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[Analytics] The Bougainville referendum and the fate of Melanesia: Which Way, Big Man?

Residents hold a Bougainville flag at a polling station during a non-binding independence referendum in Arawa, on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, 26 November 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Melvin Levongo). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

A staggering 98% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from Papua New Guinea in the recent referendum held between 23rd of November to 7th of December. Despite the overwhelming desire for autonomy, Bougainvilleans require political support and good faith from the PNG national government in Port Moresby before a new sovereign state can be established. Recognizing these challenges, the Catholic Bishop Conference (CBC) of PNG and Solomon Islands General Secretary, Fr. Giorgio Licini, asked the PNG government to “listen carefully to the cries of the Bougainville people for independence.” Yamin Kogoya specially for the Pan Pacific Agency.

“This land must become holy again, Me’ekamui. We prayed to God and he gave us strength. This directed us to engage in clean battle. We were fighting for our rights, to get rid of all these bad companies and their effects. All BRA and all Bougainvilleans practiced this holiness… Our spirits had to be holy, so God would get rid of Satan [the mining companies} …And God helped us…” – Francis Ona, Bougainvillean Revolutionary Army (BRA) Member, interviewed by Anna-Karina Hermken, Author of “Marian Movements and Secessionist Warfare in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea” (November 22nd, 2005).

Former Bougainville Interim Government Leader, Martin Miriori, warned that the reluctance of the PNG national government to acknowledge the wishes of the Bougainvillean people for independence is dangerous.

Bougainvilleans are still traumatized from the civil war that erupted in the late 1980’s, which resulted in the closure of the giant, Australian-owned Panguna mine. The mining investors are untouched by the generational pain that mining and civil war have caused in Bougainville.

Panguna copper mine, now closed, serves not only as a stark reminder of war, but the breakdown of social structure, cultural values, and the destruction of Bougainville’s ecosystem.

The giant void in the middle of the island, left behind by the Panguna copper mine, represents the tragic loss of 20,000 innocent lives – Bougainvillean mothers, fathers and children killed during the civil unrest. The scars of war and the immense loss of life will forever be carved into the hearts of families, clans and tribes.

Tragically, crises such as those in Bougainville are typically reported on as “primitive tribes fighting”. The conflicts in Melanesian mining villages are far more complex: these are wars against industrial machines that uproot cultures and tear apart ecosystems; fighting for the survival of languages, values and land as the threat of extinction rears its head.

The Fight for Cultural Survival

Bougainville is one of the many Indigenous communities around the world fighting to protect and preserve their ancestral knowledge, language and culture. The enemy of the people are the industrial nations with the support of local governments who don’t understand the complex networks of indigenous social structures, value systems and their deep connection to their ancestral land.

Bougainvilleans have long been the target of violence – they have endured decades of exploitation and abuse from Germany and Britain in their colonization pursuits. In an attempt to control protesting against the mine operations, the PNG government used foreign-supplied mercenaries to massacre thousands of Bougainvilleans, with the support of the Australian government.

It is a matter of urgency for Bougainville and other Melanesian communities to ensure thousands of years of cultural knowledge is preserved for future generations.

The Impact of Mining and Politics in Bougainville

The civil war may be long buried by the media, but political leaders in Port Moresby, Canberra, Beijing and Washington are keeping a keen eye on Bougainville as they plan their next moves. Their claims of developing the Pacific Islands are a mere smokescreen for their true ambitions of a regional and global hegemony, as they strategies how to carve up the Pacific region pie.

We cannot forget that the leaders of the Bougainvillean Revolutionary Army (BRA) believed that they were waging a war against what they believed to be between purity and corruption.

Francis Ona, leader of BRA, told his followers that in order to purify Bougainville they must be the first ones to be purified. This meant eliminating “alien viruses” that come from the arrival of foreign nations such as France, Germany, Britain and Australia, as well as the mining companies and the PNG government.

Damien Dameng – prominent leader of the Meekamui movement in the 1950’s, from the Iran-Pangka Valley in Panguna District – recognized the impact of these “alien invasions” and contamination of life on the islands. His movement believed that colonial administration, mining and churches were thieves full of trickeries, and that Bougainville must be restored.

Critics will claim that the war was about demands for the mining royalties, but it was in fact predominately about eliminating deadly poisons that resulted from mining on the islands.

John Momis, a prominent Bougainvillean statesman, referred to the Panguna mine as a “cancer cell” in his letter to the company’s managing director.

Bougainvilleans want to defend the earth while mining companies like Panguna mine are indifferent to the suffering of people and destruction their land, all in the name of progress and development. Those with their hands in the Panguna mine pocket are eagerly awaiting the future of mining on the Pacific Islands.

PNG government’s attempt at national unity involved inviting mercenaries to kill the Bougainville people. National unity for who? The myth of national unity serves only the interests of elites in Port Moresby parliament house and Canberra – those who could not care less about the Melanesian communities whose lives, language, cultures and land have been under severe attack by the project of modernity.

The slaughtering of Papuans every day by Indonesians on the other side of this imaginary colonial border (PNG and West Papua) is being undertaken in the name of “national unity and integrity.” There is no unity or integrity in killing your fellow beings.

Melanesia at stands at a crossroads, Which Way?

As co-founding father of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, Fr. Walter Lini once said, “Vanuatu will not be fully free until all Melanesians are free.”

Just because PNG and Fiji have their own parliament house, currency and armed law enforcement does not mean that they are more free or safer than those Papuans who are murdered every day in the hands of Indonesian control of West Papua. We are all facing the same existential threats under the current global world order.

The regional body such as the MSG and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) could be very powerful institutions that allow the leaders of the Pacific nations to unite and say no to cheque book diplomacy coming from large foreign powers. The greed of the elite is causing great pain in the Pacific Islands in the name of development and those local elites (masters of modernity) whose day to day preoccupation is perhaps about what’s tonight dinner menu at a Chinese restaurant tonight.

Solutions to ensure as to whether Melanesia will survive or not require a collective effort. The MSG founding fathers such as PNG former prime minister Paias Wingti, Solomon Islands former prime minister Ezekiel Alebua, and Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini had visions backed by strong political desire to strive for the entire decolonization and freedom of the Melanesian people and territories under the colonial rule in the South Pacific. Are the current Melanesian leaders still holding onto this important vision?

The Pacific Region is fast becoming important for competing superpowers for geopolitical and economic strategy. Invisible capitalists, whose whole philosophy is based on Scottish Capitalist Adam Smith’s book “The Wealth of Nations”, are cashing their cheques amidst the slaughter of innocent Melanesian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Indigenous Australian and other ancient people across the world. This is a war between industrial civilization versus the natural world.

The Road to Freedom for Bougainville

A collective solution cannot emerge from divided and fragmented nations wrapped in conflict. The PNG government must decide if it will continue to stand with the global capitalists or with the Bougainvilleans, West Papuans and many other resilient, grassroot communities across Oceania that say NO to colonialism, nuclear testing, climate change, corruptions that lead to mismanagement, and the gambling of their resources, history and future.

It is time for the leaders of the independent nations across Melanesia to look at their decisions, and ask whether they have been manipulated into giving up their equal share of the pie; fooled into believing that they are free and equal, when in fact, they are merely begging at the table for scraps.
Bougainville is a 21st century tragedy with the potential to be extinguished under the Western capitalist system or live as a spiritual-based, nature centric civilization. It seems that any significant decision about the fate of a single nation is no longer sustainable in the long run.

If humans are to survive as a species, we cannot continue our destructive, terror-reigning path. Ecosystems are being depleted, cultures annihilated, and the money is going into the greedy hands of international pirates and global capitalists.

The root of the problem is our worldview: this civilization is based on individual, materialistic desires and selfish actions. Our fragmented worldview has created a separation theology and our separated theology has divided our sociology. This worldview has destroyed millions of lives on this planet.

Such major change will require a fundamental shift in our consciousness to realize that the value and integrity of life in the indigenous cultures of Bougainville or Palestine is just as important as those in London or Beijing.

PNG playwright and poet, Nora Vagi Brash, in her five plays, “Which Way, Big man?”, reflect dramatic changes taking place in PNG and difficult decisions that Papuans must make about their history, lives and future as they struggle to juggle between the two worlds – the world of their ancestors colonised and the new modern world of coloniser.

It is time to listen to the words of many great people who want to see these island nations thrive under autonomy and renewed freedom.

“Will we see ourselves in the long shadows of the dwindling light and the advanced darkness of the evening dusk, or will we see ourselves in the long and radiant rays of the rising sun? We can choose, if we will.” – The Melanesian Way (Bernard Narakobi).

“It is time to purify and heal Bougainville.” – Francis Ora

“It is time to not let the bird of paradise die in vain.” – Airlie Ingram, Sorong Samarai

To me, the term Melanesia invokes the idea of an alien tree within Oceania that has not yet produced its own fruit. Visitors to the tree have attempted to graft buds from other plants in order to stimulate production, but with little success. Nevertheless, the tree is large and full of potential, and outside visitors are intrigued by its uniqueness. Even if the tree is not producing fruit on its own, visitors still want a souvenir of its exotic potential. They’ve taken the bark, the leaves and the branches, until the tree no longer resembles its former greatness. It is becoming a generic, wilted plant in a thriving forest.

The Bougainville and Melanesian are at a crossroads now, Prime Minister James Marape and your government in Moresby… Which Way, Big Man?

Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Masters of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University. From the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, he is currently living in the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

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