PNG invades north Bougainville

April 24, 1991

By Norm Dixon

The Papua New Guinea government has torn up the peace accord it signed with Bougainville leaders in Honiara in January and launched an invasion of the northern part of the island. Three hundred PNG Defence Force troops have now been landed.

The surprise attack was clearly premeditated and well planned. At 5.45 a.m. on April 13, one of the PNGDF's Australian-supplied patrol boats shelled the Bougainville Revolutionary Army's main camp at Kobuan, just south of the capital, Arawa. More than 200 soldiers landed at Bonus and Soroken on the northern tip of the island.

Simultaneously, landing barges delivered four trucks and up to 60 PNGDF soldiers 25 kilometres north of Arawa at Mabiri. They established roadblocks on the main coastal highway and later in the day destroyed the important bridge at the Manetai limestone mine, severing the only road link between the north and Bougainville's centre and south.

All that day Nomad aircraft scattered letters signed by Colonel Leo Nuia over the Arawa area. Nuia is the commander of PNG troops on Buka Island. The letter claimed that the attack followed a request by village chiefs for the troops to restore government services. It also claimed — falsely — that the raid was approved by the leader of the Bougainville delegation to the Honiara peace talks, Joseph Kabui.

In the days that followed, both Nuia and the commander of the PNGDF, Brigadier-General Rochus Lokinap, could not be located by the government, which claimed it did not know who ordered the action. On his return from a trip to China on April 16, Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu remained tight lipped. He did not condemn the raid or promise any action against those who ordered the "unauthorised" military action, nor did he immediately endorse it.

The only cabinet minister to condemn the attack was Father John Momis, who, as minister of provincial affairs, is responsible under the Honiara Declaration for the restoration of services. He angrily told a press conference on April 16, "The action of the defence forces calls for total condemnation — and calls for the dismissal of those who are responsible. The incursion was totally illegal and against the spirit and principles of the Honiara Declaration ... Colonel Nuia — or whoever has authorised it — is guilty of misuse and abuse of power."

At the time the Honiara Declaration was signed, PNG Foreign Minister Michael Somare pledged that troops would not return to the island.

Momis said that the military had been working to prevent a peaceful settlement to the Bougainville crisis. "The secret visit to Bougainville by the PNG troops was nothing but unnecessary provocation. This sort of behaviour by the troops and their so-called military strategists is totally unacceptable and at worst could jeopardise our peace efforts on the island."

It was not until April 18 that Namaliu finally came down on the side itted that plans for the military operation had been worked out at earlier meetings of the National Security Council but no specific date had been approved. Nuia was reprimanded for launching the attack without approval on April 13 rather than for the invasion itself. Namaliu confirmed that Nuia would continue to command the occupation forces, which would not be withdrawn.

Namaliu refused to be drawn as to whether an invasion of the south was on the cards.

The delay in endorsement by Namaliu highlights the divisions that have persisted within the PNG cabinet over Bougainville policy. It has been split between those who favour all-out war and those who prefer a negotiated settlement. The invasion while Namaliu was overseas indicates that the war faction is now in the ascendancy again.

The acknowledged leader of the war faction, Deputy PM Ted Diro, was acting PM at the time of the invasion.

This is not the first time that PNG's Bougainville policy has been reversed by Diro. In May, following the withdrawal of PNG troops, progress towards a negotiated settlement was halted by Diro's decision to impose an economic blockade.

The failure of the blockade to shake the resolve of the Bougainville people pushed the militarists to the background and led to the Endeavour peace accord being signed in August. But this was sabotaged by the military's invasion of Buka Island on September 21.

The justification for the invasion of north Bougainville mirrors that given for the invasion of Buka. The PNG government claimed it received a petition from leaders on Buka calling for the restoration of services. The events on Buka, and now on the mainland, also bear a remarkable resemblance to a secret National Intelligence Organisation report that fell into the hands of the Bougainville interim government early last year.

It suggested that the privations caused by the blockade might provoke divisions which could be exploited. The NIO document said the blockade could be lifted in particular areas if government troops were "invited" back by the communities. At the time, government sources told the press that "further missions will be dispatched for selective landings on Bougainville ... if similar petitions are received by the government".

With destruction of the Honiara peace accord, all remaining trust between the Bougainville leadership and the PNG government have surely been exhausted.

Another sinister reason for Diro's flexing of military muscle has also been suggested. The invasion coincided with the decision of the public prosecutor to formally charge Diro with 76 counts of corruption and misconduct. Diro has a strong following throughout the military and is associated with the far-right and authoritarian wing of the PNG political spectrum. The clear message is that, should Diro be found guilty, serious consequences may result.

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