Death of Founding Father

Founding father Sir Peter Lus with Prime Miniister James Marape

Sir Pita Lus was born on 16 Sept-ember 1935 in Lehinga in the Sepik district and died in Maprik not long after Independence Day in 2021.

He was a founding member of the Pangu Party and persuaded Sir Michael Somare to enter politics. He was a major figure and influence throughout his political career, being elected to seven Papua New Guinea parliaments including the first House of Assembly in 1964. His political career ended in 2002 after thirty-eight years. He was knighted in 1979.

He was not a recognised clan leader by birth and did not learn to read and write until he was twenty-four years old. He was raised by his mother and older brother and very early showed an independent and aggressive temperament.

He left home aged fourteen, finding work in Rabaul and Kavieng as a cook and domestic servant. By 1952 he was working for the Australian Navy on Manus Island. There he became a spokesman for a group of striking workers dissatisfied with their working conditions. At a hearing of the matter by the local kiap he identified himself as spokesman and put their case against unfair working hours.

Reportedly, he was struck and an angry scene resulted. This was resolved when negotiations resulted in improved working conditions. Sir Pita stayed on at Manus for another seven years training as a painter and becoming foreman.

In 1959 he returned to Maprik and asked a missionary at the South Seas Evangelical Mission to teach him to read and write. He reached Grade 3, became literate and then worked as a Pentecostal catechist in the Maprik Dreikikir region. Here he built his political power base and, eventually, defeated five other candidates to become member for Dreikikir. He transferred to the Maprik electorate in 1968 and he represented that for a further thirty-four years.

In parliament he was regarded both as an obstreperous rebel and, variously, as a parliamentary clown interjector, champion of the little man and outspoken critic of the colonial government.

At this early stage of his political career he constantly criticised expatriate domination of politics, claiming that they only made the profits and went away with them. He said he had a strong faith in the capabilities of Papua New Guineans and he was a very early advocate for self-government.

He was successful in business as well as in politics—he had interests in farming, trading and trucking. His last public appearance was on Independence Day 2021, when a frail Sir Pita was joined by Prime Minister James Marape. He continued to urge his compatriots to be independent and strong. He died on 1 October 2021, aged eighty-six.

Editor’s Note: This tribute has been abstracted from Keith Jackson’s post on Ples Singsing:


Pioneer Public Servant, Gabriel Buanam, Dies

Gabriel Buanam, OBE

The last of fifteen national district commissioners, who replaced expatriate commissioners in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has died. Gabriel Buanam, from Korak village in the Bogia district, Madang Province died on 20 October 2021 in his home in Madang. Gabriel served in the Southern Highlands, Milne Bay, West New Britain, Simbu, Eastern Highlands, Northern and Madang provinces as a public servant.

He started his career in 1964 after graduating from Sogeri High School in Central Province in 1963. The soft-spoken, down-to-earth man climbed the public service ranks to become a district commissioner for Milne Bay Province in 1973, replacing the late Kingsley Jackson. He was one of the top administrators then, and it was during his posting in Milne Bay that he and his late wife, Dorothy, hosted Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, in their family home during a Royal visit in 1974.

In October 1982, during Her Majesty’s next visit to the country, Mr Buanam was awarded the Order of the British Empire for distinguished services to the public service, among others like the late Noel Levi and Colonel Robert Dademo. Their investiture was held on board Her Majesty’s yacht, Britannia, in Port Moresby.

The people in Tari, SineSine, Yongumul and Kainantu too, will remember him as the first local kiap who helped establish stations in those districts. After many years of serving in other provinces he moved to Madang in the late 1970s where he served as the deputy secretary for the Madang provincial administration until he retired in 1984. He died two months short of his eightieth birthday and his body will be repatriated to his village for burial.

Editor’s Note: Obituary, PNG Post-Courier, 26 October 2021.

Telstra and Australian Government Buy Digicel Pacific

Roadside booth in Port Moresby

In a press release on 25 October 2021 Andrew Penn, CEO of Telstra, announced that the company had joined with the Australian Government to acquire Digicel Pacific, the biggest mobile operator in the South Pacific region. He said it was a unique and very attractive commercial opportunity for Telstra to boost its presence in the region. Its network already includes the Torres Strait Islands just off the coast of Papua New Guinea—Digicel Pacific’s largest market.

With 1,700 employees and around 2.5 million subscribers Digicel Pacific is the number one telco in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, and number two in Fiji. Telstra has also been a licensed operator in Papua New Guinea since 2012 and already provides connectivity and technology services to a number of large enterprises there.

Telstra will contribute US$270 million in equity for Digicel Pacific, and the Australian Government, through Export Finance Australia, will contribute US$1.33 billion to the US$1.6 billion purchase price. The government will also provide Telstra with strategic risk management support. Telstra will own 100 per cent of the ordinary equity.

Digicel Pacific will be run as a separate business and will retain the Digicel brand. The Digicel Pacific management team will continue the day-to-day running of the business.

Retirement of Dr Ruth Turia from Papua New Guinea Forest Service

Dr Ruth Turia

Dr Ruth Caroline Hitahat Turia (née Ruth Polume from Manus) was one of the first two women graduates from the Forestry Department at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology (PNGUT) Lae in 1980. The other woman was the late Agatha Pokatou from New Ireland.

Dr John Davidson in his last year at PNGUT (as Pro Vice Chancellor) recalls what an excellent student Ruth was when in her third year of the four-year Forestry Course during 1979.

Dr Ruth Turia has spent more than forty years with the PNG forestry sector, thirty of which were with the government forestry agency working in various sections, including industrial forest monitoring (enforcement and compliance), forest policy and planning, project management and ten years with educational institutions (seven as a postgraduate student and three as an academic staff member).

In her last position with the PNG National Forest Service as Director of Forest Policy and Planning she engaged with both national and international agencies on issues relating to forestry and general policy issues relating to natural resource management and climate change.

Ruth has worked with external research and education partners, in research and learning directed at addressing the challenges of forest management and sustainability and general natural resource management, including climate change. She has directed and coordinated a number of national and external funded projects relating to forestry and climate change challenges, including coordinating the review to the amendment of the Forestry Act, 1991 (as amended). 

During her career, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Forestry in 1980, Ruth undertook a Diploma in Economic Policy Analysis at the Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research (1989), followed by a Postgraduate Diploma in Forest Science, Melbourne University (1994). In 1995, Ruth attained a Master of Social Science, Development Planning, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Ruth then went on to complete a PhD at the Australian National University in 2005, becoming the first woman from Papua New Guinea to gain a doctorate in Forestry.

Ruth’s PhD thesis was titled Cannot See the Land for the Trees. The forest management dilemma in Papua New Guinea.

This thesis examined the role of customary landowners in the application of forest policies in the Australian colonial administration and the post-colonial state of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. In particular, it examined the ways these policies have sought to reconcile the goal of sustainable forest management with the country’s customary land tenure systems.

Dick McCarthy, Dr John Davidson & Dr Ruth Turia


Death of Bougainville Leader, Joseph Watawi

Joseph Watawi

On 15 December 2021 Andrew Kilvert of the Sydney Morning Herald reported the death of Joseph Watawi, a champion of the independence movement in  Bougainville and the instigator of the recent independence referendum. He was only sixty-one years old. He came from Gohi village in North Bougainville, where his mother was a chief and landowner in the matrilineal culture of Selau, and his father was a clan chief.

After education and training at Malaguna Technical College and Lae Technical college Watawi began work at Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine in 1979. Active in the union movement he found a role in advocating for the rights of both workers and land owners. Despite the mine’s profitability, the royalties paid to land owners was insufficient to provide for food for their families.

The dispute over the mine’s operations and its impact on landowners escalated and Walawi was instrumental in closing the mine when negotiations broke down. This led to a civil war between the PNG Defence Force backed by Australia and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army that lasted for ten years. New Zealand brokered a peace agreement in 2000.

As paramount chief of Selau during the civil war, Watawi found himself in the dangerous position of having to lead negotiations with the PNGDF.

A tall, commanding figure, a great intellect and great orator, he was able to survive this period while protecting the civilian population of Selau.

The Bougainville war was effectively won in 1994 at the Kangu Beach massacre where the Bougainville Revolutionary Army joined forces with the Bougainville resistance, which was supposed to be fighting on behalf of the PNGDF.

After the peace agreement was signed, Watawi became chairman of the Bougainville Interim Authority and later vice-president of the first Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2005.

He was re-elected member for Selau in 2015 and took up the position of chairman of the parliamentary committee for the UN-backed Independence Referendum of 2019. During this period, he was a key figure in running a traditional truth and reconciliation process to heal the wounds and internal divisions left by the war. He travelled the length and breadth of Bougainville from remote mountain villages to making a long voyage to the remote Bougainville atolls advocating for a peaceful referendum and ‘yes’ to the independence vote.

He coined the referendum slogan ‘Bruk lus, bruk gut, bruk steret na bruk olgeta’ (Break loose, break clean, break now and break up altogether).

While instrumental in disarmament, peace and recon-ciliation in Bougainville he never forgave Australia for its role in supplying helicopters and pilots to strafe and burn Bougainville villages, and strafe boatloads of school children.

He remained a staunch critic of Australian political interference in Bougainville affairs and the Bougainville Referendum, campaigning against the Australian practice of setting up ‘advisers’ as the heads of Bougainville government departments.

In a 2017 press release he famously told Australia: ‘Australian aid is not about helping Bougainville but about gaining power and influence. As it stands now Australia would have more power and influence here if they replaced their foreign and aid corps with a drunk rugby team.’

As the referendum numbers came in, he kept track in a tally room he set up in his house at Kokopau calling the 97.45% vote for independence before the Bougainville Electoral Commission.

He is survived by his wife Belinda Watawi, six children and seven grandchildren. He is loved and missed by thousands of extended family, clan and language group members in Selau as well as people throughout the twenty-plus language groups of Bougainville.


Santos and Oil Search Merger completed   

The proposed merger between Santos and Oil Search concluded on 10 December, after PNG’s court approval on 9 December 2021. Shareholders approved it, with 95.07% in favour, on 7 December.

The merged Santos-Oil Search will have ‘unrivalled’ growth opportunities and a stronger platform to navigate the transition to low carbon energy, Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher said in a statement after the scrip-based takeover of the Papua New Guinea oil and gas producer took effect.

Santos chairman Keith Spence said the merger ‘combines two industry leaders to create a regional champion of quality, size and scale with a unique and diversified portfolio of longlife, low-cost oil and gas assets’. He said Santos was looking forward to integrating the businesses to create one high-performing team, ‘with a vision of becoming a global leader in the energy transition.

‘Santos and Oil Search are stronger together and will have increased scale and capacity to drive a disciplined, low-cost operating model and unrivalled growth opportunities over the next decade.’ 

Oil Search was incorporated on 17 January 1929 to explore what is now modern-day PNG.

Operating in PNG’s challenging terrain was a daunting prospect, but the company remained steadfast in its belief that there was significant oil and gas to be found in the unexplored region.

The company grew to be one of Papua New Guinea’s largest companies, and in 2006 was responsible for 13% of Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product and was publicly listed on the Port Moresby and Australian Stock Exchanges with a market capitalization of around US$12 billion.

The government of Papua New Guinea held a 17.6% interest with Oil Search operating in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq as well as PNG.

In May 2014, ExxonMobil shipped the first cargo of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US$19 billion PNG LNG Project, in which Oil Search owns a 29% interest.

More HERE.

Low COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake a Danger to PNG and Australia

Western Province Governor Hon. ToboiAwi Y oto receives his COVID-19 vaccination (Keam)

On 9 December 2021 Stephanie Vaccher, an epidemiologist at the Burnet Research Institute, pointed out that, because less than one in twenty of people in PNG have been vaccinated against COVID -19, there was a high probability that a new variant could develop in our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is already struggling with high rates of HIV and multi drug-resistant tuberculosis.

‘PNG’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been severely hampered by misinformation and fear, compounded by practical and logistical issues. Across the country, conspiracy theories spread by word-of-mouth and WhatsApp at immense speed. Even healthcare workers are not immune,’ Dr Vaccher said.

The End COVID For All ( initiative is calling for the Australian Government to invest $50 million to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. In PNG, there’s an urgent need for a large-scale behavioural change campaign to convince people of the importance of COVID-19 vaccination. Changing minds is particularly challenging when you consider that PNG has no routine adult vaccination programs and some of the lowest childhood vaccination rates in the world.

Western Province, bordering Indonesia and Australia, has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates outside Port Moresby thanks to strong partnerships between government, churches, local leaders, and international organisations, and ongoing community engagement. Additionally, visits to remote and hard-to-reach villages for vaccine awareness and immunisations have been pivotal in helping overcome fears.

Similar successes have been seen across the Pacific. Samoa has applied strategies learnt from its 2019 measles outbreak to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates. Following an intense community messaging and awareness campaign, local teams went door-to-door across the country and increased first-dose vaccination rates by 12 per cent in a single weekend. In Fiji, a team of healthcare workers hiked for five hours to vaccinate a village with just sixty people. Every vaccination counts.

Mass vaccination campaigns are resource intensive. If the international community wants to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in PNG, they must build relationships and work with trusted local organisations. Initiatives such as providing fuel for healthcare teams to conduct vaccine outreach, or small incentives like snacks or t-shirts post-vaccination can go a long way in supporting widespread vaccine rollout.


Australian Help for PNG’s COVID-19 Response

AUSMAT deliver supplies to Port
Moresby General Hospital

In response to an email to the office of Senator Seselja, Minister for Pacific Development from David Slattery, Director PNG Human Development & Strategy, provided a detailed statement describing Australian Government assistance to PNG in its struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Some key points from this statement follow.

Following the surge in cases beginning in October 2021, Australia sent a sixth medical team led by AUSMAT (Australian Medical Assistance Team) to provide clinical advisory support to PNG health agencies and specifically to develop COVID support bricks (bundles of essential medical supplies) which the RAAF helped transport to fifteen provinces. Each brick contained Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers and oxygen-related supplies and medicines for the treatment of critically ill patients.

Two hundred and forty oxygen concentrators were supplied to help with the treatment of acutely ill patients in hospitals most severely affected by the surge in cases.

Supplementary funding was provided to help with the recruitment of more staff to help with vaccine roll-out and 60,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine were sent to PNG in November 2021 bringing the total number of doses supplied to 204,970. Further vaccine support to which Australia is committed. Australia has also committed $144.7 million over 2020–23 specifically to the roll-out through the Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative (VAHSI). PNG also benefits from Australia’s broader vaccine support to the region through the $130 million contribution to the COVAX Facility’s Advance Market Commitment (AMC) for developing countries, including for the provision of vaccines.

A further $102 million from the Pacific COVID-19 Response Package has been provided to support PNG’s economic recovery of which $87 million is to bolster health and education services.

Over $6 million has been provided to UNICEF and WHO, including for PNG’s COVID-19 ‘Sleeves Up’ vaccine communications campaign to tackle vaccine hesitancy and there are partnerships with organisations such as the NRL, PNG churches, NGOs, and media organisations to promote COVID-safe messages.

Successful Polio Vaccination Program in PNG

Papua New Guinea vaccinated more than 1.18 million children under the age of five during the nationwide polio immunisation campaign conducted in November 2020.

The campaign mobilised more than 9,000 health workers and community leaders across the country under the leadership of the Provincial Health Authorities (PHAs) and in the later stages of the program included measles and rubella vaccine. Other medicines like Vitamin A and a deworming treatment were also offered to participants.

The polio vaccination campaign was led by the Government of Papua New Guinea, the NDOH and PHAs, with support from WHO and UNICEF. Funding for the campaign was provided by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, Rotary International, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US-CDC) and the Governments of Australia and Zealand.

More HERE.

Battle for Australia Oration, 2022

Professor of History, ANU

For a long time, late 1941 and 1942 seemed like the crucible of modern Australia. Within a few months, the country was at war with Japan, conscripts were in Papua, Britain’s empire in Asia was in tatters, and Australia’s own north was under direct attack. The nightmare of generations had become real.

More positively, the country was forced to stand on its own two feet. The full resources of the country—human and material—were mobilised for its defence. A kind of quasi-colonial dependence came to an end. Nationalism received a hoist. A new alliance, one with the United States of America, was forged.

In time, some historians came to challenge this way of looking at 1942 as a decisive moment in the country’s history. The fall of Singapore, they said, was a shock, but it did not weaken Australia’s attachment to empire. Most Australians still felt proud to be British. The Curtin Government was soon preoccupied with strengthening its relationship with Britain and it had left many of its forces far from Australia in any case. Australia remained more closely aligned with Britain than ever as it entered the final years of the war and post-war reconstruction.

In this year’s oration, I return to an older and more conventional argument. If we wanted to identify a single year in which the foundations of an Australian independence were laid, we could not do better than settle on 1942. It is a story with political, constitutional, economic and cultural dimensions. Australia’s new independence rested on all of these pillars. u

Frank Bongiorno, am,  Professor of History, ANU

Editor’s Note: The Battle for Australia Oration, of which Professor Bongiorno provided this summary, is held each year to mark the date in 1942 when Prime Minister John Curtin coined the phrase ‘Battle for Australia’ in comm-unicating to all Australians the dangers that lay ahead, following the Fall of Singapore. An initiative of RSL NSW, the Oration was delivered in Sydney on 17 February 2022.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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