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SOUTH PACIFIC

Jungle Fever

Just five kilometers from Bougainville's former provincial capital of Arawa, a rusting sign sprouts from the roadside jungle. "restricted," it reads in washed-out blood-red letters. "No Go Zone by order of the Mekamui government." The paint may be faded, but the warning is current. Beyond it, a jumble of petrol drums, sticks and signs blocks the narrow bitumen strip, and in the shadows a group of young men stand guard. For most people, Morgan Junction is as close as they dare come to the island's forbidden zone.

But in the middle of May, a procession of Papua New Guineans, accompanied by a lone white man, was waved through on their way to a ceremony remarkable even in a land used to strange and ancient rites. Near the village of Guava, high in the mountains of central Bougainville, they gathered on a plateau. After a procession of traditional dancers swaying to the music of pan pipes, marching militia and strutting chiefs, two men mounted a stage in the center of the clearing. Bare-chested, in a floral head-dress, grass skirt and neatly cleaned tan boots was Francis Ona, leader of the region's independence fighters; alongside him stood one of Papua New Guinea's most wanted conmen, Noah Musingku.

As light rain drizzled onto more than a thousand people, Musingku held up a crown of shells and placed it upon the head of Ona, the new King of Mekamui. In turn, Musingku - alleged to have defrauded thousands of Papua New Guineans of their savings in a disastrous pyramid scheme - was crowned Prince of Papala, with special responsibility for managing the government's finances.

The May 17 coronation of Ona might appear comic, but it is a sinister scene in the tragedy that looms over the beautiful but ravaged island. For more than 14 years, Ona and his band of rebels in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army have occupied a no-go zone around the vast Panguna copper mine. The villagers who fall inside his territory are denied essential services, and face a fragile security situation. Blundering by corporate jet into this dysfunctional society came an eccentric Australian businessman. His arrival brought hollow promises of multi-million-dollar business deals and benign health programs, and coincided with Musingku's growing influence over Ona. Says the head of the U.N. Observer Mission to Bougainville, Tor Stenbock: "Ona has lost touch with reality."

The island traces its troubles to protests in 1989 against Bougainville Copper Limited's mine. A local landowner, Ona led others in demands for compensation and tighter environmental controls. The P.N.G. military was brought in to suppress the revolt, and the conflict evolved into a secessionist rebellion that eventually claimed the lives of between 12,000 and 15,000 people, according to the U.N. While other elements of the original independence fighters signed a ceasefire in 1998, Ona has vowed to occupy the mine and surrounding regions until Bougainville is granted independence.

But in the past eight months a series of curious incidents have shaken the newly named Kingdom of Mekamui, and at their heart is the conman Musingku, thought to be the power behind the jungle throne. Bougainville-born, he fled P.N.G. in 2002 after the collapse of u-vistract, a pyramid scheme that swallowed millions of kina of P.N.G. residents' savings. Musingku surfaced later that year in Solomon Islands, involved in a scheme to bail the islands out of bankruptcy, but when his role became public he fled again - this time into Ona's no-go zone. Others followed. On Sept. 30, an Australian-registered Cessna Citation jet made a secret - and illegal - landing at the decommissioned Aropa airport near Arawa. Aboard was an Australian associate of Musingku, Jeff Richards, his British security advisor, James Nesbitt, and another businessman, Tom Wavik, who is reported to hold an Australian passport. Richards represents himself as Prince Jeffrey, monarch of the independent state of Magilno, near Rockhampton on Queensland's central coast. In that capacity he claims to have signed a deal with Musingku acting on behalf of Mekamui's financial affairs. The deal grants Magilno a share of Bougainville's asset wealth. Just another, it seems, of the South Pacific's colorful players.

But what saps the story of its comic force are the consequences for the people who live within Ona's no-go area. Local officials say the arrival of the mysterious foreigners boosted Musingku's stature, and hence his potential to take more money from Bougainvilleans. They also believe it has jeopardised health programs and disrupted peace negotiations. "All hell broke loose" when the jet landed, says the P.N.G. government's district manager Otto Noruka. "There was talk of a trillion US dollars ... the plane just reinforced it," he says. "They were capitalizing on the illiteracy of the people."

He has heard reports that the foreigners were carrying guns. Bougainville Assistant Police Commissioner Joseph Bemu accuses Musingku and the foreigners of giving locals false expectations, which may supplant the more realistic hopes offered by reconciliation with their government. "People are expecting riches coming into the place," he says. "It can have a bad impact on the peace process." As required by the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001, a constitution for an autonomous Bougainville has been drawn up and is awaiting ratification. "I'm frustrated because we were just getting this communication with Mekamui," says Noruka. "We have gone back to square one." Arawa health officer Charles Tawora has more immediate concerns. He says an immunization program for measles and polio has been rejected by the rebels: "Ona has said they will take care of that themselves."

The U.N.'s Stenbock hopes planned elections will still take place next year, and says almost two thousand guns were destroyed by Nov. 7 as part of the disarmament process. He agrees the foreigners' presence is destabilizing - "Because they come across as serious businessmen, people do believe. It's a cargo cult thing" - but sees some prospect of an end to the no-go zone in Ona's apparent ceding of control to Musingku. "I think Ona's kingdom is shriveling up," he says. "The crowning was a bad move." P.N.G.'s Minister for Inter-Government Relations, Sir Peter Barter, described the coronation as a "mockery of Bougainvillean traditions and customs."

Richards' involvement in P.N.G. is believed to go back at least two years, when he was introduced to Musingku by Wavik. In 2003, Richards and his Magilno group arranged to install a satellite link, so they could liaise with Musingku over business deals. Magilno hired Australian Simon O'Keefe, initially a supporter of the Magilno concept, to set up the link. O'Keefe established a personal friendship with Ona; so much so that he was the only white man invited to the coronation, and was permitted to film it. But on his last attempt to enter the zone, the Queensland web master was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Musingku's men and turned back. O'Keefe says that on a previous visit Richards had signed an activities agreement with Musingku, whom Richards believed had access to millions of dollars in private bank accounts. But when the business deal failed to materialize, he chartered the jet and returned to investigate. Richards, Nesbitt and Wavik entered the no-go zone with three P.N.G. nationals on Sept. 30; according to locals and associates in Australia, they have not been seen since. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs last week expressed concern for their safety.

In Buka, a one-kina banana-boat ride north across the Buka passage, hotels are being built, a bank has opened and tourist resorts are on the drawing board. Many consider the reintroduction of regular police patrols, guided by a small contingent of Australian Federal Police, as instrumental in that improvement. But Bougainville's chief administrator, Peter Tsiamalili, believes Australia should also take responsibility for those of its citizens who do not bring benefits: "I think the Australian government should be taking this seriously." Arawa police have been told to put Nesbitt and Richards "in the bin" if they see them.

When Time visited Arawa in late November, the Mekamui government reported Richards and Nesbitt were still in the no-go zone. One of Ona's representatives, William Sivusia, says the foreigners were there to assist in dealing with the U.N. as a prerequisite to having their monarchy recognized, and were in good health, "though they are running short of cigarettes, which has upset them a bit." Back in Kempsey, in northern New South Wales, Richards' former partner Elise Penson is more concerned. "We haven't spoken to him for two weeks. I'm worried that the government will put a bounty on his head and he will be a dead man," she says. "Jeff is not a conman," she adds. "But I wouldn't want to get on his bad side." O'Keefe says there's no way for Richards and Nesbitt to leave the island: "They have to have the funds in the bank to be able to pay someone to risk their license to fly in and get them out," says O'Keefe. The owner and the pilot of the jet that brought them in were fined last week for civil aviation offenses.

Meanwhile, the King-dom of Mekamui grows daily more bizarre. Citing an intelligence source inside Australia's Defence Department, Mekamui representatives told Time that Australian Prime Minister John Howard is intending to insert mercenaries into central Bougainville this month to launch a military intervention campaign. They say there are already as many as six mercenaries in Arawa with A.F.P. contingents who are to be "ready for frontline operations when the offensive begins." The claims have been dismissed as nonsense by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs. In response to the perceived threat, Mekamui officials have placed a road block at Aropa airport on the highway south from Arawa to stop the A.F.P. from traveling to the city of Buin. When Time was stopped at Aropa, the guards manning the checkpoint were searching vehicles. And late last month, the kingdom produced another strange, sad story, perhaps illustrative of Ona's failing hold on his empire, and dwindling authority over his men. Ona suffered a heartbreaking personal loss, when his daughter committed suicide, apparently after becoming pregnant to one of Ona's own military commanders. The affair was exacerbated by the fact the same commander had been in a relationship with Ona's wife, says U.N. observer Stenbock. What further effect these events are likely to have on the already disturbed Ona can only be guessed at; but Richards and Nesbitt, still missing in the forbidden zone, may be learning Bougainville's bitter lesson of how easily farce can turn into tragedy.

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