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Bougainville - Sandline Affair

The secessionist movement on Bougainville in the late 1980s and the closure of the Panguna mine dealt a blow to the PNG government. The conflict became more and more entrenched as time went on to the point where, in late 1996, three members of the government - the then Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan, his deputy Chris Haiveta and the defence minister Mathias Iape - decided to take pre-emptive action to resolve the matter using outside military force. This became known as the Sandline Affair and was to be a crucial factor in public perception of PNG's leaders in the lead-up to the June 1997elections, described as the most important since independence.

The introduction of Sandline International in 1997, a company of ‘military consultants’ inflamed the situation creating adverse perceptions of internal security forces and exacerbated the conflict as it polarised communities and the military. Sandline-Executive Outcomes included many ex South African special forces who had previously been used to enforce brutal apartheid policies. Sandlline’s presence was rejected by PNGDF Commander Brigadier General Singirok, however political leaders including Prime Minister Julius Chan pressed forward with their use.

With US$36 million, (funded by 'budget cuts’) Chan and his allies employed a well-known mercenary company, Sandline International, which was tasked to provide men and equipment via an associated company, Executive Outcomes, to help train the PNG Defence Force in anti-guerrilla tactics and to deploy them in an attack on the secessionists. It was hoped that the result would be a speedy military victory on Bougainville, the kudos from which would sweep Chan's People's Progress Party back into power at the elections.

After learning of the plans in February 1997, Australia and a number of other regional governments urged Chan to negotiate with the secessionists rather than take military action. However, the PNG leader was adamant and much of the money had already been spent on equipment and upfront payments. Mercenary troops were at that stage stationed at Moem Barracks near Wewak and training was under way.

The controversy became the subject of much public debate in PNG and, to complicate matters, the popular PNGDF Commander, Brigadier General Jerry Singirok, decided to do an 'about-face' and publicly condemn the government for undertaking such an affair. Singirok demanded the Prime Minister’s resignation and all Sandline employees were detained by the PNGDF. Singirok was duly sacked, but the military stayed loyal, leading to rioting and looting in the streets of Port Moresby by his supporters. Widespread doubts that 'something was wrong' related to three issues: the source of the funding for the affair in this cash-strapped country, the way in which the money was spent and how the decision was made without wider consultation within parliament.

Chan eventually resigned following a military standoff, and within a year a truce had been reached on Bougainville.

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Page last modified: 21-12-2016 19:24:31 ZULU