Many years ago a Russian called Plekhanov wrote a series of articles on “The Role of the Individual in History”. Plek also introduced the writings of Karl Marx, who had then, this was1883, just died in London, to Tsarist Russia. Amongst his readers was one Vladimir Ulianov, later himself an important individual known as Lenin.
Plek’s thesis, as I remember, was that given certain economic and political conditions a certain space for individual “leaders” opened up, and that under such conditions someone would come forward, and fill this place. Take on the new, historically necessary, role. Writing around 1890, Plek analysed particularly the role of General Buonaparte, famous as Napoleon.
His fundamental point: The French Revolution would, given the failures of the “Ancien” Feudal/Royalist regime, have happened anyway, liberating enormous social forces for change, progress. Nappy, or Bony, as his English enemies called him, seized the time, the leadership. Had it not been him, had this Buonaparte died earlier or been elsewhere, someone else, Hoche, whoever, would have taken the job, of channeling, braking, and then exporting, the French Revolution. The French Bourgeoisie, having taken enough power, would have found another, suitable “Good Sword” to stop the lower classes from endangering its new rule.
Plek was aware that Nappy was as it turned out a quite exceptional general, winning (and sometimes losing!) battles far and wide. However, his point was that the job required somebody like that. Of course, another General might not have been quite that “grandiose”, might not have made the same mistakes. Did Nappy really have to march half a million men in the Grande Armee into Russia and their death in 1812?
These thoughts came to my mind when I sat down to write an obituary about Francis Ona. Leader, and General, of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army BRA, self-crowned (as was Nappy, in France, Emperor) King of Mekamui, Bougainville.
All proportions taken into account, Ona was as remarkable a leader as–in his time, in his country–Napoleon. Of course: the time is not the same, and Mekamui, although it is often given the French Aristocrats’ name: Bougainville, is not France.
But as Napoleon, initially but a junior French artillery officer in the revolutionary armies harnessed the unexpected and at the time incredible energies of the French Revolution to win, for two decades, against the combined forces of the then rulers, the kings and feudal lords of “the entire world”, (well, of Europe), so Francis Ona, an unknown minor “native” employee of Bougainville Copper Ltd BCL, that is of Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia CRA, led an priori hopeless revolt of some , first just a few dozen, “natives” against the mercenaries of the PNG riot police, against the Papua New Guinea “Defense Force”, in fact against Australian Imperialism, against the world-wide mining Giant Rio Tinto. For years Ona was only a hunted “terrorist” in the mountains of Bougainville, with a 200,000 Kina price on his head, dead or alive. No one, certainly not the mining company, nor its henchmen in Canberra, London, or Port Moresby, thought he had a chance. I never met him, but thanks to the devotion of the BRA soldiers, of Bishop Zale in his radio-shack/living room in Gizo, of the oft forgotten Australian “Joan of Arc” (though no virgin!) Rosemarie Gillespie of the Bougainville Freedom Movement’s activists in Australia, of the rare “real journos” and film-makers who defied the blockade, of too many others to name,. I was able to speak to him, his mates, by a tenous, often interrupted, radio linkup. One conversation particularly remains in my mind, I think it was in the darkest days, after the BRA had lost the capital, Arawa. I asked Francis how he, the BRA, could continue their apparently hopeless struggle ?
Ona replied: “Papua New Guinea we can beat in a week. Australia, Rio Tinto that will take a little longer” A good line, but is it for real ? I was wrong. Ona was right.
Another (radio) conversation, with BRA Field Commander Ishmael Toroama, late in 1995. Things still looked pretty bleak, but Ishmael says: “We will win the war, next year.” They did. In 1996 the BRA defeated the PNG “colonial” army, its Australian “advisors”, in Buka, Koromira, Aropa, Kangu Beach, Buin.. The BRA “marine” shot it out succesfully with the Australian-flown Iroqois Helicopter gunships, the Australian supplied “speed boats” lost sea battle between Bougainville and the Solomons, the blockade of the island began to fail.
Massacres continued, but now even the great brains in Canberra realised they were losing that war. They told their PNG servant, Prime Minister Chan: “We’ll cut our losses, negotiate”. Chan, humiliated , rebuffed, went ballistic and, without even consulting his Australian bosses, bought some British/South African “Sandline” mercenaries. For US $ 36 Million, big money there, then.
Sandline boss Lt.Colonel Tim Spicer (hastily retired from the British army, leaving some unanswered questions about murdered Irishmen behind) spun Chan an “alternative war plan”. Sandlines would put down Ona, the BRA, just as it had done in Africa for other mining companies. Spicer’s gunships would kill all in central Bougainville, targetting their thousand 60 mms rockets onto body-heat identified humans. And so “recover the lost Panguna” mine.
We should remember this plan, when we think about terrorists, bombingSpicer, when last heard from, was actively running mercenaries in Baghdad for Mr. Bush. For some, I’m told , $ 300 million a year, an upgrade from his failed, but paid-for, Bougainville ops. But then in mid-March 1997 even the PNG military commander, Brig. Gen Jerry Singirok, would no longer buy Sandline’s blood-bath. Singirok realised this killing wouldn’t work, would not reopen the Panguna mine. He revolted, with the help of his officers ! And when the PNG officers became scared of their own courage, their rank and file soldiers, who’d finally had enough massacring Bougainville villagers, took over the movement, backed by the Port Moresby masses. “We support our Resisting Soldiers, and Peace in Bougainville” .
Spicer in Port Moresby got a black eye, Sandlines was thrown out of PNG, and, in Bougainville, Francis Ona recognised a historic moment. He held out his hand to Singirok, his long-time PNG opponent. We shall make Peace. De Facto, this, followed by much de jure talking, ended the war. The Bougainvillians had won, Rio Tinto, Australia, had lost.
Back to Plekhanov: I’ve heard a story, wasn’t there. It may be true. It’s late 1988. No shooting, violence, yet. Francis Ona is negotiating with BCL/Rio Tinto–about the Environmental Damages the Panguna mine is causing on Bougainville. He asks for ten Billion Kinas, dollars, compensation. The Mine managers, BCL bosses, laugh at him. “Ten Billion ! That’s more than the whole mine is worth !” Ona says: “Don’t you laugh at me in my country !” Walks out, slams door, goes to the company store with some mates, takes out 50 kilos of dynamite and blows down an electric pylon. Stops the Panguna mine. This riles BCL into calling the cops, then the army, killing Bougainvillians, starting a 10,000 plus dead Revolutionary War.
What would have happened had Francis Ona said: “Ten Million” (not Ten Billion) ?. BCL might well have answered: How about Five ? A Bee, an eM, a–perhaps–misheard ? Letter ? What is the role of this accident in history ?
A small, black, people, on a far-off island in the Pacific, have shown that “we can win”. Against the combined forces of world capital, New Flag Imperialist Australia, their local servants.
Sure,. the objective conditions were right for a reaction against the Mining Company. But, without Ona, would Bougainville have become the first, sofar perhaps the only, successful, such revolt ? (Panguna, as I write, remains closed–though the BCL shares -“they’ve heard: “Ona is dead”! – are climbing thru the roof.”
Would this all have happened without the role of that individual: once-BCL surveyor Francis Ona? Of the role of the accident in history ? I leave these answers to Plekhanov. Personally, I think Plek was having a bob each way Sometimes it’s one person, an accident, which make a real difference. Sometimes it’s the mass movement, the historical wave, which is all-important..
Whatever happens now, later, the Bougainville victory over Rio Tinto–and it was led by Francis Ona! — remains a lesson for others, world-wide. Things will never be the same again. We will not Forget !
MAX WATTS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org