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Weeks, Alan Burford (1938–2006)

by John Farquharson

The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, described him as a ‘peace-builder, who worked very hard to maintain, restore and strengthen peace by promoting reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of disputes both before and after the terrible conflict which took place in what is now PNG’s Autonomous Bougainville Province between 1989 and 1997’.

That is an extract from a two-page condolence message read at the funeral of Alan Weeks, who died unexpectedly in Melbourne on April 24, aged 67, after a battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was not a public figure, but this quiet, unassuming man with a gift for making friends and getting on with people, left his mark on Papua New Guinea, especially Bougainville.

In recognising Alan Weeks’s contribution to the Bougainville settlement, Sir Michael said, ‘He was especially notable for his strong advocacy and his personal contributions in the early stages of what is often described as ‘Track Two’ of the Bougainville peace process. This led to his participation in some of the early meetings of leaders which eventually opened the way to further meetings where agreement was reached to end armed conflict, to co-operate in restoring peace, and to work together to increase opportunities for further development in Bougainville. His understanding of PNG, based on many years of experience here, guided his efforts to promote reconciliation in Bougainville, and the success he achieved. He will be accordingly missed by the many people – in Bougainville, the rest of PNG and the region – who were inspired by his advocacy, the example he set, and the advice he gave to those who shared his commitment to peace’.

As with Sir Michael Somare, the President of the recently formed Autonomous Government of Bougainville, Joseph Kabui, also gave testimony to Alan Weeks’ contribution to that troubled island. He said, ‘Alan’s unwavering dedication combined with a deep love for his fellow men and women encouraged us immensely in Bougainville in our time of great need to pursue peace for all our people at all cost. We know how much Bougainville was close to his heart until his death. He was always advocating for justice to prevail, and it was a big joy to have him as an honoured guest to celebrate the new Bougainville Government’s inauguration in June 2005, to which he had also been a contributor’. The President added, ‘Allan Weeks was a dedicated member of the Moral Re-Armament movement’ … and ‘his death is not only a great loss to it, but also to the human rights community and to his many friends around the Pacific, the Bougainville Autonomous Region and Papua New Guinea’.

But it was not only from the leadership that tributes came. In a message headed, ‘From the people and the land he loved so much’ the South Bougainville Peace and Development Foundation said, ‘Thousands of kilometers of sea and sky had no limit to the life-long commitment Alan Weeks had for the people of Bougainville. A quiet achiever, with a direct and transparent approach to issues he believed needed to be addressed for change, Alan was highly regarded by a lot of leaders as a mentor throughout various stages of the Bougainville crisis’.

Alan Weeks was born on 4 May 1938 to British parents in Kodai Kanal, South India, where his father worked in a mission hospital run by the London Missionary Society. After World War II, in which his father served in the Indian Army Medical Corps, the family returned to Britain. However, they did not settle there. His father took up a public health post in mid-western Canada, before joining the World Health Organisation. This led to a return to Asia –India and Burma – before Dr Weeks was based at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, where from the mid-fifties until his retirement in 1969 he was chief of programming and planning for the Malaria Eradication Division. While the Weeks parents were overseas, their children, Alan, his older sister, Joy, and younger brother, Richard went to boarding schools in England but came together as a family during school holidays.

Having to travel so widely from a young age probably imbued in Alan a spirit of adventure, which he was never to lose. This was reflected in his choice of career. Upon leaving school, he studied at Southampton Technical College for qualifications to enable him to join the Merchant Navy as a radio officer. He served with the P&O Company on the Asia-Pacific route in a number of ships, including the Orontes, Canton, Aden and Salsette. The motorcycle he owned sometimes accompanied him aboard ship, enabling him to explore the places he visited.

He remained with P&O until 1965, when adventure beckoned in another direction. He joined the British Antarctic Survey and spent a year at Halley Bay on the Antarctic ice shelf manning the radio communications. Upon returning to Britain in 1966, he was invited to attend a Moral Re-Armament conference at Tirley Garth in Cheshire. It was in the immediate aftermath of the national seamen’s strike, which brought ports around Britain to a standstill for a month and a half. As a merchant seaman, this deeply concerned Alan. At the conference, he met ordinary people, young and old, who wanted to do something about the country’s industrial unrest. The result was the creation of a musical review called It’s Our Country, Jack. Struck by the relevance of this action Weeks put aside his plan to study geography, with a view to taking up a teaching career. He contributed much of his savings to purchase sound equipment and became stage manager for the production, which, at the invitation of seamen and dockers’ leaders, was put on in 28 British ports over nine months.

He then became stage manager for a subsequent European production Anything to Declare, which toured through Europe and various Asian countries before being staged in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. It was through his involvement with It’s Our Country Jack that Weeks met his future wife, Elizabeth Mills, a Melbourne nursing sister. After their marriage in 1969, they settled in Australia in 1971 and Alan became an Australian citizen in 1979. In the early seventies they spent three and a half years in Papua New Guinea. It was during that time that Weeks got to know many of the PNG political leadership, especially Bernard Narakobe, who became a personal friend, and fell in love with the country and its people.  

In PNG Weeks spent a lot of time getting to know and working with people in the Milne Bay district. There he built on the work originally initiated by the Abel family through the mission Charles Abel established in 1891 on Kwato Island, near Samarai. He didn’t know it then, but this was to prove fortuitous for Weeks’ reconciliation efforts after the Boungainville conflict broke out in 1989. It was with the help of the Milne Bay people that he was able to establish the Bougainville Trust Building Project with the aim of “building, at grass roots level, trust and understanding among the divided peoples of Bougainville and between them and the rest of PNG”.  In practical terms under the Trust Building Project, Weeks arranged for teams with suitable training and experience from the Youth Training Centre at Alotau (Milne Bay province) to go to Bougainville to move among the people and help to restore the difference between them. They did this through workshops, where the emphasis was on bringing healing to the human relationship problems that were inhibiting the resolution of the Bougainville crisis. Counselling and training programs were also offered through the Alotau Youth Training center for selected Bougainvilleans to acquire practical skills in saw milling, boat and kit-home building as well as providing spiritual rehabilitation and leadership training. Weeks sought and obtained some funding assistance for this program from the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (now Ausaid). He also worked closely with the Provincial Social Development, Bougainville, through its director, Jobson Misang, and the South-West Interim Legal Authority chairman, Nick Peniai, who is now Speaker of the Bougainville Autonomous Parliament.

At the same time Weeks kept in touch with both the PNG and Bougainvillean leadership, as well as many of the BRA leaders. He was also present by invitation at all the major peace talks, which led ultimately to the Bougainville settlement. More recently he was also becoming involved in the Solomons crisis until his illness made this impossible. As PNG’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, Bernard Narakobi, said at the funeral service in St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak, Alan Weeks was ‘a great inspiration to Papua New Guinea, to Bougainville and to the Solomons . … Alan was a real example of how you can be a Christian and to share your life among people of all races and all faith’.

His wife, Elizabeth, son, David, daughter, Cathie-Jean, sister, Joy, and brother, Richard, and their families survive him.

Alan Burford Weeks, born 4 May 1938; died 24 April 2006.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Weeks, Alan Burford (1938–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/weeks-alan-burford-1019/text1020, accessed 27 November 2021.

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