Last week, the citizens of Edmonton, Alberta had the opportunity to see a film about faraway Bougainville. On the tenth anniversary of the Sandline Crisis, “Bougainville Sky” is a timely reminder about that Pacific islander country-in-the-making's turbulent recent history. For most of its recent history, Bougainville was a Solomon province of Papua New Guinea that has long sought its independence. Since the turn of this century it is autonomous and is now firmly on its way to statehood.
Ten years ago this month the Australian newspaper broke the story to the world about Papua New Guinea's shock decision to outsource its war against then-rebel province of Bougainville. It was supposedly a top-secret operation that Australian Government was horrified about. Under Hawke’s Government Australia had supplied Iroquois helicopter to PNG. But the condition of sale was that PNG wouldn’t use the choppers to fight the rebel army. In February 1997, the PNG Government were getting no better change out of the new Howard Government. So they tried to buy their way out of the war with a multi-million dollar contract with a British military private company.
The cat got out of the bag. Mary-Louise O’Callaghan is a journalist based in Honiara, the capital of the Solomons. Employed as the Pacific Affairs reporter for “the Australian” newspaper, she won Australia’s most prestigious annual journalism award, the 1997 Gold Walkley for her scoop on how the PNG Government hired a mercenary group in a last desperate effort to crush a rebellion. Her reports about the covert operation precipitated a crisis which led to a military coup in PNG. The consequence was the dismissal of the Government and the mercenaries and eventually brought freedom for Bougainville.
Two years later O’Callaghan wrote a book about this extraordinary crisis. The book is called “Enemies Within: Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Sandline Crisis”. In the book O’Callaghan dramatised a complex story that weaved a path between events in Port Moresby, Canberra, Cairns, Bougainville and London. The book exposed Australia’s paternalistic attitude and inability to deal with its former colony PNG and its troublesome province Bougainville.
Bougainville is ecologically, ethnologically and geographically part of the Solomon Islands but is politically part of PNG. The island was named for Louise Antoine de Bougainville, the French navigator and military commander. Bougainville fought in the Canadian campaign in the Seven Years War and was charged by King Louis XV to circumnavigate the globe. Bougainville went to Tahiti before sailing through the Solomons. In 1767 he named Bougainville for himself before returning to France via the East Indies. A good sailor he lost only 7 of his 200 men on the circumnavigation. But he also lost Bougainville for France and left without claiming the island.
While the Dutch established their influence on the western side of New Guinea, the east was partitioned between Britain and Germany in 1884. As part of the agreement Bougainville was included in the north-east part of PNG under German influence which they called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland. This twist of fate meant that Bougainville, the largest and richest island in the Solomons chain was excluded from the British protectorate of the Solomon Islands and annexed with the rest of the German territories to Australia after Germany’s defeat in World War I.
Bougainville remained in Australian hands until 1942. Then the Japanese took the island in their relentless march south. They stationed 25,000 troops on the island. In early November 1943, the US 3rd Marine Division and the 37th Infantry Division invaded Bougainville to build an airstrip. The Battle of Bougainville went on for two years until Hirohito surrendered.
Australia regained control of PNG and Bougainville under a UN mandate in 1945. On the one hand Australia was preparing PNG for eventual independence, on the other they were keen to exploit the colony. Bougainville was the richest of the islands with gold and most of all, copper. The Menzies Liberal Government allowed CRA, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc to begin exploring the possibility of mining in Bougainville.
At Panguna, they started building the world’s largest open cast copper mine in 1964. Despite local protest, copper production commenced eight years later. After another three years PNG was independent, but retained control of Bougainville. The secessionist movement was formed, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The BRA attempted to seek independence for the island. But they were persuaded to go with PNG on when Australia left in 1975 by the country’s first Prime Minister, Michael Somare.
The BRA’s distrust with PNG bubbled under until 1990 when the rebels declared all out war against the mainland, frustrated by the vast profits of Panguna leaving their shores. PNG launched a military offensive against the island. Hundreds died but neither side gained a decisive advantage. Julius Chan was elected Prime Minister of PNG in 1994 with a mandate to settle the conflict peacefully. He attempted to negotiate with the rebels but was rebuffed. He changed tack and appointed Jerry Singirok to lead the PNG defence forces to crush the rebels. But a military operation ended in disastrous failure. By 1996, the situation was still at an impasse, with the rebels in de facto command of the island and the Panguna mine closed, too dangerous to operate.
With an election looming, Chan decided to gamble. To solve the rebel problem once and for all, Chan decided to outsource the operation. Australia refused to help so they turned to Sandline International. Based in London, Sandline was established in the early 1990s to provide consultancy services to ‘established governments’. It was run by former British lieutenant-colonel Tim Spicer. Chan signed a $36 million contract with Sandline to provide heavy arms and men (mostly Africans subcontracted from mercenary group Executive Outcomes) to take back Bougainville and Panguna mine from the BRA.
Spicer arrived with the Sandline operatives in February 1997. That same month O’Callaghan wrote her exclusive in the Australian newspaper. Although PNGDF leader Singirok initially supported Chan, behind the scenes he was working against the Sandline proposal. He did not want a private army on the loose in his patch. Neither did Australia, the former colonial power. While Australia diverted the heavy arms flight to Cairns, Singirok launched operation “Rausim Kwik” on 17 March 1997. In pidgin, rausim kwik means “kick them out quickly”. Singirok moved quickly. He arrested Spicer, deported the Sandline troops and surrounded the parliament building demanding Chan and his government resign due to corruption. Trapped inside, an outraged Chan tried in vain to countermand his orders.
Chan sacked Jerry Singirok but the army remained loyal to the ousted man. There followed a tense 10 day stand-off. The situation worsened with the capital Port Moresby coming to a halt as student groups protested and crowds of civilians gathered in support of Singirok’s actions. Finally the city’s governor Bill Skate called on Chan to resign. After a bitter parliamentary debate Chan finally realised his position was hopeless and quit. Skate was installed as Prime Minister and Singirok was re-instated as head of the PNGDF. Spicer was eventually released and left the country. Sandline later successfully sued PNG for breach of contract. Singirok was finally cleared of sedition in 2004.
The Sandline affair had one other major outcome. PNG was forced to come to the bargaining table. New Zealand brokered a peace agreement between the PNG Government and the BRA. They agreed on a ceasefire. A truce monitoring group was followed by an Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) in 1998. The parties signed a comprehensive Bougainville Peace Agreement in the Bougainville capital Arawa on 30 August 2001. The agreement provided for the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government, and a referendum in 10 to 15 years on whether the island should become politically independent. The first election took place in 2005 and the first Bougainville President, Joseph Kabui was sworn into office on 15 June that year. Meanwhile PNG has turned to its first PM, Somare to lead once more. The Panguna mine remains closed.