Author response: bolstering Bougainvilleans

We thank Joanne Wallis and other scholars for their interest in our Special Report, A stitch in time, which aims to put Bougainville’s coming referendum back on the policy radar.

While all the responses agree there’s a lot at stake over the next few years, some share Joanne’s concerns that our report glosses over historical actions that could make Australian help unwelcome, or overemphasises technocratic solutions to the exclusion of local sources of stability.

On the first charge, we’d suggest the success of the Australian-led peacekeeping mission from 1998 to 2003 shows our help is likely to be acceptable again. It’s true the colonial administration’s role in promoting mining to avoid Papua New Guinea’s total dependence on Australia, and Canberra’s role in supporting PNG efforts to avoid its territorial fragmentation soon after Independence (often criticised as ‘half-hearted’ by Port Moresby), meant Australia had too much baggage to play the breakthrough role New Zealand did with the 1997 Burnham truce and 1998 Lincoln ceasefire. But the Kiwis only had the resources to command the first peacekeeping rotation. It took Australia’s ten times larger economy and proximity to Melanesia to provide the combination of resources and direct strategic interests to underwrite a sustained peace effort.

To deal with continuing suspicions in both Bougainville and Port Moresby about Australian motivations, our paper argues it’s essential to avoid taking sides on an independence or autonomy outcome. The key requirement is to avert the violence possible with either result and to help provide the time, space, and sense of hope to show various positive outcomes are possible.

In doing so, we agree it’s important to bolster rather than berate Bougainvilleans, and our paper acknowledges that there are local strengths to celebrate and build-on. But we’d argue that the publication of former rebel leader and now businessman Sam Kauona’s open letter against the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s draft mining legislation on the same day as our report demonstrates that social divisions and fragility remain powerful forces. The inability of traditional cultural mechanisms to transfer new sources of wealth between generations—primarily compensation for massive social and environmental dislocation—was a key factor sparking violence in 1988. Bougainvillean society remains deeply divided, not just along the axis of strongly differing opinions about autonomy versus independence (or for and against restarting the mine) but also by age, gender, educational, cultural, and economic lines.

Our paper sets out nine practical steps governments can take to help manage the consequences of these divisions in order to create room for a peaceful outcome. One of these is to actively strengthen the voice of women and community leaders, who proved their courage and effectiveness in early moves to stabilise the 1988-97 crisis. Frankly, this isn’t our area of expertise, and we’ve previously recognised Joanne’s own contribution to strengthening the conversation between security planners and anthropologists, development specialists and other Pacific experts on the interplay of micro-level cultural factors with national and global dynamics. But as the clock ticks towards a referendum, if scholars have practical ideas for harnessing the redemptive power of these partly strong, partly weak societies, now would be a good time to hear them.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the ASPI, and Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI.