The Sandline Affair

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Papua New Guinea Chief Ombudsman Simon Pentanu
Launching Australian Journalist Sean Dorney's Book,
The Sandline Affair

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's PNG correspondent Sean Dorney yesterday launched The Sandline Affair, a factual and readable account of a brief and passing moment in our history which was dark, scary, tragic, mind-boggling; but at the same time exciting. Sean Dorney's book is an evocative history of what happened. But it also gives an assessment of why it happened and how it was allowed to happen.

Sean has shown us yet again (as he does, week-in, week-out, with his radio and televisions grabs) that in many ways he epitomizes the truly professional journalist. He takes his subject very seriously. He attempts to understand it. He lives it and loves it.

So what we have in The Sandline Affair is not just a record of ten dramatic days in the life of a nation. Of course, it is possible to write a book or even make a movie - just on the drama which unfolded in those few days. But Sean has done much more than that. He has put it in context for us. And he has done it with an objectivity which I have always admired, whether he is reporting or writing.

He lets the reader know early on that we cannot understand Sandline without understanding PNG; and perhaps we cannot really understand PNG without coming to grips with Sandline.

It is not surprising therefore to see that in Chapter 1, Sean criticizes Australian journalists for the way they often trivialize PNG, by portraying it as a land of "rascals, plane crashes and tribal fights."

It has to be said that many fell into that sort of trap with Sandline, which became just a high-farce soap opera, albeit with some strange twists in the expected plot: The Commander said he did not want to take over the government. There was no mass slaughter in the streets. The prime minister stepped aside and ordered a commission of inquiry. In many ways, these weird turns of events just proved too much for the Australian media to cope with!

The Sandline crisis showed again that the South Pacific, and in particular PNG, is a Mecca for journalists. Let's face it - never mind a dull day - there is never a dull moment in this place. We need our journalists to keep us in touch with what is happening in our own backyard and also the big wide world which we might have once thought we could escape from.

As I have said publicly before, Sandline proved conclusively that in PNG: truth is stranger than fiction. Or, as Sean suggests in his book: when you come through the arrival gate at Jackson's, please abandon all preconceptions and prepare for the Land of the Unexpected.

Sean's book has come out at a timely moment - just after the release of the report of the second Sandline Inquiry. Perhaps this is an omen. Divine intervention? A message from above? (Or below, depending on which of the many recently arrived sects one chooses to follow these days.)

Whatever be the case, the lesson is clear: that we as a people, and as individuals must not forget the how, what and why of Sandline. We must reflect on the mistakes made and the lessons to be learned. Sean Dorney is pricking our memories and our consciences very sharply indeed.

He is reminding us how easy it was for a decision as momentous as the engagement of Sandline to be made, basically, it seems, on the whim of a few leaders. There appears to have been no detailed or proper logistical, economic or political advice. Nobody really knew who Sandline was. (Sean reminds us that maybe we still don't know.)

Public servants were bullied and allowed themselves to be bullied. Some loopy legal advice was given. And, as seems so often the case when the situation cried out for it most, the Constitution was practically ignored. (The Bougainville crisis itself being the classic example of this phenomenon.)

Sean, to his credit, dares to comment and quote other people's comments on corruption. To discuss it in this publication, in my view acknowledges and concedes that corruption is a powerful life force of its own. And what the Sandline story is telling us perhaps is that, in this country, our bureaucrats and politicians are the driving force of the industry.

When one sits down and seriously thinks about it, Sandline has shown us that you can never succeed in resolving conflicts and differences the way the Sandline contract was meant to do for Bougainville.

The very simple lesson that man should have learned years ago is that conflicts can only be resolved through peaceful means; by a process of listening and talking across the table and stroking our minds. These are the faculties through which we can solve our problems.

The one thing that can help us, or destroy us, is our mind. What Sean has shown us in his book is that the minds of our politicians - perhaps suffering from bouts of temporary insanity - almost destroyed the fabric of PNG and Melanesian society.

It seems that in the eyes of some, the Sandline contract was entered into with the aim of wiping out a certain coterie of influential Bougainvilleans. But what those people didn't realize was that for every key man shot or killed, another nine or ten would have sprung up in his place. Imagine that: confronting ten Francis Onas, or ten Kauonas! let me say that these coterie of people represent the collective aspiration of many Bougainvilleans.

As fate would have it, many individuals (including those in the Defense Force) saw the futility and almost indecency of the whole scheme and joined in the chorus of disapproval, and revolted.

Whilst there has been severe criticism of the "uprising" which took place, we should not lose sight of the fact that many people supported - or at least felt very sympathetic towards - what was happening at the time.

For whatever reasons - good or bad - I think it is fair to say that, as a result, the country was, fortuitously, saved from what would have been an even more tragic, bitter and twisted and prolonged Bougainville crisis than we have experienced already. You don't have to be from the Yales, Oxfords and Harvards of the world to understand this.

I don't know Jerry Singirok very well. But, like many people, I have in my own way tried to find out and understand who he is. Sean's book assists in this endeavor. Singirok certainly does not seem to be a vicious or evil coward. At the time he took his decision, he appeared to be a completely sane individual, rationally motivated by what he saw as the difference between right and wrong; and appreciating the consequences of what he was doing.

Sean's book also gives us a first hand and personal account of the Bougainville issue. For this reason alone, the book demands attention.

Sean will help the reader understand that the question of the political future of Bougainville is not, and never has been, just a matter of winning a war or agreeing on a cease-fire. To many Bougainvilleans, it is not a matter of life or death. It's much more than that. In my view, the question of "self-rule" or "self-determination" or "independence" (or call it what you may) will never, ever go away. We just have to know how to handle it.

Sean reminds us that, objectively, successive PNG Governments have not handled the Bougainville question very well at all. There has been little genuine understanding or appreciation of the issues. Too many "non-negotiable" statements. Not enough genuine, effective, listening. Not enough stopping and breathing, to think things through.

Sean Dorney is to be applauded for presenting us with this gift. A book that not only entertains and informs us, but also strokes our minds and our hearts.

One can only marvel at the journalistic and communicative and analytical skills he has brought to bear on such complex issues, while at the same time continuing to report on the events which have shaped us in the last twelve months: the elections; the drought; Aitape - not to mention "rascals, plane crashes and tribal fights."

As with many interesting publication, including best-sellers, the easiest thing to do is to purchase the book, and read it. The Sandline story written by Sean may be easy to follow. But it was never a simple plot to write about. What he has displayed here is an uncanny ability to tell a complex matter in a pithy and refreshing way.

One thing is very clear. Sean has written this book from deep within his heart. Besides the hard facts and the warm Dorney humor and the keen sense of irony we have become so accustomed to over the years, we have been presented with a work of art.

This book conveys a richness of understanding, and a passionate love and respect for a place and its people. It adds an extra dimension to our understanding of ourselves: where we have been, where we are at and wherever we are supposed to be going.

Sean Dorney is to be congratulated. His book deserves to be a raging success.

It is my heart-felt pleasure to declare it officially launched.

October 1998

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