As it is now established the Prime Minister was farewelled instead of being welcomed at Panguna, here is the story of how he nagged his way into Bougainville’s pot of gold, and what happened afterwards.
After his rousing welcome at Buka, the Prime Minister travelled to Buin before he made the special trip to Panguna. However, this was not possible as the Mekamui faction, the guardians of the Panguna mine area would not allow him to enter.
In the Melanesian context, outstanding issues between two disputing parties have to be solved before any progress is pursued. In this case, O’Neill knew too well that his goodwill visit would offend the people of Panguna, but as arrogant as he is; he nagged his way through despite the obvious resent. This was what that transpired the night before his approval to access Panguna.
A K50 million “bel kol” ultimatum was conditioned for his passage by the Mekamui government. The Mekamui faction also questioned the reason for the “goodwill” visit, as there are still outstanding issues to settle in relation to the 10 year crisis, which has long been ignored by the government.
The Prime Minister sent his advance team to meet with the Mekamui faction and ask for the PM’s approval into Panguna. It took three meetings, and on the final meeting, the Mekamui faction finally relented, as they believed sending back the Prime Minister would not be a good precedent for the people of Panguna. At 1 a.m. in the morning O’Neill was given the green light to enter Panguna.
At dawn the PM and his convoy made their way into towards the Itakara checkpoint, famously known as the No Go Zone. The smooth ride turned sour when his convoy was abruptly halted at the gate by hardline Mekamui military commander Chris Uma. Commander Uma called out the PM and told him in person that since he nagged his way into Panguna, the bel kol money was now increased to K150 million. A picture taken and posted on Facebook shows the battle hardened Commander staring directly at O’Neill’s face, while O’Neill watched the Commander’s belt.
The advance team requested that O’Neill would stay for three hours; however the Mekamui government only gave him an hour. There was clear tension in the air as the convoy made its way up into the mine site, the welcome ceremony was not even a welcome for the Prime Minister, and in fact it was the opposite. For the PM was given a dead man’s farewell.
Even before the speeches commenced; the media contingent were seen boarding the helicopter and flown out. The reason behind the media team being removed from the ceremony remains unknown as the speeches had not even started. Hence, what was reported by the main stream media on the Prime Minister’s visit to Panguna could be questioned because they (media) were not present during the speeches.
As time ticked on towards the hour mark, a visibly uneasy Prime Minister left Panguna with his delegation and headed for Arawa.