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From Irian Jaya to Fiji, a new generation is ready to tear down colonial-era boundaries. Ben Bohane traces the links between Melanesia’s Class of ‘82.

By Ben Bohane

SYDNEY, Australia (March 14, 2001 – Sydney Morning Herald)---Some call him "Jesus of Melanesia," others "Supreme Commander," but the stocky man with full beard introduces himself simply as "John" Koknak.

His home is the jungle along the Fly River, which marks the southern border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where he is commander of the OPM (Free Papua Organization) guerilla movement opposing Indonesian rule over Irian Jaya, the western half of New Guinea also known as West Papua.

Mr. Koknak runs the largest and best organized of the OPM’s regional commands and his area encompasses a string of villages, which are home to around 6,000 refugees.

In Mr. Koknak’s hut he talks of an episode which reveals a lot about developments across the whole arc of the Melanesian world, from eastern Indonesia down to Fiji.

It concerns his arrival at the University of PNG campus in Port Moresby in 1982, after a Catholic mission helping refugees had given him a scholarship.

"I was sitting there alone and then this man who was sitting near me with some friends introduced himself as Sam and from that day on we became best friends." He is speaking of Sam Kaouna – now "General Sam" of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), which has been fighting to split the island province from PNG since 1988.

"Sam was doing law at the time, before he joined the PNG Defense Force, and I was studying philosophy and political science," Mr. Koknak says. "He was not very political at first, but when a group of us started Melanesian Solidarity, he became a strong supporter."

This grouping, usually known as MelSol, has been one of the more lasting and influential non-government organisations in the region. Its founders in 1984 also included Powes Parkop, now PNG’s most prominent human rights lawyer, and Pierre Xurue, a Kanak from New Caledonia who went on to become deputy foreign minister in the FLNKS, the pro-independence Kanak movement there. Others from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands soon joined.

Many of the regional conflicts Australia is trying to contain today - particularly Bougainville and West Papua - are being led by personalities from this Class of ‘82.

"Our philosophy was to see us all as brothers in Melanesia and to help each other in many different areas, from health and education projects to supporting each others' liberation movements," Mr. Koknak said.

Aside from the politics, he remembers the period fondly. "We were all into Bob Marley’s music back then and I was the first to grow my hair into dreadlocks. I became a ‘charismatic’ person, sometimes doing crazy things to attract other students to our group so they would have some political awareness. I was a wild dancer in the clubs and many girls would come to me, but as soon as I started talking about politics they would get bored and leave.

"Someone gave me a nickname at the time – ‘Jesus of Melanesia’ and people still call me that today. That’s OK, because Jesus was a revolutionary too."

Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, is naturally one hero but also Socrates "because he stuck to his principles and died for it."

"When people ask me what ideology I follow, I just say ‘I am a Melanesianist.’ Throughout this region, we all have similar customs relating to pigs and agriculture, cannibalism and the wontok system (mutual support for those of the same language group or clan).

"Before colonial times we were already living in societies with a high degree of etiquette and people respected tribal law and their elders. Everything was shared equally among villagers so that even the laziest man or sickest people were taken care of."

It was through MelSol’s New Caledonian connections that – after his time at the university – Mr. Koknak was offered a chance to travel to Libya to be trained in guerilla warfare. It was in the mid-1980s when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi began sponsoring certain Pacific liberation groups, sending the Hawke government into a panic. But Mr. Koknak chose not to go.

"Libya is a desert environment and I wanted jungle warfare training, which is more appropriate for the struggle in West Papua. I wanted to make connections in the region. So I went and trained with the NPA (Communist New People’s Army) in the Philippines instead."

One of MelSol’s aims is to transcend the inherent tribalism of the region, so it can help build a regional consciousness. Where many countries in the world grapple with the problems of ultra-nationalism, throughout Melanesia, particularly PNG, the problem is the opposite - there is little faith in national institutions at all. In PNG for instance, someone will identify themselves as a Chimbu first, a Highlander second, and a Papua New Guinean third.

Infrastructure is decaying, corruption endemic and old colonially imposed borders are no longer recognized. Tribalism and raskol criminal gangs are becoming further entrenched.

What MelSol and some of its key personalities represent is a new generation of thinking towards issues of the nation state in Melanesia.

They agree the basic model of parliamentary democracy is essential, but think power needs to be devolved, national boundaries made more indicative of ethnic realities, tribal law taken into account and parliament used to debate and implement policies, rather than as a trough for MPs to enrich themselves.

"The reality of this region in the future will be something like a Federated States of Melanesia. But first everything has to be broken down and then, brick by brick, we can rebuild our nations," Mr. Kaouna told me some years ago on his headquarters in central Bougainville.

"Canberra only worries about disintegration. But it should understand that to have strong foundations for nation building in the future, we need to form our own associations, not live under colonial boundaries imposed by Europe in the 19th century."

While he wants the PNG military off his island, Mr. Kaouna recently offered a refuge for West Papuan refugees in Bougainville.

And other MelSol connections are coming to the OPM’s aid. The group’s current chairman, Powes Parkop, has agreed to represent another OPM Commander, Matthias Wenda, at his coming trial in PNG on charges of raising an illegal army inside PNG.

As for Mr. Koknak, he has just returned from nearly two months in East Timor, invited by Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta to brief them and Falantil commanders on the situation in Irian Jaya.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

KABAR-IRIAN ("Irian News") Websites: and 

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