Back to Bougainville
11 Dec 2017|

Trouble is returning to the island of Bougainville and Australia must be prepared. With the 2019 independence referendum looming, Australia will be called on to help support the peace process, whatever the referendum’s outcome. Australia was a major participant in two past interventions on the island, and its strategic connections run deep. Australia must ensure that it is adequately prepared for the coming challenges in Bougainville.

The 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement stipulated that a referendum on independence would be held between 15 June 2015 and 15 June 2020. Last year, John Momis, president of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, and Peter O’Neill, prime minister of PNG, agreed on a target date of 15 June 2019. Two months ago, however, O’Neill backtracked on that commitment. He cited the ‘proper establishment of rule of law, proper establishment of a government structure on Bougainville, [and] proper disposal of weapons’ as conditions for the referendum to go ahead, and said that if those criteria weren’t met, the referendum ‘may not be possible’.

In response, Momis denied that good governance or complete weapons disposal were prerequisites for the referendum. Furthermore, he claimed that PNG was ‘hampering’ Bougainville’s disarmament and good governance efforts by failing to give Bougainville the grant money it was owed. PNG faces severe financial difficulties stemming from government overspending and overreliance on the commodities sector, which declined sharply in 2015. Revenue projections took a 20% hit, but government spending remained the same.

PNG has since defaulted on its electricity bills for government buildings and been suspended from voting in the UN for failure to pay its membership dues. The cost of supporting the Autonomous Bougainville Government and the peace process may be behind O’Neill’s recent backflip on the referendum. Depriving the Bougainville government of funds may save PNG money while also impeding efforts to organise an effective independence campaign.

This disagreement could derail the peace process just as it’s approaching its conclusion, and it’s possible that Bougainville may choose to fight to hold the referendum, rather than accept delays and weak promises from PNG.

The conflict on the island stems from the establishment of the Panguna mine in 1972 by Conzinc Riotinto of Australia. The mine displaced local landowners and caused environmental issues. The people of Bougainville were angry about a lack of compensation from one of the world’s richest copper mines. And the mine and its construction brought mainland Papuans to Bougainville, creating ethnic tensions.

Those factors led to an outbreak of violence and then armed conflict in 1988. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army fought against increasingly brutal PNG defence forces, which used Australian-supplied helicopters to attack villages and allegedly drop executed detainees’ bodies into the ocean.

A fragile peace process began in the early 1990s, encouraged by Australia and the wider Pacific community. The process led to a peace conference in 1994 between the PNG government and Bougainville leaders. An Australian-led multinational peacekeeping force was deployed to protect the conference and its attendees. The conference, however, collapsed when a few key Bougainvillean leaders refused to attend and PNG soldiers attacked other leaders who did.

Violence resumed following the collapse of the conference, reaching its peak in late 1996 and early 1997. A major scandal—the hiring of Sandline mercenaries to fight in Bougainville in 1997—forced the PNG prime minister, Julius Chan, to resign, effectively ending PNG’s military attempts to pacify Bougainville.

New Zealand–sponsored talks in 1997 led to the deployment of a new peacekeeping mission to the island. The Truce Monitoring Group was a mix of military, police and government agency personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu. PNG and Bougainville concluded a peace agreement in 2001, and the mission withdrew in July 2003. Throughout the period, Australia played a key role.

It may well again. Given the potential for violence during the referendum, it was always likely that Australia and New Zealand would be asked to support the effort in some capacity, potentially with observers on the ground. A return to violence could require an even more substantial peacekeeping mission. Given that weapons are still present in Bougainville, it behoves Australia and New Zealand to support the disarmament process, even with their own financial resources if PNG proves unable. Pressure also should be placed on O’Neill to abide by the timetable agreed with Momis. PNG recalcitrance will likely slow the rate that weapons are handed in if former fighters believe there could be a return to conflict.

Bougainville is an issue that Australia will have to deal with, one way or another. Right now there’s a chance to smooth the way towards the referendum and potential independence. If negotiations break down and violence returns, however, Australia’s involvement will be much more difficult.