Letter for Bougainville


On September 30, the Sydney Morning Herald published an op-ed commentary on the Bougainville crisis by James Griffin, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of PNG. Griffin wrote that, "Nothing can now be achieved without action against the secessionist forces and their fanatical leaders ... Only Australia can help either alone or through mobilising a South Pacific force" to defeat the Bougainville Revolutionary Army." BRA commander Sam Kauona and Bougainville Interim Government president Francis Ona are "killers and cultists" which "no Australian government serious about human rights could countenance" controlling Bougainville, he said.

Griffin called on the Australian government to "offer whatever assistance is necessary to rid Bougainville of its secessionist leaders", including the deployment of "patrol boats through the Bougainville Straits, sealing off the arms trade with the Solomons", stationing a "surveillance ship with helicopters off central Bougainville" to "assist the PNGDF to locate leaders", and the offer of "increased supplies and logistical support". He also suggested that "more forceful means, which it is unnecessary to adumbrate here, may be needed at some future stage".

KIRRALEE GRACE-GILLESPIE has recently returned from Bougainville. Following is an abridged version of her reply to Griffin's article which the SMH has yet to publish.

I am (not yet) a Professor Emeritus of History, as is James Griffin. I am just an Australian girl who has barely turned 18, but I have recently spent seven months with the Bougainville people, the BRA and the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) members.

During my time on Bougainville I did not see any person threatened or mistreated by the BRA. The "rebels" do not walk around the villages pointing their guns at people. They live according to "custom" which stipulates respect for women, elders, and kindness towards children.

It does not seem that Professor Griffin has much respect for Bougainville culture. Those he calls "uneducated youths" are so because of the blockade. As I write, the BIG is continuing to do its utmost to provide services, such as health and education, despite enormous practical difficulties.

As for the BRA, if the situation were as Professor Griffin states — sight unseen — how could such an undisciplined, uncontrolled force organise and implement so many successful operations against the best PNG troops, armed to the teeth by Australia, with Australian pilots, advisers and trainers?

Francis Ona is called a cultist and a killer. In reality this rebel leader — whom I know very well — considers prayer and religious teaching one of the most important components in his office as president. Francis is the most gentle person I have ever met. He has time to listen to everyone's problems and lives and works by the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the leader is always the servant.

Australia has long supported the blockade and the war against Bougainville. If Australia, as Professor Griffin proposes, were to do even more we would be overtly committing an act of war.

The blockade is not against the "arms trade" with the Solomon Islands. The arms come from Australia, brought to Bougainville by the PNG soldiers, and some are captured by the BRA. The blockade in reality is against the transportation of medicines and other essential supplies into Bougainville, and against the evacuation of ill people. Once, while we were trying to leave the island in early September, the PNGDF preventing us from doing so. A 13-year-old girl called Jenny, who had been waiting for several months to get to the Solomon Islands for treatment of her malaria, died the night before a boat could leave.

Jenny was just one of the thousands of civilians who have died as a result of the blockade. Scores of women have died during childbirth. Babies and young kids have contracted whooping cough and lost their lives even before they have begun. Abscesses of the teeth and skin turn into deadly infections.

Can an Australian government serious about human rights dare to prevent thousands of people receiving medicines, or deny the people of Bougainville a true act of self determination?