Review: Julius Chan autobiography ‘Playing the Game’


The Bougainville conflict, which lasted from 1988-1998, was critical to defining how sovereign risk was perceived in Papua New Guinea. Former PNG Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, an accomplished businessman before entering politics, believed that keeping the province as part of PNG was vital both for the PNG economy and the nation’s status as an investment destination. He reflects on the extraordinary lengths his government went in trying to achieve that in his autobiography.

'Playing the game', by Julius Chan

‘Playing the game’, by Julius Chan

The massive Panguna open cut copper mine on Bougainville provided 45 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s export revenue prior to its closure. Nine years into the conflict, Chan tried to use African mercenaries contracted to the British company, Sandline International, to re-take the island by force.

Ironically, the PNG military’’s sabotaging of the plan and its capture and deportation of the mercenaries helped end the war.

In his autobiography Playing the Game, Chan likens the plans that he and Tim Spicer of Sandline discussed for ending the Bougainville war, to the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Japan to end World War Two. The extreme analogy indicates how high he regards the economic and financial stakes to have been.

Spicer had no atomic weapons at his disposal. But the Russian assault helicopters that Sandline bought (with the US$36 million provided under the PNG Government contract) were armed with high explosive rockets.

Get out of Guava

In Playing the Game Sir Julius says he ‘was planning to borrow a leaf from America’ when shortly before ‘dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, the US government had dropped over five million leaflets in Japanese on the cities of  Nagasaki and Hiroshima, warning civilians of the impending attack and telling them to evacuate’.

He says the idea was to ‘co-ordinate a massive release of information’ telling the people to get out of Guava village—which was the home village of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader Francis Ona—‘and we would then blow up the target without anyone there’.

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‘Spicer was special, very impressive. He was truly British and he was just brilliant. He was plausible and … it was also terrific to listen to someone of Spicer’s calibre with precise ideas and the ability to present them clearly.’

This is not the only extraordinary comparison that Sir Julius makes in his autobiography.

He also makes this statement on how he felt betrayed by the head of the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) Brigadier General Jerry Singirok at the height of the Sandline crisis in 1997: ‘It was no less a situation than the Last Supper, when Jesus had Judas at his side and then got sold the next day for those lousy 30 pieces of silver.’

The Sandline affair

The chapters in this book dealing with Bougainville and the Sandline affair are captivating reading.

Sir Julius explains how his attempts at bringing peace to Bougainville were thwarted by a series of events.

This is all very true. He did try hard, right from the start of his second term as PNG’s Prime Minister in 1994, to get a peaceful settlement. But Francis Ona was not interested.

So when he first met Sandline’s Colonel Tim Spicer, Chan was most impressed.

‘Spicer was special, very impressive,’ Chan writes. ‘He was truly British and he was just brilliant. He was plausible and … it was also terrific to listen to someone of Spicer’s calibre with precise ideas and the ability to present them clearly.’

I particularly liked his tributes to his mother, Miriam Tinkoris, from New Ireland who had that extraordinary Papua New Guinean ability to learn and speak multiple languages.

Chan suggests Singirok’s actions in winding up the Sandline operation came when there was about to be an inquiry into spending by the PNGDF. ‘The timing of this inquiry was at exactly the same time as Singirok made the decision to destabilise the government,’ Chan says, ‘so perhaps there were other motives at work.’

The making of a PM

But there is much, much more to Playing the Game than those Sandline chapters.

Reviewer Sean Dorney

Reviewer Sean Dorney

The early chapters about his father and mother growing up in New Ireland and in Rabaul are absorbing.

I particularly liked his tributes to his mother, Miriam Tinkoris, from New Ireland, who had that extraordinary Papua New Guinean ability to learn and speak multiple languages.

Although she had the barest of formal education, he says that while his mother ‘spoke mostly in her own language, Susurunga.

‘She was very smart … and was eventually fluent in several languages: Cantonese, Taishanese, Tok Pisin, Tanga, Susurunga and others’.

His father, Chin Pak, migrated to PNG from China as a young man but was ‘looked down on’ by other Chinese for ‘going so low as to marry a black woman’. And ‘when the Chinese people had parties, my mother would not be invited’.


Sir Julius himself suffered discrimination when he joined the then Australian public service.

Lucy Palmer, a former AAP Correspondent in PNG, has helped Sir Julius produce an extremely important book about his life which is so intricately bound to PNG’s own history since Chan’s birth in 1939 on the eve of World War II.

Sean Dorney is a freelance journalist who spent 17 years as the ABC’s Correspondent in PNG. He has written several books on PNG, covering independence, the Sandline Affair and reported extensively on the Bougainville crisis. His latest book is The Embarrassed Colonialist, a review of the Australia–PNG relationship.


  1. I wish to have a copy of “Playing The Game” but how and where will I access?

  2. Frances Thompson says

    With Sir Julius Chan at the helm, I always thought PNG had a chance.
    His 2016 autobiography Playing the Game, in my view, shows that by the time he returned as prime minister for the second time, he’d lost his touch.

    Frustrating too, is his apparent lack of frankness about events. His writing about his family, multicultural Rabaul, war experiences as a child and move into politics are valuable, touching.

    Lack of detail and hard facts about events surrounding the Sandline affair are self-serving. What is evident is that “the captain” was on his own, running a permanently damaged ship and mutinous crew. He didn’t seem to know what was going on.

    Also plain is the appalling state of the relationship between PNG and Australia, Australia’s willingness to support big resource companies at any cost to the environment and people and the dreadful record of big business in developing countries.

    Australian communities have come to know that feeling and taken direct action in their own defence.

    The state of provincial government on New Ireland must have been overwhelming and Sir Julius should be congratulated for his commitment to public service in the face of overwhelming systemic failure.

    Perhaps a hard nosed mentor or editor could have pulled Sir Julius into line.
    I cant help feeling that his approach to the telling of his story was to try and absolve himself of fundamental failings that he privately regrets.

    I picked up the book at my regional library in Cessnock, NSW and the staff should be acknowledged for their recognition of the importance of this man, his country and this book.

    Frances Thompson, Wollombi NSW

  3. Thomas Cook says

    Mr Dorney’s review tantalises my urge to have that book!

  4. Ilaiah Une Bigilale says

    Where can I grab a copy of the Book “Playing the Game”?

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