point between 2015 and 2020.

The three pillars are autonomy, the referendum and weapons disposal, which specifically targets all combatants with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF).

Around mid-2003, the United Nations verified that the Bougainville weapons disposal program had reached Stage II (weapons locked in containers ready for destruction). But the weapons disposal process since has attained only a 50-50 success-failure rating.

This is not because Bougainvilleans want war or are hostile to each other. It is because many combatants are now viewing the third pillar as a sign of disrespect for the 20,000 Bougainvilleans who perished in or as a result of the conflict.

The combatants feel, too, that it disrespects the long history of struggle that Bougainville and its people have endured during the colonial era and the creation and maturation of PNG.

Those few former combatants who see the Third Pillar negatively believe that only the gun gave Bougainville the kind of respect it now has from Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Copper Limited.

“Our land would have being for the PNG government and people if we did not take weapons and chase them out,” Chris Bitunau, a 1988-97 BRA fighter told me from Panguna.

“So I do not and I will not destroy my stock of weapons since I value them as the means that halted the sedimentation from the Panguna mine and the colonisation by illegal PNG squatter settlers.

“We cannot throw away our Bougainville history; the future generations have to see and feel these guns, they have to know the owners of these guns in pictures and in stories.”

There is an increasing number of combatants who support Chris Bitunau’s hope of preserving weapons. To them, the United Nations and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) should change the Third Pillar and find a means of honourable disposal of all weapons on Bougainville.

“The UN and ABG should fund and built museums in each of north, central and south Bougainville,” Chris Bitunau told me, “and then get writers like you to collect our stories of the war.

“They should ask questions like why we joined the BRA or BRF, what we did and how did we get our weapons and so on, and preserve the stories with our guns and photos in these museums for people to come and see and know what happened.

“Under such a weapons disposal project, we as uneducated ex-combatants could financially benefit in the long run as could our children. Visitors can pay a little fee at the gate to visit the combatants’ museum and we will benefit.”

To Chris Bitunau such a weapons disposal approach for Bougainville would show high respect for combatants, their families, the deceased Bougainvilleans and the long history of struggle for Bougainville against colonial and PNG suppression.

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