By MORESI RUAHMAA
BEGINNING on Nov 23, Bougainvilleans in and outside of region will go to the polls for a week to decide on their future political destiny.
This time it is not an ordinary election to elect candidates, but through the conduct of a referendum Bougainvilleans will cast their votes to either remain part of Papua New Guinea or become a separate nation. If they choose “greater autonomy” the island will still remain and be governed as part of Papua New Guinea, but if it is “independence” it should become a sovereign and independent nation in future. But the result of the referendum will go through a process of ratification by the National Parliament in Waigani.
As the days are slowly approaching, in Bougainville ABG leaders and the appointed groups and individuals continue to intensify awareness in educating the people on the two important choices they will cast their votes on. The church groups throughout the island are also praying for a peaceful conduct and outcome of the referendum. And unlike other countries where anarchy and chaos rule, people in Bougainville are very much determined and hopeful that peace will continue to prevail even after the post referendum period, whatever outcome of the referendum maybe.
Last week the liquor outlets on the island have shut-down in preparation for the coming referendum. Strictly there will be no consumption of liquor during this period until after the completion of the counting of votes.
Now, while that is the case, history has it that in the 1970s an unofficial referendum was conducted throughout the island of Bougainville. Bougainvilleans voted overwhelmingly for secession in this unofficial referendum. It was conducted by an organisation called the Napidakoe Navitu Association. Napidakoe Navitu was mainly for the people of Nasioi in Kieta District but it extended to other districts.
Like the Mungkas Association of Telei in Buin, it was formed to act as a vehicle for the people to air their grievances. It was an organisation for people to foster economic, social, and political issues amongst other things. Following the conduct of the unofficial referendum a request was put to the colonial Australian administration by the then House of Assembly Member, the late Sir Paul Lapun, for the conduct of an official referendum but was refused:
Writing in the New Guinea 2, a quarterly news bulletin, priest and journalist for Wally Fingleton stated that the refusal by the colonial masters was “Leaving the indigenous people more agony to live with.”
But despite of the refusal by the colonial administration the Bougainvilleans continued their struggle, whilst witnessing in silence lack of developments on the island. For example, although many business including the agricultural sector was booming in in Bougainville, on the back of the Panguna mine operations, most parts of the island still lacked infrastructure like roads and bridges. Also, increased unemployment among local youths and law and order problems, and more killings of locals by the outsiders, with continued influx of the outsiders was seen as a threat by the indigenous population. All these issues fuelled by all other embedded and lingering resentments, culminated in 1989 the beginning of the 10 years of Bougainville crisis.
However, before the infamous Bougainville crisis, in 1975 there was already an initial uprising by Bougainvilleans for bruk-lus or secession. The Arawa township was where the indigenous Bougainvilleans from throughout the island converged, the elderly and the youth, calling for bruk-lus from Papua New Guinea.
Earlier, on Sept 1, 1975, Bougainville had unilaterally declared itself as an independent nation, separating from the rest of PNG. The purported independence was followed by celebrations by the locals. But as the event was celebrated the then Chief Minister, Michael Somare, sent riot police from Rabaul to Bougainville to quell the idea of bruk lus.
The presence of riot police, however was not welcomed by the Bougainvilleans. There was tension which flared up into mass riot as the locals and police confronted each other. This eventually led into mass demonstrations as more and more locals from the rural areas of south, central, and north joined in the fight. The demonstrations by thousands of angry and rowdy people went on for a week, pressuring the government of Chief Somare to allow Bougainville to become an independent country of its own.
The situation finally came to an end when a provincial government system for Bougainville was negotiated. But this was only a temporary measure putting to rest the dissent by the people for the next 14 years until in 1989, when Bougainville crisis erupted – history repeating itself.
Meanwhile, the granting of provincial government to Bougainville in 1975 was orchestrated to stop Bougainville from seceding. But the dreams and aspirations by people for better and greener pastures and to be the masters of their own affairs were kept alive.
Among other things, in their struggle and in search for the better future Bougainvilleans continued to harbour bitter resentment toward the white masters. The missionaries, planters, and miners were disliked for stealing land and resources. They also resented the loss of their cultural heritage and sacred places of worship which were destroyed by foreigners. At the same time, while expressing dissatisfaction, people were also conscious of their debt to the colonial masters for bringing development.
And of course, mainly the missionaries were acknowledged for preaching and expressing the gospel through the establishment of schools, hospitals, and other material goods.
In latter years, lack of social and economic benefits and tangible development was compounded with a mass influx of outsiders to the island. This threatened and caused much fear and anxiety amongst the indigenous people. They also feared losing their identity or black-skin colour. So, silently they watched and dreaded as the outsiders encroached their shores and subjugated their land.
The presence of the outsiders has also disturbed the social harmony that locals had once enjoyed. Peace and harmony was eroded with lots of criminal activities being committed by the outsiders. There were also instances of sporadic killings of the indigenous people, creating hostility and more resentment within the local population. Subsequently, together with other wide ranging and deep rooted underlying issues the desire for secession was further fuelled for an explosion.
Again, this all started with the search for identity by the indigenous people who spread across the small group of islands of Buka Island, which is 50km long with two language groups, and outer islands of Feads, Nissan, Carterets, Nuguria, Tasman and Mortlocks – inhabited by different types of indigenous people. The main island of Bougainville is some 150km long and there are about 19 language groups.
In fact, different cultural backgrounds and the geography were two factors by people to continue fighting for their self-determination. According to Fr Wally, “When England and Germay decided that there should be a border between Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, or rather the Shortland Islands, the natives on either side found restrictions on movements and felt deprived. More so, it made the people and mainly Bougainvilleans, difficult to understand and which eventually begun a simmering sense of injustice for them. The Bougainvilleans and those Solomon islanders along the border are closely related culturally, ethnically and geographically with the other on each side of the border.”
One significant event was the formation and rise of cargo cults in 1960s in Bougainville. This was part and parcel of this search for identity. The first cult group was formed in Hahalis Welfare or kindergarten in Buka by John Tasion. Another cargo cult group was established in Pontona, Koromira of Central Bougainville. These cult groups were the sources of strength and aspirations by people to become the masters of their own affairs. The groups tried to promote social, political and economic self-reliance by indoctrinating people with the hope that one day, with help of their dead ancestors, they would reach the “land of greener pastures, where there is plenty of milk and honey.”
The opening of Panguna copper mine in 1970s has further bolstered and given the people some senses of cohesion. They wanted to unite and face the forces subjugating their land, so they continued to push for their dreams and aspirations and identify themselves differently from others. Of course, the Panguna landowners issue with Francis Ona and his faction was only a catalyst. The landowners issue only “spilled-over” on the already simmering disillusionments, dreams, and aspirations that Bougainvilleans had been harbouring over the years.
In fact, in 1988 there was already an undercurrent of massive discontent by the islanders. In the rural villages and communities the desire for self-determination was slowly being heightened once again by the political sentiments of that time. This was driven more so by the lack of social and economic benefits in light of the increased business activities on the island.
As such, everything was now coming to an extreme stage as the Bougainvilleans with their radical leaders waited, and waited, for the appropriate time to achieve their dreams. But just as the waiting was on for the saviour to come, self-styled rebel leader, Francis Ona with his faction of landowners trigged off the conflict. Or rather, Ona and the landowners jumped on the bandwagon of the Bougainvilleans’ resentments, which were already simmering and smoldering to trigger off the fire one day.
And surely, as it turned out, the timing was impeccable although the conserquences were unfavourable.
- The writer is a former journalist at The National and resides in Arawa, Central Bougainville.