The King and I: David Lornie
“When would you like to hold the interview?” asks the Fijian. He is a large man: ex-Special Forces with active Middle East military duty under his belt.
“Well, I’m here now, so let’s go ahead and do it,” I reply.
I am in the south of Bougainville Island and dressed for the tropical heat in a singlet and shorts. He looks me up and down and there is a slightly amused glint in his eyes. “You will have to go and get changed,” he says. “You are about to meet Royalty.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I mutter and wonder where I will find clothes fit for a royal audience. Home is a seven-hour rough drive away in Buka town and I have only brought casual gear on this journey. I tell him I’m staying in a nearby village and will return within the hour.
He nods and we shake hands. I walk to the hired Landcruiser with Lepo, my partner’s cousin who is Commander of the King’s Royal Guard: a militia made up mainly
What started off as essentially an environmental battle escalated into a secessionist war against Papua New Guinea.
Though a peace agreement was signed between the PNG Government and the various fighting factions in 2001 there are still armed pockets of rebels who did not sign the agreement. Shunning the peace agreement, the rebellion’s father, the late Francis Ona, set up the Kingdom of Me’ekamui—meaning Holy Land—in the Panguna mine area, proclaiming it a no-go-zone.
In the early 2000s Noel Musingku, originally from South Bougainville, was forced to leave PNG capital Port Moresby after his money scheme U-Vistract—which originally started as a Christian Mission in Australia—brought him to the attention of local authorities.
In 2003, after spending time in the Solomon Islands, Musingku sought refuge with Ona for a while. Musingku then set up his own Me’ekamui stronghold in Tonu, South Bougainville, naming it the Twin Kingdoms of Papaala and Me’ekamui. Today he rules as King David Peii II. From his remote, fortified stronghold, Musingku operates the International Bank of Me’ekamui which offers “world class financial solutions” via its Website. Musinkgu has assured U-Vistract investors their money is coming soon. He denies he is running a cargo cult.
The Fijian is the last remaining ex-soldier from a contingent of nine who came to Bougainville eight years ago to train Musingku’s militia. Their arrival sparked
Lepo and I reach the Landcruiser where my partner’s relatives are waiting. I tell them I have to go and change into “smart” clothes and they howl with laughter. A white man being told he has to dress up neatly to meet a black man is great sport to them. I am less amused but they tell me they will scrape together something suitable for a royal audience.
The village is about twenty minutes away by road and the boys in the truck are still chuckling when we arrive. The villagers are curious about my visit. None of them has ever seen the King—he never leaves his Kingdom—but they all have stories to tell about him.
“He wears a five-kilogram pure gold crown on his head,” one informs me, eyes shining at the thought. “Ask him when the money is coming,” says another.
The day before, I had arrived in the village after having organised my audience with the King through my partner’s uncle John, a local chief. He had made the necessary arrangements with Lepo. After I had settled in the village, John called Lepo and, whilst I couldn’t understand what was said, I did catch the word “Fijian” a couple of times. When John hung up he had a worried look on his face. He said the Fijian had raised some questions about my visit. John decided to ride his bicycle to see Lepo and make sure I would be safe.
He arrived back some hours later looking a bit edgy and said I had to meet with the Fijian who would then decide whether I could have an audience with the King.
That night I had strange dreams.
It is morning and I jump into the Landcruiser’s front seat whilst John and a group of village boys hop in the back. We drive in silence and as we get closer to the militarised self-ruled kingdom I feel a nervous urge to make small talk with the driver.
The road leading to Tonu, unlike the others in the district, is well-maintained. At intervals, half the road is blocked by rock piles—alternately on the left then the right side—to ensure vehicles drive at a respectful speed. We pull into Tonu proper, the driver parks the Cruiser and we jump out. The Kingdom looks like any small town in PNG, though is neater than most.
There is a big sign declaring Papaala to be a Sovereign Nation. The path to the Royal Headquarters is barred by a boom gate where an unarmed soldier from the Royal Guard sits. Maybe there are weapons in the guardhouse. I don’t ask. John tells the guard we are looking for Lepo and he sends word. Shortly a grim-looking man wearing neat military gear walks towards us. He’s a big, solid black guy—Bougainvilleans take pride in being the blackest on the planet—and he doesn’t smile, even when being introduced to me, his in-law. But the big man is, nonetheless, polite.
Lepo takes me to a nearby hut and tells me to wait while he fetches the Fijian. The two return and I am introduced to the former SpecialForces combatant, who smiles as he shakes my hand.
He asks me my intentions and I explain that I am a journalist based in Bougainville, here to write a story about the King. Whilst he does not make it obvious, I know the Fijian is closely studying me and what I am saying. Journalists are to be treated with caution, the King has had a lot of bad press: mainly from people who have not met him. After a few minutes of discussion, the Fijian indicates he is satisfied by my answers and says I may ask the King as many questions as I like. I tell him I am grateful and this is when he asks me when I would like to conduct the interview.
I arrive back at Tonu from the village dressed in oversized jeans and a scruffy long-sleeve button-up shirt. For this part of the world the outfit is more than formal.
Whilst waiting for Lepo to return the two protocol officers tell me about the kingdom. They speak with enthusiasm about God, who has blessed and protects the King.
They explain how the King is going to revolutionise the economy not only of Bougainville but the entire World. The kingdom, they proudly tell me, has printed its own currency. The different denominations feature variously the heads of Francis Ona, Jesus and the King himself. The Bank of PNG had recently placed ads in the newspapers warning people not to accept these Bougainville Dollars. The men also inform me that in the Kingdom it is already 2014 and the current month is Jasper: all months here are named after minerals mentioned in the Bible. I nod as I take all this in, genuinely fascinated.
Lepo returns and takes me to a third checkpoint, the gate of the Royal Headquarters compound. Here I am met by a small group of men who ask me the same questions but this time I am searched and my camera is taken from me to be scrutinised. When I tell them I am connected to Lepo’s family the group leader shakes my hand and beams. “I know you,” he says and opens the gate.
On the inside of the compound is a small hut occupied by two older men. They are extremely welcoming and shake my hand with enthusiasm. They ask me all the same questions but I am not searched. The two tell me how pleased they are that I have come to visit their King but before I can proceed we must pray. We close our eyes and they lay hands on my shoulder, chanting loudly in a tongue I have not heard before. I feel slightly disoriented but the prayer is soon over and they send us on our way with God’s blessing.
We walk towards the Royal Headquarters, a plain fibro building, and enter an open door. Inside is the Fijian, calmly smiling. He is sitting at a long bench, at the head of which is another man with a notebook. The Fijian gestures for me to sit and sends Lepo out to fetch ice creams. The man with the book looks at me, pen poised. “Name?” he asks.
After all my details are written in the notebook they tell me the King is waiting for me in his office. I must go into the other room and wait for him. I am to stand when he enters and will address him as Your Majesty. I nod and am reminded I may ask as many questions as I wish. The King is, I imagine, sensitive about his financial dealings and I search for a polite way to say so. The Fijian makes it easy for me. “Ask about any subject,” he says.
The man with the notebook re-enters and I am told the King will see me now. The Fijian and I enter. In the corner sits a big man who nods in greeting.
The room is simple: a desk, some plastic chairs and a royal seal on the wall. We sit and shortly the Fijian gestures for me to stand. From an adjoining room the King emerges. He stands still in the doorway long enough for me to take in the full majestic sight of him.
He is dressed in a sulu suit, has a large gold crown on his head and is clutching a sceptre which he places in a special holder. He nods regally at me then walks over to take the Fijian’s hands. They pray loudly and the Fijian leaves, locking the door behind him. “Knock on the door when you’re finished and I’ll let you out,” he says.
The King asks me to sit down then sits himself. The big guy in the corner off to the side is silent and although I can’t see him I can feel his presence.
The King welcomes me to his kingdom and lets me know how happy he is for me to be here. Then before I can ask my first question he starts giving me a detailed outline and history of his operations. When he stops for breath I ask if I can turn my tape recorder on. He explains that we are currently just chatting—the interview has not yet begun—but, yes, I am welcome to start recording.
The King is a fine orator. His mind is clearly full of many ideas and thoughts which tumble from his mouth at lightning speed, one topic quickly turning into another. At university he took courses in engineering, architecture, computing, law and politics. It is easy to see why people follow him. He has an indefinable charisma. And, yes, he is evangelical in the Pentacostal mould. Whatever people may think about him—many are scathing—he is a remarkable character.
Musingku speaks at length about his plans to unify Bougainville. But he says the Autonomous Bougainville Government refuses to fall in with his plans: plans which, it must be said, are somewhat unorthodox. Musingku has been accused of being a separatist and a hindrance to the Bougainville peace process.
In 2006 a neighbouring warlord led an armed attack on the Kingdom but retreated when one of his men was killed by the Tonu forces. Musingku himself was shot in the jaw, the bullet leaving a still-visible hole and shattering several teeth. The two leaders have since reconciled.
I ask the King how he felt about getting shot in the face. “It is God’s will,” he says, looking me in the eye. The fact that, despite being a marked man, he has survived for so long is, he says, part of God’s Master Plan.
He tells me a new shipment of banknotes is on the way and I ask what reserves he has to support the currency’s integrity.
We are sitting on a wealth of gold in the ground, he says.
He shows me documents from the International Monetary Fund, the European Council and International Organization for Economic Development. The documents
I ask him about the money that is owed to investors in U-Vistract, a sum estimated to be up to K350 million. It has been over a decade and people are still waiting, with varying degrees of patience. It’s coming, he says and shows me a shipping manifest listing jeeps, fire engines and heavy machinery. This cargo is arriving soon, I am told.
There is a sports festival taking place in Tonu which will go on for forty days and forty nights. At the festival’s conclusion, the money and cargo will arrive.
We rise and shake hands, the King again thanking me for coming to visit. Before I depart he invites me to come back in a week’s time to witness distribution of the cargo. I tell him I shall if I can.
I knock on the door and the Fijian lets me out. Lepo takes me on a small tour of the Kingdom and I watch some youths playing soccer. On the way back to the Landcruiser I am met by the protocol guys who have come to say goodbye. They take pictures of me as I leave.
I go back to the village where I spend a wonderful few days relaxing, eating garden food and swimming in the clear, cold, refreshing waters of the nearby river before returning home.
I am unable to make it back to the kingdom at the end of the forty days and nights so cannot, at this stage, confirm arrival of either the cargo or the money.