By Norm Dixon
The Australian government should immediately demand the return of the Iroquois combat helicopters and completely reassess its military aid to Port Moresby, Moses Havini, Australian representative of the pro-independence Bougainville Interim Government, told Green Left Weekly on July 12.
The Australian government has refused take action despite mounting evidence that Australian-supplied military equipment continues to be used by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force to commit atrocities on Bougainville. Australian-donated Iroquois combat helicopters have been used in flagrant violation of conditions set by Canberra: that they not be used offensively or as gunships.
"The conditions have been violated and PNG Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan has himself revealed on television that they are breached 'from time to time'. The breaches have led to gross human rights violations. Australia really should have withdrawn those machines ages ago", Havini said.
Havini challenged Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer to act to end PNG's war. "Even though Downer has been a little more vocal than former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, [the Australian government] have not been serious in opposing the war launched by Sir Julius Chan and his government. If they seriously believe that the war is unwinnable, it is their obligation to bring it to an end by simply withdrawing the Iroquois helicopters.
"The PNGDF depends very much on the use of the helicopters on Bougainville. It is very difficult terrain, very mountainous, and the only way that the PNG troops can be moved from one point to another is by those helicopters — not to mention their illegal use as gunships", Havini told Green Left Weekly.
Havini called for an end to military aid to PNG. "Just about every military skill that is being applied on Bougainville was learned by PNG troops training in Australia or Australian personnel training PNGDF personnel in PNG."
Since 1975, Australia has provided around $600 million in military aid. This financial year, $15-20 million in military aid is expected to be paid. PNG buys its rifles, ammunition, rations, mortars and much of its heavy arms from Australia.
"Australian-supplied patrol boats have also been vital in the offensive on Bougainville. For instance, this Monday [July 8] at Aropa, 32km south of the Bougainville capital Kieta, two patrol boats were used to give bombardment cover to allow 300 PNG troops to get ashore. The patrol boats have also been used to police the border between the Solomons and Bougainville and therefore strengthen the dreaded blockade of Bougainville.
"The blockade has so far been responsible for thousands of deaths. We estimate that before long we will have lost more than 10,000 people just from normal preventable diseases. The people of Bougainville cannot have access to medicines because of this blockade enforced by Australian-supplied patrol boats and helicopters."
PNG leaders have openly admitted that Iroquois helicopters regularly breach their conditions of use, often with devastating results. PNGDF commander Jerry Singirok admitted that on July 2, soldiers armed with rockets and machine-guns aboard an Iroquois combat helicopter blasted a motorised canoe and killed six people as they attempted to leave the waters of the Solomon Islands. The BRA, however, said all survived.
Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan said on July 3 that his armed forces had the right to use Australian-supplied military equipment in the offensive, directly contradicting statements by Downer.
PNGDF commander Jerry Singirok went further and said the Iroquois were "very essential" to the offensive and that missiles and machine-guns would be fired from them if they were shot at by the BRA. Singirok confirmed that a patrol boat had entered the Solomon Islands on June 28 and opened fire and injured a Solomons police officer. On July 3, a second attack by a patrol boat in Solomon Islands waters was reported. Singirok said the attacks on the Solomons would continue until Honiara dealt firmly with Bougainvilleans who run the blockade.
Rebel sources report that on June 27 an intercepted PNGDF radio signal ordered the helicopters to fire upon villages in the centre and south of the island. On June 28, villages along a 30 kilometre corridor from Aropa airport to Kieta were fired at from an Iroquois fitted with machine guns. At least one helicopter, and possibly two, were badly damaged by BRA ground fire on June 29 during a failed attack on the village of Oramai, not far from the closed CRA-owned Panguna copper mine.
On July 7, Amnesty International reported that an unarmed retarded man who had stolen a boat from Buka was hunted down by soldiers in an Iroquois and shot dead.
Speaking on Australian commercial TV on July 9, Chan brazenly confessed that PNG breached the conditions "from time to time" and said that the Australian government must "accept that fact". Canberra apparently does, because no moves have been made by Australian diplomats to halt the breaches since the launch of the PNG offensive.
The Hawke government donated four ex-RAAF Iroquois combat helicopters to PNG in 1989. It loudly announced that this was on the condition that they were not to be used as gunships or in offensive operations against rebels fighting for independence in Bougainville. The Australian government was never serious about enforcing these conditions.
Writing on July 5 and July 9, Mary-Louise O'Callaghan, the Australian's Pacific reporter, attempted to downplay Australia's support for the war on Bougainville by dismissing claims that the gift of the helicopters was directly related to the outbreak of the independence struggle and the closing of the Panguna copper mine.
While it is true that Canberra and Port Moresby did not anticipate that a guerilla war would erupt on Bougainville when the decision to supply the aircraft was first made a year earlier, these governments knew these machines' main military function was to protect foreign investments from internal "enemies" — landowners disrupting mining or logging operations in support of demands for compensation, striking workers at remote mines, warring tribal groups or petty criminal "rascal" gangs. The Iroquois helicopter was one of the Australian and US armed forces' key counter-insurgency weapons during the Vietnam War. Once Bougainville erupted, it was a foregone conclusion that the Iroquois would be used there.
When the Bougainville struggle got under way, the Hawke government quickly agreed to fast-track the helicopters' delivery in the hope that the rebels could be quickly defeated and the giant CRA-owned Panguna copper mine reopened. The much-vaunted "conditions" were a ruse to convince the Australian people that these weapons would not be used to suppress the aspirations of the Bougainvillean people for independence.
As soon as the aircraft were in the field, Canberra turned a blind eye or made excuses as the aircraft were operated outside the guidelines, often with horrific results. On February 7, 1990, 20 Bougainvilleans were massacred when troops fired at them from an Iroquois. Foreign minister Gareth Evans argued sophistically that even though people were killed by heavy machine-guns fired from the helicopters, their use was not in breach of the conditions because the weapons were not "mounted" on the helicopter.
One week later, a helicopter was used to dispose of the bodies of seven executed church people. Then defence minister Kim Beazley dismissed the executions and dumping as a "rumour".
The Howard government is simply continuing the policy of its Labor predecessor to disregard murder, torture and attacks on non-combatants and continue to fund, arm and train the PNGDF. Its reasons are the same as Labor's: to defend Australian economic interests from people demanding a share of their country's wealth.
The value of Australian investments in PNG is estimated at between $1.8 and $2.3 billion. There are potential projects — gold, nickel and copper mines, oil wells, a proposed oil refinery and a cannery — valued at $4.6 billion (excluding the closed Panguna copper mine, valued at $600 million). The new Lihir gold mine alone is valued at $1.1 billion and is expected to produce 600,000 ounces of gold (worth $400 million) per year for the next 40 years.