Francis Ona

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Francis Ona (c. 1953 – 24 July 2005)[9] was a Bougainville secessionist leader who led an uprising against the Government of Papua New Guinea, motivated at least initially by his concerns over the operation of the Panguna mine by Bougainville Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Group. On 17 May 1990, he declared the independence of the Republic of Me'ekamui.[1] It was not recognised internationally.[1] Later Ona proclaimed himself "King of Me'ekamui" in May 2004.[2]

Secessionist Leader

Ona was at one time employed by Bougainville Copper at the mine but he became increasingly critical of its impact on the environment and what he claimed was the low level of royalties paid the landowners. From the mid-1980s, he and others challenged the leadership of the Panguna Landowners Association (PLA) claiming that they were not representing the interests of all of the traditional landowners.

By early 1988, Ona and his associates including his cousin Peputua Serero had formed the New PLA supported by both mineworkers and the traditional opponents of the Panguna mine, Damien Dameng's Me'ekamui Pontuku Onoring. The New PLA made a number of claims including monetary compensation for the impacts of the mine, a 50 per cent share of mine revenue to the landholders and a transfer of ownership to Bougainville. The PNG Government set up an independent inquiry which, incredibly, dismissed the claims about the environmental impact but was critical of other parts of the mine's operation. In response, Ona established the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) which conducted numerous acts of sabotage against the mine including the destruction of the mine's power supply leading to the mine's closure in May 1989. Ona rejected an initial compromise deal by Bougainville Copper and the Government.

Ona became the acknowledged leader of the BRA after the death of Serero in 1989 with Sam Kauona, a former soldier in the army leading military operations. The Papua New Guinea Government sent in the police and then the army under Jerry Singirok to quell the uprising but they were unable to do so. The island was placed under a State of Emergency under the control of the PNG Police Commissioner while there were increased complaints about human rights abuses by PNG forces which initially strengthened support for the BRA.

In January 1990, Bougainville Copper announced that they were placing the mine in mothballs.[clarification needed] The PNG Government announced that they would withdraw troops and for international observers to verify the disarmament of the BRA. The police fled fearing for their lives in the absence of the army while there was an attempted coup in Port Moresby over the deal.

In response to a blockade imposed by the PNG Government later in 1990, Ona declared himself to be the head of the Bougainville Interim Government declaring independence for the island. The island then descended into anarchy with several armed factions seeking power with the PNG Government supporting the militias. The BRA fell out with Joseph Kabui, the Premier of Bougainville, who had previously been a supporter.

During Prime Minister Paias Wingti's term, the PNG Government renewed military efforts with troops capturing Arawa, the provincial capital in 1993 and recapturing the Panguna mine. Sir Julius Chan, Wingti's successor tried to broker a deal but neither Ona and the BRA nor Kabui would sign a deal. Frustrated, Chan ordered a full-scale invasion in 1996 but neither Australia nor New Zealand would support it. Chan then hired Sandline International mercenaries leading to the military threatening to arrest them on their arrival and the resignation of Chan to forestall a coup.

Bougainville ceasefire

A ceasefire was arranged later in 1997 between new Prime Minister Bill Skate and Joseph Kabui with a multinational Peace Monitoring Group commencing operations on the island. Though Ona and the BRA controlled 90% of the island,[3] the break with Kabui meant that they were not involved in the talks. Ona continued to see the New Zealand brokered peace talks as unwarranted outside interference with Bougainville governance, and did not participate.

In an interview with Australian film maker Wayne Coles Janess, who made an acclaimed documentary film about the Bougainville Crisis[4] and whom the PNG government attempted to murder,[5] Ona declared :

We have already had other forms of autonomy. The provincial government system in 1975 we were promised. Bougainvillians were promised that after 5 years or after a few years, the provincial government will be replaced by the independent nation of Bougainville. So with this in mind, with this past history , we don't trust Papua New Guinea any more....

.... 90% of Bougainvillians are supporting me. And I want to summon Prime Minister of PNG and PNG government , if 90% is not supporting me, let them carry out a referendum and we'll see.[3]

Ona was subsequently ignored in the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government. At this time Ona agreed with Noah Musingku to establish a funding source for Bougainville which would allow true sovereignty.[6] This system became the U-Vistract system, which sought to use the untapped natural resources of Bougainville to finance reconstruction. Ona remained isolated in the Panguna region that BRA controlled for the next 16 years.

The Bougainville conflict is estimated to have cost between 10,000 and 15,000 lives mainly due to disease and starvation. A tribal reconciliation process started in 2000 and appears to have been successful. The PNG government promised in 2001 to hold a referendum on independence within the next ten to fifteen years. As of 2011 the referendum has not been held.

Ona was never captured and refused to participate in the process. His forces still controlled over half of the island.


On 17 May 2004, Ona declared himself "King of Bougainville" or Mekamui. He was crowned "King Francis Dominic Dateransy Domanaa, head of state of the Royal Kingdom of Me'ekamui". "Me'ekamui", meaning "holy" or "Holy Land", is an old tribal name for Bougainville.[7][8] Elections for the Autonomous government in 2005, which he opposed, brought Ona out of his safe haven into the public eye for the first time in 16 years. Ona declared that Bougainville was already independent and capable of running its own affairs.[9]

Perhaps as a result of Ona's continued influence in Bougainville, only 3% of the eligible voters participated in the elections of the New Zealand-brokered Autonomous Government in May 2005, a number that in no way can be considered a mandate for the Autonomous government.[citation needed]

His Royal Highness, told the people that the fact that only 3% of the eligible voters on Bougainville voted in the May Autonomous Government elections means that the remaining 97% support his government, and as such, it is the only government they can turn to, to advance their push for development regardless of various differences.[10]

Members of the Lihiri Mining Area Landowners Association in New Ireland, as well as other mining projects in Fiji and Solomon Islands contacted Ona for assistance in dealing with foreign mining concerns.[11] Ona died on 24 July 2005 of malaria in his village.

See also


  1. ^ This ABC Radio Australia The World Today report ([10]) states that he was 52 at the time of his death and that he died on Sunday 24 July 2005.


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum by Jo Woodbury January 2015; Commonwealth of Australia
  2. Australian ABC television report
  3. 3.0 3.1 [1]
  4. Bougainville – Our Island Our Fight
  5. [2] Chronology of Bougainville Civil War
  6. [3] Papala Chronicles Issue 7 p 10
  7. [4] Papala Chronicle Issue 3 pp 7,9.
  8. [5] (National, 23 May 2004)]
  9. [6] Papala Chronicles Issue 5 p 7
  10. [7] Papala Chronicles Issue 12 p 2
  11. [8] Papala Chronicles Issue 9 p 3

Further reading

  • Robert Young Pelton, Hunter Hammer and Heaven, Journeys to Three Worlds Gone Mad. ISBN 1-58574-416-6
  • Roderic Alley, "Ethnosecession in Papua New Guinea: The Bougainville Case," in Rajat Ganguly and Ian MacDuff, ed.s, Ethnic Conflict and Secessionism in South Asia and Southeast Asia: Causes, Dynamics, Solutions. 2003. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 81-7829-202-5, ISBN 0-7619-9604-4.
  • Karen Ballentine and Jake Sherman, ed.s, 2003. The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed & Grievance. Lynne Rienner Publishers. ISBN 1-58826-172-7.
  • Brij V Lal and Kate Fortune, ed.s, 1999. The Pacific Islands: an Encyclopedia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2265-X. (contains a timeline of the Bougainville secession movement)
  • Malama Meleisea. 2004. Cambridge History of the Pacific Islands. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00354-7.
  • ABC Foreign Correspondent- World in Focus – Lead Story (1997) Exclusive interview with Francis Ona. Interviewed by Wayne Coles-Janess.
  • [11] short video clip, an excerpt from the two-part documentary Paradise Imperfect made in 2000.