An ill wind blows in Bougainville

By PNG Echo

A cold political wind is blowing on the islands of Bougainville that’s fuelling a cold war.

This wayward wind, which was downgraded to a tropical breeze at the cessation of hostilities in the bloody civil war on Bougainville at the end of the 1990s, has never been tamed but held in check by a peace agreement signed by most of the warring parties.

The Promise

The car ferry in the capital of Buka - at present, peace reigns
The car ferry in the Bougainvillean capital of Buka – at present, peace reigns

The keystone of the accord was the promised plebiscite for an independent state, to take place within 20 years of the agreement. The promise effectively took the wind out of the sails of the immediate call for independence, just as surely as Federation did similarly to the Republican movement in Australia at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This future vision watered down many Bougainvilleans’ commitment and backing for the Me’ekamui State, (declared during the hostilities by the rebels). Within Me’ekamui dwell the more militant Bougainvillean rebels. Me’ekamui refuses to die.

The possibility of independence without bloodshed was an attractive proposition for many who had lived through the war; who had suffered its deprivations and lost loved ones – as brother fought against brother.

It was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, analogous with the biblical ‘promised land’ for those that had also suffered the loss and pollution of their precious lands at the hands of foreign interests that were supported by a government who were prepared to sacrifice Bougainville and Bougainvilleans on the altar of national economic interests.

As the twenty-year time frame enters its final years, all the old wounds that the peace agreement managed to stitch together are being torn apart by the same old issues – for they were never resolved, just postponed.

The Panguna copper mine is the single most pressing of those issues and the peace agreement did not address it at all or any of the concerns over mining in Bougainville. The sensitivity of the issue, that had been the catalyst for the civil war, was the elephant in the room that needed to be ignored to effect an agreement – and it was. But, like M’ekamui, it never went away.

Bougainvillean independence and Panguna are irrevocably interlinked

Panguna – to mine or not to mine

A flower blooms in Panguna.
A flower blooms in Panguna.

When the Bougainville rebels shut down Panguna in 1989, it was supplying PNG with 45% of its national export revenue and was the single biggest contributor to the economic viability of the Independent state of Papua New Guinea hence the national government’s interest. It was also the biggest polluter and cause of unrest on the island of Bougainville.

The issues surrounding Panguna were the causal link to the beginning of the hostilities – with the rebels closing the mine and the PNG Defence force being deployed to Bougainville to open the mine – forcibly if necessary. The rebels didn’t budge. There followed, on Bougainville, nine years of war that included a blockade and that pitted the PNG Defence Force against its own people.

Even though the war has been over now for almost 20 years, Panguna has never re-opened, although it’s potential output and profitability remains unchanged. There is wealth in Panguna of unrealised proportions estimated to be in the vicinity of 5 million tonnes of copper and 19 million ounces of gold.

That the mine has been closed for so long is a testimony to just how polarising the issues still are – the mine is considered a jinx.

The author in Panguna
The author in Panguna

I have visited Panguna, it’s eerie: there is a chill in the air that is not explained by the weather, I was glad to leave. Having been there, I can well understand the sentiments of a populace far more prone to the belief in the supernatural than I.

Nevertheless, to expect that it will remain closed is not realistic for if Bougainville opts for independence without reopening Panguna, how will the new State sustain itself?

This notwithstanding, none of the main actors in the cold war that’s developing, many of whom are the mandated leaders of Bougainville, have yet been willing to nail their colours to the mast about the mine’s future. But if there is a Bougainvillean, economic Holy Grail, this is it. Politically, it’s a poison chalice.

Into the fray recently, whipping up the already restless political air currents, has come mining giant Rio Tinto, who had controlling stock in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), the company that worked Panguna copper mine until its forced closure by the rebels in 1989 – BCL still holds the lease although its mining rights were downgraded to that of an exploration licence, after the new Bougainville Mining Laws were enacted in 2014.

In an interesting piece of timing, (why now?) Rio Tinto has gifted all of their shares in BCL: some to the PNG government and some to the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG – autonomy being another condition of the peace agreement).

The ‘gift’ has pitted these potential protagonists against each other and managed to seemingly divest Rio Tinto of all further responsibility to clean up their mess.

While the gift of the shares to the ABG comes with all the controversy surrounding Rio Tinto’s stubborn refusal to effect reparations, both it terms of repatriation of the mining site and compensation – the shares gifted to the PNG government have the added controversy of having been gifted to an inappropriate entity.

BCL shares

Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, has recognised that the PNG government is not the correct recipient of the BCL shares: that they rightfully belong to Bougainville. In a politically provocative move, he announced he would re-gift these shares to the affected landowners of Panguna but not through their political representatives, the ABG, but directly –there is 17.4% of the company in the offing.

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President Momis

President Momis was not amused: the Prime Minister had decided to by-pass the ABG – Momis suggested that the Prime Minister seemed to believe that he knew better than the ABG, saying:

You substitute your view for ours.

Prime Minister O’Neill retaliated by accusing President Momis of playing “petty politics” that undermined the peace agreement.

In reality, the politics are not petty and it would seem that the Prime Minister is himself engaging in politics using a Napoleonic ‘divide and conquer’ tactic. With his action, Mr O’Neill has diluted the power of any one BCL shareholder and denied the ABG a controlling interest.

The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea

Being an astute politician, O’Neill would be aware that the gift is good public relations for his erstwhile flagging image. It portrays him as a benevolent and generous leader (a Bik Man, if you like) while also ensuring that some time in the future, if the mine is opened under BCL, the PNG Government can form a coalition with one or a few of the other shareholders to gain control (the PNG Government has held a 19% share interest in BCL for many years). Mr O’Neill is a master in the dynamics of coalitions.

For while Mr O’Neill justified his expropriation of OkTedi, as the right of a mandated government acting on behalf of its people, he has denied controlling interest in BCL to the ABG. He can do that because Bougainville is not yet a sovereign state (and may never be).

There are other interested parties that have weighed in on the issue too, not least of all the Minster for Communications in the national government and member for Central Bougainville, Jimmy Miringtoro.

Mp for Central Bougainville - Hon. Jimmy Miringtoro
Mp for Central Bougainville – Hon. Jimmy Miringtoro

In a press statement, Miringtoro attacked the past record of the ABG and, in particular, President Momis whose involvement in the national government goes back to 1972. (Momis was one of the drafters of the PNG constitution).

Miringtoro asserted that, from his position in the national government, Momis

…could have prevented the war if he’d been honest from the start.

The only way for Momis to make peace with the people of Panguna, according to Miringtoro, was to admit that he’d “failed them,” and he recommended that:

… the President cede control of Bougainville to someone who has the energy, commitment and vision to move Bougainville forward instead of wasting time…

The Minister reminded his readers, on two occasions, that he was a mandated leader of Bougainville – seemingly to add weight to his argument. Yet, in spite of the Minister’s stated opinion on the track record of the President, it was just last year that Momis won the Presidential election on Bougainville. It was a landslide victory.

Coming a distant second was former rebel leader, Ismael Toroama who polled 18,466 votes to Momis’ 51,382 – with such a decisive result, so who is really speaking for the people?

Such is the complexity of the Bougainville issues that a simple dichotomy between PNG and Bougainville cannot be taken for granted – for, at present the only position that can be relied upon is that PNG does not want to cede independence to Bougainville – and the irony is that it doesn’t ever have to thanks to that inadequate but temporarily effective peace agreement that gave PNG  a veto

Near Kieta - the theatre of war and of dogged resistance
Near Kieta Harbour – the theatre of war and of dogged resistance

There is, however, no doubt that Momis and O’Neill are jockeying for position as the Supremo of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB), especially considering the upcoming plebiscite and the fact that the BCL shares would prove worthless if their mining licence in Panguna is revoked – and it could be, President Momis has already threatened the Prime Minister with this consequence.

Is this a portent of things to come and is Panguna set to become the battleground?

For questions over the future of the mine remain unanswered: should it re-open? If so, when – before the plebiscite or after? …if the plebiscite is successful? …if it’s not? Which company will mine Panguna? What of the shares in BCL …and many other considerations too numerous to mention?

Independence – who wants it?

By 2019, Bougainvilleans will all have to consider this question.

We know what O’Neill thinks but we are, as yet, not aware of the position of President Momis nor of such MPs as the aforementioned Jimmy Miringtoro who may be against Momis but may still favour independence (clearly without Momis) – who knows?

PNGs Hous Tambaran (parliament)
PNGs Hous Tambaran (parliament)

In parliament last week, O’Neill highlighted how the PNG government is helping Bougainville rebuild its infrastructure (as destroyed during the war, I suppose) that he stated was needed far more urgently than independence (I am left wondering why this wasn’t attended to many years ago – is the answer because the plebiscite was not imminent then?) He also highlighted the reforms in education and health taking place on Bougainville thanks to the PNG government.

His one erroneous assertion was that a country with a population of 200,000 (Bougainville) is unlikely to be able to survive because “the economy may not be strong enough.”

Yet, the Bougainvillean copper mine Panguna, once propped up the whole of Papua New Guinea economically, of which O’Neill would be well aware. Without Panguna, in 1976, PNG independence would not have been viable. This single asset is more than able to provide a solid economic basis for a new independent state. The Prime Minister is also well aware of what re-opening of the mine under favourable conditions would mean for Papua New Guinea who still retain 19% share in BCL – and he seems to be trying to force these conditions.

PNG wants to keep Bougainville in the fold
PNG wants to keep Bougainville in the fold

It is, however, reasonable to expect that Mr O’Neill would not want Bougainville to secede – no country or nation willing cedes territory – and it might be equally reasonable to assume that, on the opposite side of the tracks, the ABG would want it – but in that assumption you’d be wrong.

It is not yet known what position the ABG favours, it seems to be sitting back waiting for the best offer – Momis vacillates. At present he is saying that the people will decide, as indeed they will – but leaders should lead from the front, not behind.

If all that is not confusing enough, we have not yet taken into account the other important and major stakeholders in Panguna, the affected landowners who are holding some of the trump cards. Do they want independence and/or the mine to reopen? Well, yes, no and that depends.

The Landowners

The gifting of BCL shares from Rio Tinto and the subsequent re-gifting of them directly from the PNG government has managed to stir up a hornets nest in Bougainville.

President Momis, Prime Minister O'Neill and head of Me'ekamui, Chris Uma - three of the main actors in the current saga
President Momis, Prime Minister O’Neill and head of Me’ekamui, Chris Uma – three of the main actors in the current saga

To resolve the situation, the ABG government called a meeting of all the landowning stakeholders ,on 26th August, with a view to obtaining a consensus that favoured the government’s position.  Momis got it. A resolution was signed by 10 parties including a signature purportedly from the Chief of Chief’s of the Me’ekamui Government of Unity (MGU).

The resolution refused the shares from the PNG government on behalf of the landowners and suggested that they gift them to the ABG instead.

In reality, there was no consensus.

By 28 August, the chairman of one of the affected landowner groups – a group that had signed the resolution, described a social media posting by a chairperson of another group that was a signatory, as being “misleading.”

In the same email he stated that Mr Philip Miriori, President of Me’ekamui did not sign the resolution supporting the ABG’s stance. This notwithstanding, there is a signature above the title ‘MGU Chief of Chiefs’ on the resolution. The signature is too long to be that of Chris Uma, it is otherwise illegible – I don’t know who signed it.

(I am becoming terminally confused about who is the head of Me’eakamui – Philip Miriori, Chris Uma, or this Chief of Chiefs that signed the resolution.)

The original aforementioned chairman finishes his email by saying:

As people mandated [there’s that word again] by our long-suffering Landowners of Panguna…we will not stand by and watch our ABG Government become a monster by convincing our ignorant people by so much sweet talk especially up to date our legacy issues are still evident on the ground.”

The legacy issues

The mine site needs repatriation - there are frequent landslides caused by the giant pit
The mine site needs repatriation – there are frequent landslides caused by the giant pit

The legacy issues consist of the reparation to the Panguna site and/or compensation that is owed for damages. Rio Tinto has not made any, nor has it offered to do so in the future.

Many of the landowners want this issue pursued vigorously.

One leader of a landowner group expressed the view that both the National Government of PNG and Rio Tinto be sued for the environmental damage but in a separate legal opinion I have sighted, addressed to some of the affected landowners, BCL is identified as the correct entity to sue.

How ironic, with this new share transfer/gift, the landowners could be potentially suing themselves and the ABG for damages, if they take up the proffered shares they would own 53% of the company.

Legal opinion to the chairman of a landowner group stated that the divestment of Rio Tinto of its interests in BCL makes the prospect of compensation unlikely and the writer goes on to warn that the share transfer potentially creates a conflict of interests between the ABG and the landowners

The interests of the ABG and the Landowners are not aligned and potentially diverge rather than converge.

Mining is, once again, polarising the people of Bougainville. How this will be resolved is anyone’s guess and throw an independence vote into the fray for good measure and there’s cause for concern.

For while some stakeholders have expressed the opinion that maintaining the peace on Bougainville is the single and most important task of the ABG in Bougainville at present, others have been far more belligerent.

Arms and the rebels
Arms and the rebels

In a recent interview with Radio NZ, John Jaintang, described as a special envoy to Mr Chris Uma the leader of Bougainville’s Me’ekamui rebel group, has accused Bougainville’s leaders of breaking the peace process by engaging with Rio Tinto and BCL.  Mr Jaintang says that “the leaders of Bougainville have gone back to bed with the enemy.”

Ominously, he goes on to state that Me’ekamui remains “outside the peace process, ” and warns that “Me’ekamui has 100% of the arms.”

In summation

There are many self-confessed mandated leaders in this melee who are refusing to lead. While the minutiae is being attended to, the big picture is being neglected.

How to vote responsibly in the plebiscite, taking into account all of the possible issues, is a vital measure to disseminate and they need to hear it from their government. They know where the national government stands but, to date, they are getting conflicting messages from the ABG.

Yet, coming through loud and clear was the special envoy from Me’ekamui whose point, if I’m not mistaken, in saying that Me’ekamui has all the guns, is that the rest of you had better watch out.

This could well be an ominous threat if O’Neill, on a successful vote of ‘yes’ to independence, decides to exercise the ultimate folly of the peace agreement: the proverbial ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Government of PNG – the right of veto over the decision. In my opinion, O’Neill will not hesitate to use it.

Having said that, clearly a ‘no’ vote would be less problematic for the Government of Papua New Guinea as it would give them the renewed mandate in Bougainville – a clear indication of their right to rule.

And so the ‘courting period’ between PNG and Bougainville intensifies. It’s a period when it’s likely that PNG, like an anxious suitor, will be especially considerate of the needs of Bougainville, even generous.

When and if Bougainville succumbs to seduction and the courting period is over, with no more political leverage left, what then?  Those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

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Laws on Cyber Crime: you asked for it!

By PNG Echo

It’s draconian

went up the plaintive cry in response to the new cyber-crime laws passed by the PNG legislature in parliament yesterday with an overwhelming vote of 73-0.

The anonymous mask favoured by many social media abusers
The anonymous mask favoured by many social media abusers

The moaners are the same people whose illegal and/or immoral activities this legislation had been enacted to curb: the people who abuse social media, Internet and the privilege of free speech in this medium.

As I’ve not yet had the opportunity to peruse the legislation, I can’t comment on whether it is excessively harsh and severe (as the use of the word ‘draconian’ implies), but what it definitely is, is a reaction to gross abuse and it’s been a long time coming.

For if the government can be at all criticised in this matter, it is that it took far too long, allowing the abusers to become comfortable in their relative impunity and leading them to believe that they have a right to the gross abuses they’ve perpetrated that they would never have got away with in any other context.

For example…

If a stranger (or any person, for that matter) came up to me in a public place and started to yell at me profanely and abusively, including issuing death threats and/or threats of sexual violence, s/he would be arrested and locked up – as s/he would if s/he’d done similarly through a letter or via a newspaper or other hard–copy publication – why then should this same person have impunity if s/he does so in cyber space? (An example taken from real life)

This sort of speech is not deemed ‘free’ anywhere else, why should it be so on the Internet?

Then there’s the pornography that daily appears, unsolicited on the computer screens – that’s bad enough, but at least it’s impersonal. When your private messages also get unsolicited and unwelcome photos of genitals, then it becomes personal (also an example taken from real life). I do hope the legislation covers this aberrant practise too. Imagine if this same person displayed his genitals (and it’s always a male) in public or made an unwelcome private display – he’d be headed for jail – but on the Internet it’s OK?

Lately, and going beyond the personal, in PNG there have been people using the social media to mischievously spread lies and rumours.  Indeed, some social media sites in Papua New Guinea brazenly espouse that they will reproduce rumour, break all laws that govern free speech and other laws, such as copyright, at will – and they taunt the authorities to do something about them – well they have.

Indeed, earlier this year when there was a skirmish between the police and protesting students, social media erroneously, mischievously and probably intentionally misreported that police had shot dead four students – they hadn’t – there were no deaths and only a few minor injuries.

ABC-logo1-1The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) through its PNG correspondence reported the supposed deaths and because the ABC is the only news service with a foreign correspondent in country, it was broadcast all over the newswires to the rest of the world.

This was in spite of receiving an accurate report from this writer – they preferred to run with their own correspondent’s incorrect report – if it was on social media and your correspondent says so, it must be true.

For the ABC’s correspondent to have believed such delinquent sources is a clear indication that he had been unduly influenced by the dominant anti-government, social media and become partisan.

For the forces bankrolling the students revolt, they had gotten exactly what they were after – minimal damage and maximum impact – even the United Nations condemned the act and students in far away countries, that probably couldn’t locate PNG on a map, demonstrated. Their cause (and it was political) had received the publicity it was after – they couldn’t have done it without the abuse of social media to spread the lies.

Unfortunately, the damage to the reputation of Papua New Guinea from this episode has, no doubt, been enormous – all thanks to an unregulated medium that has one too many wanton and profligate users.

It’s not enough to say that there were already laws that covered some of the above examples because the laws, as they stood, were difficult, or nigh on impossible to enforce – now it’ll be easier and that’s both good and bad but totally necessary.

And everyone suffers

Being a political commentator that uses the Internet extensively to publish, it is certainly not in my interests for there to be greater regulation on the medium I use.

The threat of defamation is something that writers and journalists live with: an occupational hazard, if you like – and we are only too aware that those with the money to sue, even if they have little chance of success, can be an expensive nuisance. The last thing we need are laws that assist them.

It’s why I’m angry at the abusers of the medium that make it necessary for us to all live with this new set of restrictions.  I dislike and resent enormously that they are necessary for all the reasons I’ve pointed out and some I’ve probably not even considered.

Enclosed bridge - this time to stop the jumpers.
Enclosed bridge – this time to stop the jumpers.

It’s a bit like the bridges over the freeway that have wire cages enclosing them because some idiot thought it fun to throw rocks down on the cars underneath. When these fools caused a fatal accident, something needed to be done – now we’re all caged in.

I profoundly detest living within that cage, just like I abhor living with the newly-enacted laws – yet another metaphoric cage and I blame the irresponsible, low-intellect exploiters that made it necessary – because necessary they are.

So before you violators start pointing your fingers and screaming “draconian” please take a look at your hand and notice that your remaining three fingers are indicating the culprit that made all this necessary.

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Spotlight on social media:

By PNG Echo

This week there has been two separate innovations mooted to regulate social media by the government and its agencies.

Chief Censor Steven Mala and his deputy, Jim Aban
Chief Censor Steven Mala and his deputy, Jim Aban

Firstly, the Office of the Censorship Board is talking of introducing an ‘internet filtering system’ to control illegal use of the internet that is said to be “rampant at the moment.” (Post Courier).

Robroy Chicki who is the principal adviser on mass media with the Censorship Office has said the system is aimed at creating “… a holistic partnership approach to uphold the morale [sic] standings in the society.”

As such, the main target of the Censorship Office will primarily be blocking pornographic material in all its forms, while it is also envisaged that the system will be a deterrent to organized crime, including making it more difficult to launder corrupt monies.

Minister for Communications Hon. Jimmy Miringtoro
Minister for Communications Jimmy Miringtoro

Not to be outdone, in the office of the Minister for Communications, Jimmy Miringtoro, a Media Appeals Tribunal is being proposed.

It will target, particularly, the abuse in social media, establishing a means of redress for those “helpless victims” who have suffered defamation and damage at what is seen as a medium that has been, up until now, both uncontrollable and uncensored.

While the Censorship Board has recognized that the filtering system will have limited success in stopping all illicit material online, Minister Miringtoro has voiced his own suspicions that his proposal may be seen as government interference.  However, he says that it must be balanced against individuals’ right to privacy and human dignity that is being eroded by the “gross abuse” of social media.

The Censorship Office’s measure is a pre-emptive strike on internet abuse – in order to stop it, while the Minister is proposing a means of redress for the abused after the fact.

And while the former has caused nary a flutter, not so the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal.

The backlash

Alexander-Rheeney_Potrait_Edited
Alexander Rheeney, head of the Media Council of Papua new Guinea and Editor of the ‘Post Courier’.

One of the loudest protesters has been the Media Council of Papua New Guinea who is arguing for self-regulation overseen by them – for the aggrieved to seek recourse “…under the auspices of the council’s structure.”

They fear that the government is setting a dangerous precedent whereby politicians could determine and influence news in PNG.

But when one of their arguments is that “…Papua New Guinea is… free from State-sponsored censorship of any form and kind…” it gets hard to take them seriously.  What do they suppose the Censorship Board does and to whom do they think the Board answers?

Besides, if they feel it is their role to oversee self-regulation what’s been stopping them thus far?

Why have they maintained their silence through social media abuses that include, death threats, cyber-bullying, character assassination (using the foulest of language), mockery, ridicule and blatant defamation and distribution of lies?

Why have they not condemned this?  Do they really believe that this is what the constitution meant by freedom of expression?

Do they think that the lives and reputations that have been ruined to guarantee that some bored person behind a keyboard can vent his spleen is not worth even remarking upon?

The Media Council talks about the peoples’ right to criticize government and the good that can arise from this but what good arises from media that has, as their focus: a Minister’s missing tooth here, a political commentator’s photograph defaced there, here some subjudice contempt, there some publishing of private correspondence without the owners permission (often by people who should know better) everywhere an oink oink (and other more unpleasant four-letter words.)

The gauntlet is thrown down in the social media
The gauntlet is thrown down in the social media

In fact, had the Media Council spoken out when the Prime Minister had two supposed anti-corruption fighters charged with defamation or when Facebook sites emerged that threw down the gauntlet to the government using the mask ‘anonymous’ and blatantly avowing that they would spread any rumour, publish any half-truth and have dared the government to stop them, then the proposed regulation may not have been necessary.

What did they expect?  What did these ethically-challenged keyboard warriors expect?  Did they think that their actions should have no consequences?

That’s unrealistic.  Life’s not like that.

And while the Media Council branded the proposed move by the Minister as ‘draconian’, I suggest that PNG may be getting off lightly as the Minister said, in the press, that “…the Government was initially thinking about stopping social media…” now that would have been draconian.

Luckily it was rejected for a more moderate measure. Yet had that happened, once again, it would have been the ethically-barren spoiling it for all who use and enjoy social media sensibly and responsibly.

In the balance between freedom of speech and peoples’ right to not be defamed and bullied, the pendulum has swung too far towards the defamers – it’s too late, now only regulation and legislation will have it swinging back to a more neutral position.

To the social media opportunists who think they’ve got away with murder – it’s all your fault.

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