Rebel leader wants to talk about reopening Bougainville copper mine | Pacific Beat

Rebel leader wants to talk about reopening Bougainville copper mine

Rebel leader wants to talk about reopening Bougainville copper mine

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:12 AEDT

The leader of the Original Me'ekamui rebel group on Bougainville, Chris Uma says he wants to talk with the Australian government and with mining giant Rio Tinto, about the reopening Panguna copper mine.

The mine was the spark that ignited a decade long civil war on Bougainville, a war that left thousands dead and the economy of the island on its knees.

The comments by Me'ekamui General, Chris Uma, come after he allowed a delegation of senior Australian diplomats to visit the mine site, for the first time, in more than 2 decades.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett,

Chris Uma, leader of the Bougainville rebel group the Original Me'ekamui; James Tanis, former President of Bougainville

GARRETT: The Original Me'ekamui is the rebel group that controls access to the Panguna mine site and for decades it has been hostile to Australia and to the mine-owner, Rio Tinto because of their part in the war on Bougainville .

The decision by Me'ekamui Leader, Chris Uma, to allow Ian Kemish, the Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, access to the mine is a significant breakthrough for the peace process.

The visit began with a traditional ceremony at the Me'ekamui checkpoint at Morgan Junction on the mine access road.

High Commissioner Kemish approached on foot with a live pig and a bale of rice as a reconciliation offering. There he met and shook hands with Me'ekamui leader, Chris Uma.

On a very poor phone line from Bougainville, Chris Uma, told Radio Australia that the ceremony was an important step forward.

UMA: I understand that I can solve the problem of Bougainville and I know what the Bougainville crisis started and how it will be ended. That's why I let the Australian High Commissioner through my checkpoint, to make a statement clear to the Australian government and the world that, today, we are talking.

GARRETT: As Chris Uma says he is a crucial force in solving the Bougainville crisis.

The Me'ekamui leader says his decision to let the Australian High Commissioner visit the Panguna mine site is a message to the world that he is now talking with Australia.

Former Bougainville President, James Tanis, is also a Panguna man.

He has been working for peace for 15 years.

Mr Tanis facilitated the Australian delegations' visit and he says, as Australia was part of the problem on Bougainville, it is very important that it be part of the solution.

TANIS: The problem started in Panguna, it is the birthplace of the conflict and the visit to Panguna by the representative of the Australian government is a major step forward in terms of building relationships so that together we can move forward in resolving those issues for which we have dispute over.

GARRETT: Just what did it take to make the visit possible?

TANIS: It took a lot of negotiation, a lot of patience but it was the result of everybody's effort, meaning the Australian High Commissioner's willingness to come into Panguna and Chris Uma's acceptance, because Chris Uma is the main person who manages the Morgan Junction checkpoint. That is there to enforce this view that no outsiders would come into Panguna. So it took Chris Uma a lot of understanding, a lot of change in him, to allow the Australian High Commission to go ahead and perform cultural rituals to allow him access into Panguna

GARRETT: Between 2015 and 2020 Bougainville is to hold a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea.

For that refendum to offer a real choice Bougainville needs economic self-reliance and for many people that means the re-opening of the Panguna copper mine.

The Me'ekamui have been at the heart of the independence movement.

Chris Uma says he is willing to talk about re-opening the mine, and even to give the go-ahead to mining, but there is a long way to go before that happens.

UMA: Me'ekamui government is looking forward to solve the problem of the Bougainville conflict, starting from that mine. Panguna mine can open under the name of Chris Uma.

GARRETT: So if you approve plans to re-open the mine, the mine can re-open?

UMA: It is not negotiated, yet. (It's a) very, very big job to talk about it and its not negotiated yet.

GARRETT: Former Bougainville President James Tanis agrees that there are many obstacles ahead.

But Mr Tanis and the Autonomous Bougainville Government are working hard to create a better future.

TANIS: The main thing is that we Bougainvilleans are continuing to talk amongst ourselves, talk with the ABG (Autonomous Government of Bougainville), talk with the national government and going as far as talking with the Australians, so that still gives me hope that peace will be sorted out.

GARRETT: And just how realistic do you think it is to eventually reopen the mine, and particularly in time for the timetable for the vote on independence?

TANIS: It is already running too late! And even if we made the mine reopening decision today I do not see the mine going into operation in the next 3 years. The next 3 years might be needed for rebuilding and not the commercial activity, so 3 years at the minimum.

GARRETT: James Tanis says it is urgent that the new PNG government start the much-delayed handover of mining powers to Bougainville and that it pay up on promised development funding.

At the moment Australia is Bougainville's biggest aid donor.

Mr Tanis says an additional special package of aid for Panguna would give the peace process a better chance.

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