PNG officer confirms Bougainville abuses

Issue 

By Frank Enright

"My eyes turned toward Panguna on the right. I was almost shocked by the size of the crater; it was kilometers wide! Entire villages and gardens, mountains, traditions and memories had been dug out and replaced by an enormous hole in the ground. That was the price we paid for copper", says Yauka Liria, recalling his first flight over the giant copper mine in his book Bougainville Campaign Diary, published in early February.

Liria, a former intelligence officer and captain in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, served in Bougainville for four months during 1989 — the crisis had begun in late 1988.

The enormous hole and the associated environmental destruction were a major cause of the dispute between the traditional landowners, led by Francis Ona, and the Australian CRA-owned copper mine.

"Bougainvilleans are usually very peaceful people. I just can't believe what's happening here", says Liria, recounting a conversation he had upon his arrival on the island. The career officer in Liria was unable to transform his disbelief into understanding. He had a job to do.

Liria's recollections do, however, confirm the allegations of widespread destruction and brutality dealt out by the PNGDF.

Liria correctly notes that not all of the blame can be levelled at the military. "On 26 June, 1989, nearly a week after my arrival, when we should have vigorously pursued the peaceful option led by a single committee headed by some competent leadership, retaining the military option only as a fall-back alternative, the national parliament declared war on the people of Bougainville ..."

Bougainville Campaign Diary catalogues the result, retrospectively exposing the lies of both the PNG and Australian governments during this period.

"As we approached Pakia Gap [by helicopter] ... I noted that half the village had been completely burnt to the ground. The other half ... was to suffer the same fate later, courtesy of PNG's boys in blue, the riot squad. This became common practice, as I was to discover later."

Liria recalls: "Operation Bulldog [launched July 12, 1989] saw many villages go up in flames ... Numerous other villages in the Panguna-Kongara area were to suffer the same fate, causing further resentment ..."

These actions explain why tens of thousands of people fled their villages and why they remain fearful of the PNGDF.

"I remember quite clearly, an officer allowing his men to drag out an innocent villager, in a cordon and search operation near Aropa, and beat him. Blood was oozing from all over the victim's dark face as a group of blood-thirsty soldiers fought each other to have a go at the man. They punched, kicked and butted the man, who was not even a suspected rebel." Liria recalls feeling an urge to yell at the men to stop the beating, but he didn't.

When the joint forces commander on Bougainville, Colonel Lima Dotaona, arrived on the scene and called after a while for a halt to the beating, a junior officer pointed his M16 at him, yelling "Don't say 'stop the beating' ... I don't want people to come here and stop us from doing our work."

Repeated denials that the Australian-supplied Iroquois helicopters were being used as gunships and were responsible for the murdering of many civilians are debunked in the book.

"Soon after all the anticipation, the four Iroquois arrived. All the choppers were quickly improvised as gunships, by fitting the USA designed and built general purpose machine gun, the GPMG M60, for each operational flight, to be off-loaded after the flight."

Liria claims that this was primarily for the protection of the helicopters and their pilots, but continues, "Occasionally however, the purpose of fitting the machine gun on the helicopter was 'amended' by commanders on the spot, in response to particular situations. Inevitably in many of those situations, there must have been civilian causalities."

PNGDF troops were withdrawn from Bougainville in March 1990, only to return six months later. In 1991 Australia was forced to withdraw the helicopters due to continual reports of their use in human rights abuses, but they too have returned.

Five years after Liria's posting, the war continues in much the same way as he recorded it. Continuing too are the human rights abuses and the denials of them by the PNG and Australian governments.

On March 3, the PNG administrator on Bougainville, Sam Tulo, announced that the PNGDF "was trying to move 7000 people from the Wakunai and Rorovo areas of northern Bougainville into government care centres". He stressed that this was necessary "to allow a military special operation against the BRA after successful ambushes by the BRA in the Red River area last week."

Moses Havini, the Bougainville Interim Government representative in Australia, says this admission makes nonsense of the statement by Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans that "the war is almost over" and confined to the Panguna area of central Bougainville. "The Red River area is far from Panguna and has long been declared 'army controlled'", said Havini.

In other news from the island, it was reported that in Kobuan, central Bougainville, the BRA attacked PNG troops, killing eight and losing one of its own soldiers in a defensive operation on February 24.

In a 4am raid on the village of Donsiro near Arawa region on March 3, 12 buildings were burned by PNG forces. In an exchange of gunfire one BRA soldier was killed and three others injured; a number of injuries were inflicted on the PNG troops.

Radio Free Bougainville reported that 103 civilians in the PNG-occupied area of Pikei village fled into the Interim Government-controlled area of central Bougainville in early February to avoid further maltreatment from PNG troops.

A Catholic Church peace group, Pax Christi International, released a statement on February 23 from Geneva claiming that its Australian office had "received transcripts of radio transmissions by the Papua New Guinea military on Bougainville which indicate concern within the army about the impending arrival of the [Australian parliamentary] delegation. In the transcripts the military is reportedly preparing a major offensive to defeat the Bougainville resistance before the delegation arrives. The plans include the hunting of civilians into 'care centres', execution of rebel forces and political leaders and utilising mortar bombardment against the civilian population to attain 'surrender'.

"Additional transmissions include messages assuring military personnel on the island that the delegation will be delayed or prevented from completing its mission if necessary. 'All operations in central Bougainville must be carried out successfully to stop the Australian parliamentary delegation entering areas under control of rebels.'"
[Bougainville Campaign Diary, by Yauka Aluambo Liria, is published by Indra Publishing, Eltham North, Vic.]

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.