Papua New Guinea’s former prime minister Sir Julius Chan says that if he had been allowed to continue with the infamous Sandline operation to put down the Bougainville civil war in 1997, he would have been able to bring the island under control.
In his newly released autobiography, Sir Julius has revealed details about his harsh words with then prime minister John Howard over the hiring of Sandline mercenaries, and how he blamed the Australian media for inflaming opinion in PNG.
“I attended a private lunch with prime minister John Howard at Kirribilli House in Sydney shortly after the engagement of Sandline was revealed,” wrote Sir Julius in the book, Playing the Game: Life and Politics in PNG.
“His attitude was ‘Just get rid of these people. They should not be there.’ He did not give me any reason for it.
When I asked Australia for help, Australia wouldn’t. They stopped all the helicopter assistance, took them away, so I needed to get some engagement of some people that were experiencedFormer PNG prime minister Sir Julius Chan
“I told Howard to stay out of the affair, mind his own business and not to interfere with the decision of my government. ‘We are an independent country,’ I said.
“It could have been that Australia’s attitude in this matter was linked to an interest in not wanting to see foreign influences in Papua New Guinea other than themselves.”
Sir Julius said that the heavy militarisation could have also been seen as a threat to another near neighbour of both countries — Indonesia.
“We were now dealing with people who were bringing in the kind of armoury that Papua New Guineans had never had before,” he wrote.
“Perhaps they were concerned that all of a sudden we might think that we had the firepower to deal with illegal border crossings on our western side [PNG’s border with Indonesia]. Perhaps Australia did not want the possibility of a war with Indonesia.”
Speaking to Pacific Beat, Sir Julius said his views on engaging Sandline to break the civil war had not changed.
“I’m told that maybe 17,000 people were killed. An election was coming up, and I thought I was the man,” he said.
“When I asked Australia for help, Australia wouldn’t. They stopped all the helicopter assistance, took them away, so I needed to get some engagement of some people that were experienced.
“I thought the way to bring the whole thing under control, to show that the government has the firepower to resolve this issue, was to just identify an empty house or something [in the village of Guava, atop the Panguna copper mine] and fire some guns or something — to just destroy it — enough to psychologically tell the people that it’s time for peace.”
Actions hoped to break impasse
The decision to hire Sandline came after repeated attempts to persuade Bougainville rebel leader Francis Ona to attend peace talks throughout the 1990s failed.
Bougainvilleans were distressed by the destruction and removal of their land, traditionally held through their clan system.
Many expected that the wealth coming from that land should be distributed evenly through that system, regarding the land as their life and livelihood — and they found it difficult to accept the loss of it.
In his book The Sandline Affair, former ABC Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney wrote that what the people objected to most was that mining companies such as Rio Tinto — owner of Panguna — had removed 1.215 billion tonnes of their land and turned 99.4 per cent of it into waste.
It was disposed again back on their land.
In January 1997, Sir Julius secretly signed a contract with private military consultancy firm Sandline International.
Using mercenaries and high-tech equipment, the British-based firm with South African connections was to equip, train and assist the badly-beaten PNG Defence Force (PNGDF).
But it was the events of February 1997 and Mary-Louise O’Callaghan’s scoop in the Weekend Australian headlined “PNG hires mercenaries to blast rebels”, that set the fire.
O’Callaghan revealed details about Sandline, and the contract “to execute a series of covert military operations on Bougainville aimed at wiping out the rebel leadership”.
“I was ready for the political confrontation,” Sir Julius told Pacific Beat, “but I was not ready for the media onslaught.”
In his autobiography, he wrote that: “The Australian media just kept pouring out stories day after day, they were just extraordinary; there was a war on me.”
“The media were not necessarily collaborating, but it was a very accomplished distribution of the kind of information that Australia wanted to be made public so that it could destabilise the situation and force the removal of the Sandline forces.”
The public outrage after the plan became public prompted PNGDF Commander Jerry Singirok to take the mercenaries hostage, and announce on radio that their contract had been cancelled.
It also led to the downfall of Sir Julius’s government.
“How much did they (the Australian government) play in my downfall and my government’s downfall? I don’t know,” he told Pacific Beat.
“Only they know. And probably the security people in the various organisations. At the time it was very sensitive and I was the victim of that.”
Bougainvilleans will be voting in a referendum on their independence from Papua New Guinea ahead of 2019.
— With Jemima Garrett
Originally at ABC News