BOOK REVIEW: A record explained, or rationalised?

| Academia Nomad | Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude 07 May 2021

Sir Julius Chan: Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea

PORT MORESBY – As MP for Namatanai, Julius Chan was one of the founding fathers of Papua New Guinea, twice serving as prime minister (1980– 82 and 1994-97) and currently governor of New Ireland Province.

Julius Chan brought in the mercenaries, devalued the kina and hated the Ombudsman Commission

Unlike Michael Somare in ‘Sana’, who focused much on the principles and traditions that underpinned his statesmanship, ‘Playing the Game’ admits from the outset that it is a book about politics.

True to this, it tells of the rise and fall of Chan’s controversial periods as prime minister.

It tells of the alliances and betrayals of PNG politics; and it tries to explain why Chan made the decisions and took the actions he did.

The only non-political aspects of the book are initial chapters on Chan’s early upbringing.

Born the fifth of seven children on the Tanga Islands in what is now New Ireland, he is the son of Chin Pak, a trader from Taisan Province in China, and Miriam Tinkoris, a native New Irelander.

Educated at a Marist College in Brisbane, Australia, he started his career in the family business in New Ireland.

Chan’s interest in politics began in the 1960s and he was elected to the pre-independence House of Assembly in 1968, re-elected multiple times and deputy prime minister four times in addition to his two prime ministerships.

In 1970, he formed and led his successful political vehicle – the People’s Progress Party.

As you might expect in a political autobiography, Chan is critical of others and lenient on himself. This is understandable and, as this is a personal account, he can be forgiven for that.

In this book, in explaining and contextualising the key decisions he made, we finally get some answers on why.

Chan’s name is synonymous with the Sandline Crisis and the devaluation of PNG’s currency, the kina.

Whilst there are some economists and businessmen who defend the devaluation of the kina, almost no-one defends his decision to bring the Sandline mercenaries to PNG.

So when I got the book, my main interest was to understand his explanation for the latter.

It’s best at this juncture that I state the assumptions I had before reading ‘Playing the Game’.

First, my view that ‘Sandline was brought in to kill Bougainvilleans’, a prevailing PNG narrative I subscribed to before reading the book.

According to Chan, however, Sandline was brought in to infiltrate rebel leader Francis Ona’s hideout to take him dead or alive.

Chan argues that the Bougainville crisis had gone on too long, and there seemed no end to it. He thought that eliminating the ring leader would begin reasonable negotiations.

Even if you’re critical of this logic, it makes sense to some degree. Sandline was a small group of mercenaries, which means they could not have taken on Bougainville. They didn’t have the manpower and resources to fight the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

It made sense if Sandline was brought in for a specific and limited purpose: in Chan’s words, to take out Francis Ona.

Secondly, because of Sandline affair, I had the view that Chan was responsible for the Bougainville Crisis.

Whilst he served in several cabinets, he writes that disagreements between Francis Ona, Rio Tinto and the PNG government started during Rabbie Namaliu’s prime ministership. These included demands for fair compensation and expressions of environmental concern.

Instead of renegotiating the Panguna deal, Namaliu sent in the Police Riot Squad and then the PNG Defence Force. Paias Wingti, who replaced Namaliu sustained this intensity and eventually escalated it into a full blooded war.

Chan insists that this inherited conflict predated him. And the conflict continued. Several peace talks collapsed and people continued to die.

Chan reveals the negotiations and deals that occurred, sometimes behind his back, to bring in the mercenaries. They included army commander Jerry Singirok, who some international media reports said favoured a group competing with Sandline.

But Chan opted for Sandline and lost the support of Singirok, who went on to lead the fight to deport Sandline. I hope Singirok writes a book one day so we get his side of the story.

On to another subject. One thing that I still don’t understand about Chan is why he has been, and still is, against the establishment of the Ombudsman Commission.

When the idea was first discussed by the Constitutional Planning Committee, Chan was against it and he has been consistently critical of it. In the book he says the idea of the Ombudsman Commission shows we do not trust our leaders. And he argues it hinders leaders from freely performing their mandated roles.

After the massive scale of corruption experienced in this country, I would have thought that Chan would eventually come around and argue for increased funding and staffing for the Commission so it could hold corrupt leaders to  account.

Chan has, however, never wavered in his criticism despite the systemic corruption experienced in PNG.

I’m glad Chan wrote this book. It gives answers to some of decisions he made, although one might not be convinced of all his explanations at least we get to hear from him.

I would have loved to read Sir Mekere Morauta’s story in his own words. I hope Paias Wingti, Namaliu and other senior leaders will similarly write about their time. Autobiographies give first-hand insights into the authors’ journeys, and ‘Playing the Game’ does that for Chan.

Chan, J. (2016). ‘Playing the Game: Life and Politics on Papua New Guinea’. University of Queensland Press, Queensland. Australia. It is sold for K45 at the UPNG Bookshop. Also available here from Amazon for $39 (shipped)

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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