TRIBUTE: By Frank Senge Kolma in Port Moresby
Many will now try to recollect some experience, some exchange or brush with the Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare who fell to pancreatic cancer on February 26 after a long checkered career in politics as our founding Prime Minister.
That he was an engaging conservationist is true. He was captivating, sincere and focused.
His humour was infectious and he used it often. He was kind and fair. He could be firm and tough when the situation demanded it.
And he could lose his temper. Trust me, I know.
I felt his temper flare once in March 1987 and although I maintain my innocence in that little exchange, the memory is now something I shall hold special as the great man, whom I too call Papa, lies in State.
He had returned from Taiwan via Singapore to Port Moresby and had called a media conference upon landing. He had read a story on the plane flying in that ran in the Post-Courier under my byline.
It said a building was going to be built in Waigani and that it was going to be called the Somare Foundation House. Funding was to come from Taiwan which was what the Grand Chief had secured on his most recent trip abroad.
No particular investigation
I did no particular investigation for this piece. Somebody sent me a page of a newspaper cutting that had a picture of the Grand Chief shaking hands with an important personality in Taiwan. Nothing else was discernable to me as the newspaper was written in Chinese characterS.
I had it translated by the Singapore consul and the Chinese Embassy separately and the translated story matched.
The Chief was incensed which surprised me at the press conference in Parliament because I thought he would announce further details of the deal. Instead, he was guarded and angry.
I worked out later that the publication would place our country at odds with the Chinese Embassy which had always maintained a One China policy since it first recognised PNG’s Independence and entered into bilateral relations with the new nation in 1976.
Papua New Guinea respected that stance and had always maintained a Taiwanese Trade Mission but never elevated that to any higher recognition.
To have our own Grand Chief now appear to have received some assistance to build a building named after himself would create all manner of diplomatic tensions. And so the Chief lost it and my cheek, on the day, was in the way of a swinging open slap. It stung.
I remember saying: “Why are you attacking me? I did nothing wrong,” but he did not hear me in the commotion as other journalists scurried out of the way fearing they too might receive similar treatment.
First direct contact
“And there it was, my first direct contact with the hand that had signed so many things into existence, including my country’s nationhood.
A week later, in Parliament and witnessed by Ted Diro, Lady Veronica Somare and a few others we made our peace in Parliament.
He was good like that: a sudden storm and immediate calm weather. I look back now and consider that encounter a rare sort and I cherish the memory.
Frank Senge Kolma is one of Papua New Guinea’s leading journalists, commentators and newspaper editors. This commentary was first published in the PNG Post-Courier.