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Bougainville - Francis Ona, NO to opening Panguna

Taken from the Postcourier, 1 July 2005

ONA: NO, NO

By Gorethy Kennedy

'Close B'ville Govt and let me run it'

THE re-opening of the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville is a no, no!

Self-styled leader of the unrecognised Me'ekamui government and recluse Francis Ona in an exclusive interview with our Gorethy Kenneth in his Guava village outside the mine site on Tuesday said suggestions to re-open the mine to finance the Bougainville Autonomous Government would be resisted.

'Let me run B'ville government'

THE re-opening of the Panguna Mine will be a no, no and the decision will have to come from the people and the landowners, reclusive Me'ekamui leader Francis Ona said on Tuesday.

And whoever is talking about re-opening of the Panguna mine that caused the loss of 20,000 lives "must be out of his/her mind" Mr Ona said. Further, Mr Ona said if there was no money to run the Autonomous Bougainville Government, he wants it closed down and let him run Bougainville.

In an exclusive interview with the Post-Courier in his Guava village on Wednesday this week, Mr Ona said if the mine had to be re-opened by the people it would be facilitated by the Me'ekamui government. Mr Ona was responding to questions as to whether he was supportive of negotiations to re-open the Panguna Mine.

"My people and I won't allow the mine to be re-opened. Twenty thousand lives were lost and this is how we can compensate their lives? Kabui (Autonomous Bougainville Government President Joseph Kabui) or anyone talking about re-opening the mine must be out of his/her mind . . . (Mr) Kabui and his government must find other means of earning money and not try to use this mine to get loans from the World Bank. If you don't have the money, then close the government and let me run it. Me'ekamui has all the funding available and ready," Mr Ona said.

"At this point, Panguna is not going to be opened for the remaining short term as it is associated with too much pain and suffering.

"The leaders of PNG and the autonomy truly believe opening such a mine as this one will be okay when so many alive today are still suffering because of the deaths of their parents, brothers and sisters, its way too soon.

"No, I will not support that, it's entirely up to the people and if they decide to agree on the re-opening then Me'ekamui will have to facilitate it.

"However, as we go along in our established sovereignty and independence, it is maybe the case later. Who knows, that will be a decision of the people not mine, the House of Lords, the House of Representatives, landowners and others will then have to decide but now its not possible.

"I know since the closure of Panguna, it led to the whole international mining community changing its operations and approach to landowners, especially in terms of what today is considered as environmentally friendly mining that we have to be aware of but in terms of Panguna, tell Mr Somare (Sir Michael) and other leaders I will bring the orphans and the widows to him if he wants to come look in their eyes and say 'hey profits to PNG matters not what you lost'.

"I am not going to do that, leadership is about respecting the people you represent and respecting yourself."

B'ville class action gains momentum

LAWYERS involved in the multi-million class action lawsuit by Bougainvilleans against Rio Tinto Zinc - major shareholder in the Bougainville Copper Ltd - are on their way to Bougainville.

The team from the United States of America, led by Brent Walton of Hagens & Berman Sobol Shapiro, have arrived in Port Moresby and are expected to travel to Bougainville in the next few days.

They want to meet with key national leaders in Port Moresby prior to having an audience with Autonomous Bougainville President Joseph Kabui.

Mr Walton was one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs Alexis Holyweek Sarei, Paul E. Nerau, Thomas Tamuasi, Philip Miriori, Gregory Kopa, Methodius Nesiko, Aloysius Moses, Raphael Niniku, Gabriel Tareasi, Linus Takinu, Leo Wuis, Michael Akope, Benedict Pisi, Thomas Kobuko, John Tamuasi, Norman Mouvo, John Osani, Ben Korus, Namira Kawona, Joan Bosco, John Pigolo and Magdalene Pigolo on the multi-million dollar damages lawsuit against RTZ for genocide and environmental damage.

The lawsuit surfaced during Moresby North-West MP Sir Mekere Morauta's term as Prime Minister. Sir Mekere had warned that the class action filed in the Federal District Court of California - if successful - would not be enforceable in Papua New Guinea because of the Compensation Act. When Sir Michael Somare assumed office after the 2002 elections, he gave his blessings for the class action to go ahead on questions by then Bougainville Regional MP John Momis.

The irony was that American judge Justice Margaret Morrow had already dismissed the claim.

The trip to Bougainville follows Mr Kabui's announcement placing the future of the Panguna copper mine as a priority of his government.

Bougainville, despite the major fanfare about the autonomous arrangements, does not have much of an internal revenue base.

Mr Kabui said he wanted to make use of the fact that Central Bougainville MP Sam Akoitai is currently the Mining Minister to resolve the "sensitive issue of Bougainville Copper Limited".

A negotiation with the National Government and BCL as soon as practical was what he had in mind. Mr Akoitai, in a press statement days after that announcement, indicated he had received a letter from the Bougainville administration advising him of a Cabinet decision to have an urgent review of the Bougainville Copper Agreement Act, 1967.

That letter also requested a moratorium on exploration and mining on Bougainville gazetted on April 22, 1971, to be revoked and the province be cleared for mineral exploration.

Mr Akoitai said he was preparing a submission in consultation with the Attorney-General's office for the National Executive Council to consider that would include the Bougainville Government's request.

Scribe tells of daring trip to Guava

IT still feels like a fairy tale to me. I still have to get it into my brains that I actually visited Guava, especially the place of reclusive Me'ekamui leader Francis Ona.

A day before I took to the mountains of Guava, I headed home to my village to wave goodbye to my mother and see my little sisters for comfort. On Wednesday morning, my friends Steve and Tsimes made sure I was safe in a PMV vehicle to Arawa and after 1pm, I was on my way.

I told them if I don't return by Thursday to send a search party on Friday. I slept my way to Arawa to brush aside the thought of how I would approach Mr Ona in his territory.

Bouncy George Corbett, Post-Courier's former photographer who arrived from wherever he came from, kept me company all along. He kept reminding me to eat the lamingtons he bought for me.

Poor guy saw I was confused and not in my usual cheery mood.

Yes, I was happy to see Mr Corbett after five years of working together in Port Moresby but I was more interested and worked up with my trip to Panguna.

We arrived in Arawa a little after 5pm and 30 minutes after my arrival. I took to the streets to start negotiating for my trip. I went and saw a couple from Siredonsi and got advice about the trip. It was Section 6, the Arawa office of the Me'ekamui that I was supposed to visit. Geraldine, a friend was with me all night to listen to my plans. By five in the morning on Wednesday, we were up and by six o'clock we were already at the Me'ekamui office. Geraldine waited with me for more than 45 minutes while the executive met with other people. Eventually, it was my turn to go into the office. Chris Uma, the man who looks after the Me'ekamui office, and the one that I fear most, sat waiting for me. As soon as I entered and took a seat, I shyly said I'm Gorethy from . . . he cut me off and tossed me the note with rules that I had to follow and said all I had to do now was find a car. The rules spelt out what I was and not supposed to do. One comforting thing I saw on the note was "be very friendly to her and don't make her scared. Show her all the spots up". I was introduced to office secretary Kevin Buruau who was sent from Guava to accompany me. The next task was looking for a hire car. I suggested cars that I knew, even brought four of them in, one by one, only to be told: "Sorry, they are not allowed up there." I was embarrassed - it felt like I was modelling cars. Eventually, I was directed to the only vehicle that had a green light for the area - owned by Luami and well known to Mr Ona and the Me'ekamui government. At exactly 1pm, my trip to Guava began. Me'ekamui security Kevin, the driver Luami and I took off. We had no problems with the Morgan Junction roadblock. This time, the sight of guns at the roadblock did not matter to me, I was rehearsing my introductory speech to Mr Ona all through the trip. I almost forgot the driver existed and almost missed the mine picture. At 2.30pm, we arrived at the second checkpoint. The two hour drive up was very emotional as we stopped at the mine pit to take pictures. All the broken building, burnt vehicles, the thought of the beautiful serenity of Panguna before the crisis came back. I thought of several families and imagined their lives now - but I was prepared to see Mr Ona. My heart started pumping as we neared his territory. We were cleared by the guard who was aware of my visit and we drove down the Guava valley. We made another stop just before entering the second street (there are three streets in little Guava town) and another clearance was made. We parked in front of the Me'ekamui central bank building. As I was picking my bag, I heard a voice, "welcome home" - that was Mr Ona. My heart missed a beat and I was so scared I almost spoke my language to Mr Ona. "Pleased to meet you," Mr Ona put out his hand to greet me. "Pleased to meet you too" I quickly put out mine to shake hands. "Welcome and thank you for coming," he said. "And thank you very, very much for allowing me after five years of trying to interview you," I told him. He was very cheerful, a big smile on his face as he led me to his office. Oh my gosh . . . is what I said as soon as we climbed up the stairs to his office, which is in the central bank building. I shook my head in awe as we waited for the combination numbers to be keyed to the doors - Mr Ona has an electronically run office - you can even use remote controls. A very well established office, with a few (maybe four) satellite phones, a mobile phone, computers and a brick wall room. What I saw with my eyes in a nutshell was King Solomon's mine, a country on its own, little America or what. Our interview went for an hour before the tour around Guava village. It took me an hour to talk to Mr Ona like I'd known him for ages. The place was an amazing site and sight. A movie theatre with an amazing screen, 24-hour electricity from hydro, battery and generator, shops, a vanilla farm, poultry, guards and youths smiling and buildings made of brick with doors manufactured from Australia. His wife Elizabeth cooked us dinner and I learned Mr Ona had not tasted or eaten rice since the Bougainville crisis. My eyes are still wide open and I'm still thrilled by what I saw, some things are a well kept secret, not so much what I heard, a lifetime experience. I met the man I always dreamt of meeting, thank you Post-Courier and thank you Mr Ona for the interview, for the food, for the rooster I took home and for allowing us into your territory.