THERE are few places where the national treasure of more than four nations has been expanded at such a rate than around the Solomon Islands chain, stretching from New Britain to Guadalcanal, north-east of Australia.
Or to so little purpose or memory. Nothing in the islands had any strategic significance of itself when, nearly 70 years ago, Japanese military planners began marking them as a potential gain in a quick war of Asian and Pacific conquest.
The islands were swampy, mountainous, scrubby and malarial. It was their position astride Australia, blocking ready access by shipping convoys from the United States, particularly if Hawaii was effectively knocked out of the war. With a little more effort and a little more time, Japan might be able to seize Fiji and New Caledonia, but the extra benefits would be marginal compared with the effort involved.
The Solomons were to be the furthest Japan got in its sweep south from the end of 1941. And it was there, and in Papua, and the Coral Sea between them, that the Allied fightback began. The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the great epics of the war, if not greatly discussed in Australia because it was happening at the same time as Kokoda and involved American troops, not Australians.
In the waters around the islands of the Solomons are four aircraft carriers, two battleships, nine heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 25 destroyers and six submarines, as well as scores of other smaller craft involved in the desperate efforts to supply or block supply to the islands. On Guadalcanal alone, 1600 Americans were killed and 4500 wounded, along with 33,000 Japanese, of whom perhaps 10,000 died of disease or starvation. The Japanese ultimately evacuated to Bougainville, where, for a while, the 65,000 soldiers were left in peace, cut off from resupply, and unable to contribute anything to the war.
They set up gardens, mostly near the sea. Then, in November 1943, a US force landed at Torokina, not so as to directly take on these soldiers but to use it as a base for warfare against islands further down the chain, particularly New Britain. This brought out the Japanese to attack the base.
About 1000 Americans died, and it cost Japan the lives of about 25,000 about a third in combat, and the rest to hunger and disease. Then came the Australians to ‘’mop up’’. Militarily this was unnecessary: the Japanese survivors were cut off and impotent.
But our generals thought it politically necessary. We had been shut out of the liberation of the Philippines and, anyway, Bougainville was ‘’our’’ trust territory and ‘’we’’ had to restore ‘’our’’ lost authority. In the bloody fighting that continued until the end of the war, the Japanese lost another 19,000 men.
About 500 Australians were killed and 1600 wounded about the same as on the Kokoda Track. It was a pitiful waste, of Australians and Japanese, with nothing achieved. Most of the scores of books about these conflicts are silent about the fact that these battles were being fought not on blank spaces but where people lived.
The Bougainvilleans are passive and silent witnesses, or are unaccountably absent. No account suggests their welfare was ever a consideration for any general, on any side. But that would be fairly typical of how Australia has seen Bougainvilleans ever since.
Australia was still in charge when copper was discovered in 1964, and let it be mined by Bougainville Copper Ltd. We saw the revenue it was quickly generating as an important source of finance to manage Papua New Guinea. In such a vision, the rights of Bougainvilleans were hardly to the fore, even if, ultimately and only after protest, modest payments went to traditional owners.
It caused trouble in Bougainville right from the start indeed the beginning of a movement which thought that Bougainville should be separated from the rest of the territory and allowed independence in its own right. Some saw it as especially perverse, because many Australians and members of the new class of PNG saw Bougainvilleans as backwards and unsophisticated a factor which meant that many of the jobs at the mine went to PNG highlanders rather than people of the island. At PNG independence, a Bougainvillean independence flag went up.
The Bougainvillean ambitions were resolved, in part by unkept promises of some autonomy and about compensation, environmental restoration and a higher proportion of mining profits going to local infrastructure. But many locals remained fundamentally unhappy about the mine, and damage to the environment. There was steady sabotage of the mine, or of electric pylons coming to the mine.
In 1989, the mine closed because of the attacks. PNG had become heavily dependent on mine revenue and losing it cost jobs, schools, health care and bureaucrats throughout the nation. It sent in troops to ‘’restore order’’ and to capture members of the self- styled Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
Over the next few years, an ill- disciplined PNG army and the BRA had numerous stoushes and mini- battles. Some had extra brutality because of tribal politics, betrayals and side-changing of the sort that occurs in Afghanistan. Australia gave direct aid to PNG, not least in helicopters used as gunships.
The PNG army was twice defeated in the field; later the army itself more or less mutinied when a desperate government decided to bring in Sandline mercenaries to do the job. The war was a grim, sordid and very local business, with rape, murder, torture, pillaging and looting, atrocity performed for example’s sake and the conscious targeting of non-combatants, as well as warlordism, extortion, killing and payback. About 10,000 Bougainvilleans were killed.
No participant has ever been punished for anything that occurred. Eventually there was a ceasefire of sorts, then a strained state of truce which continues, more or less, 15 years later. The mine has still not reopened and may never do so.
Australia adopted a stand-off approach, even if we are, in almost every way, the cause of the conflict. Our efforts to stop it were all one- way. We gave aid, comfort, guns and ammunition to the PNG military, and lots of encouragement to its leaders, even as we privately deplored the incompetence and indiscipline of the army and the brutality of the attempted occupation, and acknowledged some justice in the complaints of the inhabitants.
We sympathised with the shareholders of Bougainville Copper, so many of whom were our citizens. And we connived with the PNG government to help keep the world ignorant of the massacres going on by assisting with efforts to blockade and isolate the island, and to prevent visitors and communications. This was all two decades back, but some of the Australians most intimately involved were then as much as now grandstanding about transparency, open communications and the need to bring the sharp spotlight of international opinion on the squalid doings of government.
We pretended, too, that the war going on was not a fundamental struggle but, in effect, a negotiation over the size of the compensation payments. That implied that those holding out simply wanted more money, and were being greedy rather than righteous. Our statesmen, our spooks and our military knew exactly what was happening.
But most Australians didn’t. A good deal of what they came to know about it was because of Watarah Rosemarie Gillespie, an Australian lawyer who threw herself into a struggle to help the traditional owners. She made a number of trips through the blockades in 1992 and 1993.
She was shot at, including by people with machine guns from helicopters supplied by Australia. She collected and published affidavits. And she had media contacts able to get reports to air, even if what went to air tended to be swamped by reports from Port Moresby.
She was often denounced as a meddler and a nuisance and, to the big boys, she was. She was sometimes accused of being a catalyst whose very presence and encouragement was making bad things happen, in somewhat the same way that TV cameras are said to incite violent acts by demonstrators. Yet she was a witness, and a witness who could not be ignored.
And that was not only because she had access to a wider world, but because she was closely documenting events. Witnesses can be silenced; documents cannot. I took great pleasure this week in being asked to launch her diary of that time Running with Rebels, (Ginibi Productions, 279pp).
Be all that as it may, murder and dispossession are never best done behind closed doors, or without witnesses. Australians, with such links to the conflict, cannot shut our eyes or our ears to, or forget, what has been happening, on a small island, not so far away. – Canberra Times