As an Australian military mission is about to begin in the Solomons, another one has just ended on the neighbouring island of Bougainville. After a 5-year presence, Australian peacekeepers pulled out of Bougainville two weeks ago, proclaiming that the Bougainvillians’ war of independence from PNG was over and that the peace and autonomy agreements were holding. That makes it something of a good news story, except that the island’s main rebel, Francis Ona, hasn’t agreed to anything, never spoke to the peacekeepers and certainly hasn’t disarmed. Ona still sits on top of Bougainville’s most valuable asset - the former Australian owned Panguna copper mine and has no intention of handing it over to anyone. Freelance journalist Ben Bohane obtained the first interview with Francis Ona in six years and took the opportunity to film it. Irene Ulman with this report.
Bougainville is celebrating. Two weeks ago, the peace between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea was judged strong for the Australian-led peace monitoring group to leave the island. But not everyone is happy.
The rough drive up this jungle path leads to Francis Ona, the former chief of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, or BRA.
14 years ago, Francis Ona began the war of independence against Papua New Guinea that claimed thousands of lives.
“OUR ISLAND OUR FIGHT”: And the only lasting solution to solve the Bougainville crisis is through independence. Nothing other than that.
But when the BRA finally chose to talk peace with PNG six years ago, it was without Ona.
He and his troops are still holed up in the mountains overlooking one of the biggest open cut mines in the world - the Panguna copper mine. The Australian-operated mine produced half of PNG's foreign earnings but was abandoned when the war began in 1989.
Outsiders aren't normally welcome here. Ona has allowed freelance journalist Ben Bohane to enter, but is too wary to let him stay to film an interview in daylight. This is his first interview in six years.
FRANCIS ONA: I think it's right time you came here.
Ona doesn't reject the peace process outright, but he clearly doesn't trust it. He believes it's been imposed by outsiders.
FRANCIS ONA: I never have any no connection with the peace process on Bougainville. You know, peace on Bougainville is always here, yeah, but what they are trying to import on Bougainville is trying to put some kind of peace, you know, to economise peace, you know, they want to put money into the process and then try to... I see it as a psychological warfare on Bougainville, yeah.
Papua New Guinea has already agreed to allow Bougainville a referendum on independence in 10 years time, but Ona says there's no reason to wait. Bougainville can go it alone.
FRANCIS ONA: I don't know why 10 years. I don't know why.
BEN BOHANE, REPORTER: Would you like to see it much sooner?
FRANCIS ONA: Now. Right now. Right now we can have a referendum right now. Bougainvillians through the last 14 years have proven, you know, we've proven, especially my government, the Me'ekamui government, we've proven that we can look after ourselves.
Francis Ona has literally stuck to his guns. His men remain heavily armed, untouched by the disarmament process which they've rejected. In his retreat, he's become a threat to his former allies in the BRA.
At this roadblock, Ona's Me'ekamui defence force, or MDF, exchanged fire with the BRA as recently as March this year. Ona says this was a violation of the peace process.
FRANCIS ONA: It's really a violation of the peace process on Bougainville.
BEN BOHANE: Was it an attempt to take the MDF checkpoint there, the roadblock, do you think they were trying to push it through?
FRANCIS ONA: I think so, yes.
BEN BOHANE: And do you think they still have some kind of plan to somehow come and take Panguna?
FRANCIS ONA: Well, this plan is still there.
Ona says he has evidence the shootout was part of a complex plan to provoke a return to hostilities and to retake the Panguna mine.
FRANCIS ONA: I've got a paper here, I've got a paper here which proves that the UN and PNG has planned all this. You know, it's written here.
The UN has denied that there's any substance to Ona's allegations and says it's made attempts to talk to him.
FRANCIS ONA: You take this with you.
But the incident highlights the critical importance of the Panguna mine to Bougainville's independence. Until the mine is reopened and Bougainville can tap its enormous riches, there will always be a question mark over the island's economic future. But Francis Ona stands between Bougainville's new administration and the Panguna mine.
JAMES TANIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE BOUGAINVILLE PEOPLE’S CONGRESS: Francis Ona, yes, is potentially a major threat and we recognise it.
James Tanis, Vice-President of the Bougainville People's Congress is here in Australia to attend a conference on peace and reconciliation. He fought alongside Francis Ona and knows that Ona remains crucial to the peace process.
James Tanis: Yes, it's very important that we continue to talk to Francis Ona because it was Francis Ona who started the revolution and it was in Panguna that the whole thing started and for us to have that certainty that the war has ended, we must end it in Panguna and we must end it with Francis Ona, therefore that is why in fact nearly every Bougainvillian believes that, and in fact it is a firm belief that it is important that Francis Ona must be engaged in this peace process.
From his mountain-top hideout, Francis Ona claims to have outside support and makes reference to Melanesian connections.
FRANCIS ONA: We have connections. All Melanesians have connections. Yeah. So I won't go any further than saying that.
Bougainville will need to win over its lone rebel leader if it's to achieve the independence it wants. But Ona's mistrust of outsiders remains a real obstacle.
FRANCIS ONA: The outside input into Bougainville has destroyed our people's lives. Now we have gone through, especially me and my government, we've gone through 14 years without money and we still exist.