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The roots of conflict in Bougainville.

In 1899 Britain, the power in control of the Solomon Islands, ceded the northernmost islands, including Bougainville, to Germany in exchange for Western Samoa. No allowance was made for the fact that the people of Bougainville were of the same ethnicity, colour and culture as their neighbours and relatives in the remaining British Solomon Islands, nor for the 600 mile gap between the island and the New Guinea mainland.

In 1906 Britain handed over to Australia control of another colony, Papua, which formed the southern part of the island of New Guinea; and later German-controlled New Guinea, including Bougainville, became a United Nations Trust Territory administered by Australia.

During the 1960s rich copper deposits were identified on Bougainville. From 1965 on there were continuous confrontations between Bougainvillean villagers and landowners and the prospecting geologists. In 1968 the Munkas (black skin) Association was formed and called for a referendum on secession for Bougainville. In August 1969 work started on the open-cut copper mine at Panguna amidst protests from local landowners.

Then, in one of the most regrettable incidents in Australia's colonial administration, riot police using bulldozers and tear gas forcibly expelled unarmed villagers, including women and children, from land required for the mining township and port facilities.

Later that month Paul Lapun, a Bougainvillean Ministerial Member of the Legislative Assembly of Papua and New Guinea, and Raphael Bele sought the assistance of Initiatives of Change (then MPA) to resolve this issue. An acceptable solution was eventually worked out.

Then began the unstoppable march to independence for the territories of Papua and New Guinea with Michael Somare becoming Chief Minister in 1973. In October of the following year the original Bougainville Copper Agreement was renegotiated. But a key element of the new agreement--a provision for the re-examination of the agreement every seven years to allow for changes in the composition of the landowners--never took place.

There followed a period of considerable unrest and discontent on Bougainville. Roadblocks were set up by villagers and there were numerous confrontations with the authorities. In May 1975, the Bougainville Provincial Government voted to secede from the soon-to-be-independent nation of Papua New Guinea. This was ignored as were subsequent unilateral declarations of independence by Bougainville--the copper mine at Panguna was too important a source of revenue for the new country.

The independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) came into being on 16 September 1975, with Sir Michael Somare as Prime Minister.

In 1987 a young man who had been employed as a surveyor with Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), Francis Ona, led a group of younger landowners to take over the Panguna Landowners Association, led by his uncle, Matthew Kove. In November 1988, when Rabbie Namaliu was Prime Minister, pylons carrying electricity from the power station on the coast at Loloho were blown up. This was followed by further attacks on BCL property, which brought the mining operation to a halt. Police riot squads were deployed on Bougainville.

There were further confrontations between the older and younger landowner groups and on 12 January 1989, Kove was killed. The next day a young militant was killed in a clash with police, and a policeman was killed in a subsequent ambush.


Other causes of discontent were the environmental damage that the mine was causing; the fact that labour from other parts of PNG was being used--which inevitably led to the arrival of wantoks, relatives of those working with BCL who came looking for work and set up shanties on land belonging to Bougainvilleans; and the abuse of local women by outsiders.

Underlying all of this was the bitterness caused by the imposition of a mine on land that could not, in the eyes of the people, be bought or sold but only handed from one generation to the next. As Lapun put it, `Our land is like our skin; it is a part of us.' The land had been `leased' by the copper company but a 1,000m mountain had become a crater a kilometre wide and almost as deep--the largest open cut mine in the Southern hemisphere. Many felt robbed of their heritage.

In March 1989 troops of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force were deployed on Bougainville to assist the police in the maintenance of law and order. The conflict became one of Bougainvillean against Bougainvillean as well as Bougainvillean against PNG. Some 20,000 of the island's 120,000 people lost their lives.

From the early days of the conflict, many determined attempts were made to reach a negotiated settlement, notably the Accord that was reached on the NZ warship, which was never implemented. It was not until 1997, when the New Zealand Government was asked to facilitate negotiations, that a peace process was established that led to a workable ceasefire.

In August 2001 the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed and by the end of March 2002, the necessary constitutional changes were passed by the PNG Parliament. These allowed for the establishment of an autonomous provincial government for Bougainville, together with the provision for a future referendum on its political status, including the possibility of independence.
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Author:Weeks, Alan
Publication:For A Change
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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