Julius Chan says he has no regrets over handling of Sandline affair

Julius Chan announcing his resignation

Julius Chan announcing his resignation

Jemima Garrett and Adam Connors | ABC News

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.

“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.

6 Comments

Filed under Australia, Human rights, Papua New Guinea

6 responses to “Julius Chan says he has no regrets over handling of Sandline affair

  1. Fred Isah

    Oh dear Sir Julius, the more you talk the more you taint an already tainted legacy. Could it be that Howard had been briefed on the criminals running Sandline, who had been running foul of the law in Africa? And Sir Julius you neglected to mention the significant payment made from Sandline into a certain bag man’s Brisbane account, so it could be distributed to Cabinet.

  2. In 1997, Sir Julius Chan hired the Sandline Mercenaries to kill, maim and murder the people of Bougainville.
    It is appalling that Chan can deliberately make false statements as to why he hired the mercenaries to go to Bougainville. He said,
    “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.”
    How deceiving and to think Chan has created such a false impression in his autobiography.
    Thank goodness the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) stopped the hired killers and booted Chan out of parliament.

  3. samuel k

    LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF there are no other words greater than this,,says, THE LORD.

  4. Kanau Iobuna

    Our traditional laws in resolving issues must be upheld and matters raised must be actioned on in the interest of the people (Traditinal law BIG MAN system). Our members are thinking more like foreigners and following foreign interests thereby creating this civil war that costed lives of our people and properties.

  5. Marcus

    The lord also says forgive others, and you shall be forgiven. The man did what he thought was the best thing to do in his position as PM of PNG at that time. No need to be personal… its done and gone.

    Now, if you the people of Bougainville (and your leaders) do not change your attitudes and visions and continue to be narrow minded, you will find yourselves fighting again…and again…only this time you will be fighting each other. Wantok bai kaikai wantok.

    • Warren Dutton

      Marcus, You are absolutely correct. When Pius Wingti was Prime Minister Sir Julius specifically asked to be moved from his Finance Ministry to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of his prime reasons for doing so was because he wanted to concentrate on finding a solution to the vicious fighting between Bougainvilleans and the State of PNG, and among Bougaivilleans themselves. I told him at the time that, I thought it was the “right” thing for him to do, but that it would be a most dangerous decision for himself “politically”. Unfortunately my advice proved only too correct in respect of his reputation. Paradoxically, he did not lose the next election because of the “Sandline Affair”, but because he had uncharacteristically neglected his electorate by concentrating so fully on seeking a solution to the Bougainville problem.

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