ISLAND BUSINESS COVER STORY März 2009:
BOUGAINVILLE' S NEW GUARDS
President Tanis maps out new course of peace
Bougainville, once the Pacific's hottest spot, has made attempts to vote away the bloody past in two elections.
At the helm of this new Bougainville, stands the newly sworn-in President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Assembly, 44-year old James Tanis; and Fidelis Semoso, a former Papua New Guinea Defence Intelligence Officer, as Bougainville's Regional MP in PNG's National Parliament.
Future destiny: Their task is to create an environment for the people to disarm themselves, reconcile and then determine their future destiny.
Semoso from Buka Island, has had 18 months of settling in since his elevation during PNG's national elections in August 2007, replacing former regional member, Leo Hannett.
Both Semoso and Hannett follow the steps of PNG's "father of decentralisation" John Momis, who resigned from the regional seat to contest the Bougainville presidential seat, but was unsuccessful. Momis is now PNG's Ambassador to China.
Tanis, from Nagovis, at the border of south and central Bougainville, is no stranger to leadership having served as secretary to self-styled President Francis Ona (now deceased) and vice-president in the Bougainville Peoples' Congress (BPC)-forerunner to the Autonomous Government of Bougainville.
The late Joseph Kabui was president of BPC and when the Autonomous Bougainville Government was established, he became the first elected president.
His death resulted in the by-election that ushered in the new president.
No strangers to leadership: Both Tanis and Semoso are young leaders in the generational change that is happening in this once trouble-torn area of PNG. They replace names that were synonymous with North Solomons and Bougainville. But both men are no strangers to leadership under fire.
In fact 15-20 years ago, they would have literally shot each other on sight. Semoso fighting to exert PNG's sovereignty over Bougainville and Tanis fighting for secession. That fight, which is responsible for some 3000 deaths and atrocities, has had Amnesty International placing Bougainville and PNG under the spotlight. It is not necessarily over.
A referendum on the future of Bougainville is in the horizon-some six to 12 years away. The self determination of Bougainville has merely changed from deadly gunfire exchanged in the fields, bushes and beaches to civilised, face-to-face dialogue between legally elected representatives guided by the Bougainville Peace Agreement and the Bougainville Constitution.
Early in January, amidst the fanfare and ritual celebrations, Tanis told ISLANDS BUSINESS he was mindful of the fact that the peace process must continue.
Reconciliation, forgiveness and weapons disposal are vital pre-requisites to unity-the One People One Bougainville he envisions-which in turn can lead to a referendum on Bougainville's future with Papua New Guinea.
This is an interview with President Tanis after his inaugural address:
President Tanis, congratulations and thank you for agreeing to speak with ISLANDS BUSINESS. A lot seems to have happened since the bloody Bougainville crisis days. What do you feel about those days? What part did they play in your aspirations for leadership in Bougainville?
"I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives-on all sides of the conflict on Bougainville...it is the tragedy of those lost lives and shattered families that is my inspiration to leadership. I invited all losing presidential candidates to my inauguration as president together with the widows of the late President Kabui, late Premier Theodore Miriung, late Peter Tsiamalili, and the late Hilary Masiria to make the statement that my presidency will maintain the road to peace in an inclusive, consultative way, knowing the bloody path we have trodden on in the past."
How do you see the leadership change on Bougainville? It seems the old guard comprising Fr John Momis, Sam Akoitai and Michael Laimo are gone or on their way out. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this change?
"My leadership focus is about the children and youth who are the future of Bougainville. Their frustration about how things are done is the key drive in Bougainville's generational change. I am part of this generational change-at the leadership level. In my inauguration, I accepted the concerns of those worried about my relative youth as a challenge to me and the younger generation of leaders and youth in general. I called on the youth to leave the streets, leave homebrew and take up the challenge of building a new Bougainville. I am adamant that neither I nor the youth of Bougainville will let them down. Let our contributions be the means by which we are judged later."
Where do you see Bougainville going in its relationship with the PNG Government? And its international relationships?
"I have already sent signals to the National Government that I am fiercely committed to the peace agreement that we produced together and to the timeframe we agreed. The Bougainville Peace Agreement and the Bougainville Constitution are sacred. Those documents are my guide and commitment. They are built on the blood and agony of war. We all suffered-here and in Papua New Guinea generally. Together, PNG and Bougainville leaders have achieved so much. We have both found sensible compromises that keep us moving forward. We are both bound by the fundamental pillars of the peace agreement. These pillars are just as important today as they were when we agreed to them:
• A constitutionally guaranteed autonomy for Bougainville;
• A constitutionally guaranteed referendum on independence; and
• Weapons disposal in Bougainville and reconciliation.
"Without those fundamental agreements we would still be at war today. I will be sitting down with the Regional Member for Bougainville, Semoso and the Open MPs-Michael Ogio (National Minister for Higher Education and North Bougainville MP), Jimmy Miringtoro (Central Bougainville) and Steven Kamma (South Bougainville) to discuss the vital role they need to play as Bougainville's representatives in Waigani and at the National Parliament. The task of implementing the three pillars of the Bougainville Peace Agreement is far from complete. The drawdown of powers has barely begun. The countdown to the referendum now has between six to 12 years to go. Yet Bougainville is still not truly free of weapons.
"The peace agreement and the Bougainville constitution are our road map. This is an agreed timeframe to which we must adhere to. We must not lose our way. Without the continuing implementation of autonomy, finishing weapons disposal, continuing reconciliation and holding the referendum we will not achieve lasting peace on Bougainville.
"We need to work together with the National Government to carry out the constitutionally agreed processes on the transfer of powers, appointment of the chief administrator, Bougainville's constitutional processes such as elections and Bougainville's constitutional office holders.
How do you see Bougainville's relationship internationally?
"To the international community particularly to our friends in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific and in the United Nations, I say: your support through the peace process and after has been essential. You are the guarantors of the Bougainville Peace Agreement and its full and complete implementation-including helping to ensure that the outcome of the referendum is honoured-whatever the outcome might be.
"I am absolutely committed to weapons disposal and to reconciliation. I have already called on all leaders, factions and groups to embark on dialogue, reconciliation and forgiveness to ensure that we complete the unfinished task of ridding Bougainville of weapons. I am calling upon the governments of PNG, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Nations, to assist us in completing this essential process. We recognise our obligations and so we will continue to work with you to maintain a peaceful Pacific. All I ask is that you maintain your active interest in our future."
What are your priorities as president? How do these compare with the priorities of the PNG Government?
"Let me tell you my vision for Bougainville and my challenges for the next 16 months as president to answer that question. I dream of a truly united Bougainville, free of weapons, where people resolve their differences through traditional ways of discussion, reconciliation and customary forgiveness. Not through the barrel of a gun. I envision a Bougainville that is free. I see a Bougainville where we have an economy that will support our lifestyle and provide a future for our children. And finally, I see Bougainvilleans voting on a referendum on independence that will put to rest Bougainville's political future once and for all. Whatever the decision; it must be made by the people.
"All these things require an enormous amount of hard work, patience and tolerance. It will not be done in 16 months-but I am committed to ensuring it is done. As soon as parliament meets, I will re-establish the Ministry of Peace. I want to coordinate and redouble our efforts for peace. For those still with arms and to all Bougainvilleans, I say this: Have faith in your traditional and customary ways of resolving disputes. Turn to the churches and to your fellow Bougainvilleans. If we can negotiate a peace agreement with Papua New Guinea after so much pain and distrust on both sides, surely we Bougainvilleans can sort this out."
Resolving the Bougainville issue is complex because of the divisions and factional interests involved. You have been associated with what was then the rebel, secessionist movement. In six to 12 years time, there will be a referendum on the future of Bougainville. What are your thoughts on this?
"I have assured the people of Bougainville that I am answerable to them and need their views directly as well as through their representatives in the House of Representatives. I am not a king or dictator. I am their servant. This is not the time for revolutionary change. Our approach must be careful and measured. We must balance things carefully. We have all committed ourselves to the peace agreement. The three pillars of that agreement give us our future. At end of the day, the people will decide our future through a referendum. You know I support independence for Bougainville but like all the signatories to the peace agreement, I accept that this is a matter for the people when the time comes. I will accept their decision just as I expect the National Government to accept it and ratify that decision whatever it might be. In the meantime, I am driven by the concept of unity of one Bougainville, aware that the only true road is that of peace."
What's your programme for the next few months?
"I intend to visit the least developed areas such as Torokina, Oria, Wisai in Konou constituency, Tonu, Kongara, Eivo and the outer islands and atolls first in my programme to visit all the districts over the next few months to hear their voices and concerns. I am from an area without development so I understand and want to communicate this understanding to them. This pan-Bougainville tour will be to assure the people of Bougainville that my government's approach will be careful and measured.
"To all those who do not yet have faith and trust to lay down arms, my message is that together we must build that trust. I know that when an opposing group has weapons, it is difficult to act alone. I know the fear still exists in some parts of Bougainville especially in the south. I will make myself available and invite them to talk to me with open minds and hearts. We have survived a bloody conflict. We must not continue to die by the war.
How do you see the role of the churches in your efforts?
"I am determined to continue Bougainville's partnership with them. I've told them that their role is our future. I know they share in the spirit of the constitution as I share their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. We need not just their prayers but their active participation in terms of advocacy for good governance, mediation and the delivery of essential health and education services.
The Bougainville public service has had to make many adjustments over the years with changes in the political landscape as the peace process advanced. What is your attitude to this vital delivery machinery?
"I value the impartial advice of public servants. They are the backbone of Bougainville. As politicians, we come and go; they remain the one constant. I intend to rebuild relationships and have asked them to be fearless and honest in their advice and to strive harder for Bougainville. I want to see the revival of the work ethic initiated by the late Peter Tsiamalili advocating punctuality in time keeping, honesty in managing resources, and delivering quality advice and service.
"The administrator is the principal advisor to the President. I will direct that his office be adjacent to the Office of the President so that we can work as one team for Bougainville. Let me go on to the non-government organisations-both international and our local home-grown NGOs-thank you for your continuing support. Together we can build a better Bougainville. I urge you to establish your own representative body to coordinate your work."
The Bougainville crisis was ignited by clashes over royalties from the Panguna mine operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd. What are your thoughts on the private sector generally? And mining in particular?
"Businesses and investors are a fundamental part of nation building. It is the government's role to provide a level playing field. As business grows, providing employment, services and goods and taxes paid so will Bougainville grow. However, my government expects all players in the private sector to obey the law and respect Bougainville's history and traditional customs. In rebuilding Bougainville, the private sector will be a constant and essential partner. I will meet with them in the near future to work out a common business strategy for Bougainville with particular emphasis on "grassroots" business.
"Mining obviously has been a divisive issue for Bougainville and was at the very heart of the crisis: I promised the people that I will deal with it carefully. I know the House supported the Bougainville Restoration Development Company and there are questions in the community about how we will move ahead.
"I will not force mining upon the people of Bougainville. Any decision on mining rests in the hands of the people! I support the Panguna landowners initiative to end the conflict where it started: to reconcile and re-unite and speak with one voice. I will listen to you. I will help. To the Autonomous Bougainville Government, BCL and the National Government, I ask for your patience. With time and reason, these matters will be resolved.
"However Bougainville's future does not depend on mining alone. I want to see a broad-based economy embracing agricultural opportunities, small holder development, better marketing, and export direct from Bougainville. I also want to see tourism developed to showcase Bougainville's natural beauty as well as the historical World War II sites."
Bougainville's history reveals a tug-of-war on the preferred capital between Buka, Kieta, Arawa, and even there has been some mention of Wakunai. The crisis has resulted in a convenience decision to base the headquarters in Buka. What are your thoughts on a capital for Bougainville?
"Bougainville's future capital under the Bougainville Constitution is a matter that will be determined through the House of Representatives. I have already committed myself to a process of close consultation with the people on this matter."
Mr President, do you have any concluding remarks?
"I just want to pay tribute to my predecessor Joseph Kabui whose capacity to bring people together was essential and made him the right man to be the history-making first President of Bougainville. I cannot be another Kabui. I will continue his work-but my way. It is not easy and I do not have all the answers. And yes, I will make mistakes. But with the support of the Bougainville people, our development partners and friends, we will continue this peace process aimed at making this once hotspot of the Pacific One People- One Bougainville part of the peaceful Pacific."