In May 1994, the island of Bougainville was in the midst of a brutal ten-year conflict. I found myself with the rebel leader, Francis Ona, head of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), in his village above the destroyed Panguna mine site. Below us spread an industrial apocalypse – one of the world’s most advanced copper and gold mines torched beyond repair, as men scavenged materials to create homemade weapons in armouries set up next to huge, rusting mining trucks.
Ona said to me solemnly, in words I would never forget: “We are at war with Australia … but it is not our intention. We wish Australia could be neutral, but instead they continue to support the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.”
I’d run the naval blockade imposed by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) to report for Time magazine on a guerrilla war on Australia’s doorstep that had received very little attention.
The war had started when the first cell of BRAs, led by Ona, a former surveyor, attacked the Panguna mine with explosives and forced the closure of what was considered the most advanced copper and gold mine in the world. Bougainvilleans had a long list of grievances, including the tiny royalties they received from the mine, the pollution it caused, and social problems brought by Papua New Guinean mainlanders who came to work here. Ona claimed there was growing fear that the whole island would be dug up for mining and Bougainvilleans would be forced to resettle elsewhere.
After spending a month with BRA guerrillas I returned the following year, for balance, to accompany the PNGDF as they and their local militia, the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF), tried to wrest back control of the island. Several more trips were to follow, covering the war but also the peace – as Australia and New Zealand cobbled together a series of regional peacekeeping initiatives that would provide a template for later Pacific interventions in Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands.
Ultimately, Bougainville’s war, which stretched from 1988 to 1998, is thought to have claimed at least 10,000 lives. It also destroyed the infrastructure of Papua New Guinea’s most prosperous province.
The sentiment Ona expressed in his village – that Australia unfairly sided with Port Moresby during the war – remains strong on Bougainville. It could be a stumbling block as Canberra tries to develop a new, more neutral policy while this island group heads towards independence.
Twenty-one years since the end of the war – the most serious conflict in the South Pacific since World War II – this island group of 300,000 people to the far east of Papua New Guinea is preparing for a referendum on independence that will likely see a clear majority vote yes to bruklus (“break away”) from Papua New Guinea. Historically and culturally, Bougainvilleans claim their traditional links were mostly with people of the western Solomon Islands rather than the Papua New Guinean mainland: they looked “east” rather than “west”. Another important feature of Bougainville society is that it is matrilineal – women own the land, not men. In many ways it was women who helped trigger the war and women who helped end it. They now play an important role in shaping Bougainville’s future.
When I returned in January 2019 to gauge sentiment on the island, it was difficult to find anyone who wanted it to remain part of Papua New Guinea. A combination of strong Bougainvillean ethno-identity, anger from the war years and consideration of Papua New Guinea’s current (particularly economic) dilemmas have all pushed Bougainvilleans towards this moment – their opportunity to, on 23 November 2019, vote for independence.
If the vote passes, this territory – which was administered by Australia for sixty years, between 1915 and Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975 – might become the next new nation in the world and the first in our region since the liberation of Timor-Leste.
Although the November referendum is a high point, it is not the end point. Nor is the outcome guaranteed. According to the roadmap set out by the Bougainville Peace Agreement signed by all major factions in 2001, the result must be ratified by the Papua New Guinea parliament (effectively giving Papua New Guinea a veto), and the final status of Bougainville will be negotiated between the Papua New Guinea government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government. Will Papua New Guinea honour the result or seek to delay proceedings? If delayed, how long before hardliners in Bougainville make another unilateral declaration of independence, as they did in 1975 and again in 1991? Such a situation may prompt another regional security crisis, especially if some countries – including China – recognise such a declaration to try to gain a foothold in the South Pacific.
The new Marape government in Port Moresby has shown signs that it is more willing to engage with the peace process, releasing funds for a referendum and appointing Sir Puka Temu as the minister for Bougainville affairs, a decision that went down well in the island group. Bougainville president John Momis had spent several exasperating years trying to get now former PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill to deliver promised funding for the referendum, even accusing the government of trying to “sabotage” the peace process. Whether the Marape government is open to recognising a yes vote remains to be seen, but it has at least taken a more balanced approach so far.
Australia must try to keep the peace process on track, without being seen to favour either side. During the war, Australia was not neutral – it supplied the PNGDF with helicopters, which were quickly turned into gunships, and continued to train and equip soldiers. Its reputation remains tarnished by the impacts of mining and colonialism, but there is still goodwill due to its role in the peacekeeping operations. Australia will potentially recognise the outcome of the vote, though among Bougainvilleans there remains lingering suspicion: Australia has made no public statements to signal it is “neutral” towards Bougainville sovereignty, so many assume it is still pro–Papua New Guinea.
This is creating confusion about Australia’s relationship with a future independent Bougainville. It comes as China has made its own position clear, promising US$1 billion for investments and to assist Bougainville with its “transition”. In December last year a delegation of ten Chinese visitors met with various local leaders, offering assistance and investment in mining, tourism and agriculture. A new port in Bana district was mooted, even though Bougainville already has two functioning ports along its east coast. It is uncertain how “official” the Chinese delegation was, or how much of the proposed offer involves grants as opposed to loans, but the signal was clear – China is ready to “assist”.
There are other players in the geopolitical mix. Indonesia is worried that an independent Bougainville could set a regional precedent for West Papua, where many local Papuans are also pushing for a referendum on independence.
For Australia and Papua New Guinea, the policy options are more limited than two decades ago. A clear vote for independence will be difficult to ignore. Where once Australia was the key power in the region, today Pacific nations have more agency. China’s growing ties are giving the islands added leverage. Other Pacific nations such as Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu, which have been involved in peacekeeping operations on Bougainville, are watching closely to determine their response. This is no longer a domestic issue for Papua New Guinea, but a regional and an international one. The United Nations, which has maintained an office in Bougainville for more than twenty years, is also involved in maintaining the peace and overseeing the referendum, and has an envoy reporting directly to the UN secretary-general.
So far, the referendum process has been largely peaceable, but it faces risks. Bougainvilleans will keep the peace so long as they can see the roadmap being implemented. They feel they have paid a “blood sacrifice” over the past century and are ready to rule themselves. As they are sitting on large reserves of copper and gold, rich fishing grounds and land with a history of agricultural production (especially cocoa), Bougainville has the resources and skills to become a viable independent nation. Yet this depends on local leaders maintaining a sense of broad unity, and building political integrity and consensus around mining issues. They will also need to educate a “lost generation”, which grew up during the war.
There are myriad challenges – the future of the dormant Panguna mine, in particular, has already caused deep divisions. No one is sure what the transition period will look like if a yes vote is ratified by Papua New Guinea. As a possible model, some have referred to the UN mission in Timor-Leste, where a transitional administration governed for three years before full sovereignty was achieved.
Ideally Bougainville’s political status should be resolved within the Pacific family. Australia, along with New Zealand, should act as “honest brokers” and help to nudge all sides towards a final settlement, rather than allow long-running resentments to fester, which could result in more distant powers such as China increasing their involvement. Australia and New Zealand can be proud of their role in deploying unarmed peacekeepers (almost unheard of in the annals of international peacekeeping) and allowing kastom reconciliation processes to occur, including local ceremonies where former militants line up to break bows and arrows, shake hands and chew betel nut together. These events put local communities and culture at the heart of the peace process and have become something of a model for conflict resolution elsewhere.
In the lead-up to the referendum, Australia needs to play an even hand but also to signal to the Bougainville people that it is now genuinely neutral towards Bougainville’s possible statehood. It will be difficult for Australia, Papua New Guinea and the rest of the region to deny the island group’s aspirations without creating a fresh crisis.
There remains unfinished business here. Australia has an opportunity to help resolve the status of this disputed territory within the Pacific family and to move past its previous complicity in the war. Francis Ona died in 2005 but his ghost still hovers over the island, a potent figure of nationalism and resistance. Bougainville’s leaders want to be at peace with Australia – and Papua New Guinea – without the need to resist again.