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Bougainville Backgrounder

Bougainville Backgrounder

Many readers of Lloyd Jones's Mr Pip come to the novel unaware that there is even an island called Bougainville let alone with any knowledge of the conflict that provides the backdrop to the award winning work.

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The following extract from New Zealand Abroad: The Story of VSA in Africa, Asia and the Pacific provides some factual background to the conflict.


"I stood there watching one of the BRA [Bougainville Revolutionary Army] soldiers trembling on the ground with his head bleeding ... Five minutes later he was motionless with his mouth closed and eyes open. I took a deep breath and started to drag the body out of the fighting zone."

This description is from one of a dozen graphic accounts of Bougainville's nine-year civil war that were handed in to VSA teacher Don Hadden. Others recount a church massacre; a father being chopped into `smaller and smaller pieces', which were then thrown into the sea; and a brother's head being `cut off by machine-gun fire'.

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The civil war that broke out in 1989 set the pro-independence BRA against the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defence Force and Bougainvilleans opposed to the BRA's tactics (though not always to its aims). Few if any of Bougainville's 160,000 inhabitants were left unscathed. An Australian government report in 2001 estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 people died as a result of the conflict and the medical and economic blockade imposed by PNG, and that 70,000 were displaced. More commonly, the estimates have been 8,000 to 10,000 dead and 50,000 displaced. Even the lower figure would equate to 180,000 deaths in a population the size of New Zealand's.

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The decade of bloodshed had been triggered by discontent over the foreign-owned Panguna copper mine, but the source of the conflict goes back much further.

A brief history

In 1768, when French explorer Louis de Bougainville sighted the islands that were to bear his name, they had been inhabited for about 29,000 years. The islands of Buka and Bougainville form a single landmass 240 kilometres long, separated by a shallow 300-metre strait.

The northern island of Buka gets its name from a misunderstanding typical of first contact. As Bougainville's ship anchored offshore, islanders paddled out in dugout canoes shouting `Buka, Buka', which the newcomers took to be the name of the island. (The word in fact translates as `What?') Confusion soon turned to hostility as the islands were visited by whalers, traders and `blackbirders' - labour recruiters for the plantations of Queensland, Fiji and Samoa, whose methods at times were those of slave-traders.

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Early visitors commented on the lively trade in pigs and vegetables among the estimated 40,000 inhabitants, and noted that agriculture was well established. The chewing of betel nut and the carrying of bows and arrows - both still common today - were also recorded.

Geologically, Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands chain. But in one of those bizarre map-drawing exercises typical of nineteenth century colonialism, it was included in the German colony of New Guinea after an exchange of notes between Great Britain and Germany in 1899. The First World War saw Australia replace Germany as the colonial master, and between 1942 and 1944 control of Bougainville was briefly lost to the Japanese.

During the German and Australian colonial periods, large tracts of land were alienated by expatriate copra plantation owners. By the 1960s there was growing pressure for independence. In 1962 more than a thousand Bougainvilleans made submissions to a visiting UN mission, calling for an end to the Australian mandate.

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By the time Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA) (a subsidiary of the multinational mining giant Conzinc Rio Tinto) began its initial explorations in Panguna in 1964, twenty-eight villages and two hundred homes had been forcibly relocated. The young Bougainvillean leader, Raphael Bele, told the CRA chairman in 1969: `Land is like the skin on the back of your hand. You inherit it, and it is your duty to pass it on to your children in as good a condition as, or better than, that in which you received it. You would not expect us to sell our skin.'

In 1975 a group of Bougainvillean leaders declared independence to avoid becoming the most distant province of PNG. Australian riot police were dispatched and the leaders arrested. Bougainville, Buka and a scattering of outer islands became the North Solomons Province of the newly independent nation of PNG.

Nine years of bloodshed

By the late 1980s the 400-hectare Panguna mine (now run by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), a joint venture by CRA and the PNG government) was producing 40 to 50 per cent of PNG's export revenue, and had many years of productive life left.

Of the 3,500 workers on the mine's payroll, 610 were expatriates, mostly Australians and New Zealanders. Only a third of the PNG workers were from Bougainville. The enigmatic leader of the New Panguna Landowners' Association, Francis Ona, described the set-up as officially sanctioned apartheid. `There are in this company people in top management who have South African identities and ideologies. This is why on the principles of apartheid, there are two nations in one. White and Black. Facts: Two hospitals, two schools, two drinking clubs, worst of all, two living standards.'

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If it was apartheid, it was of the economic rather than the legal variety. The state-of-the-art company hospital and the international school accepted anyone who could afford the fees, the vast majority of whom were white. Australian journalist Sean Dorney has argued that BCL was, by Third World standards, `an exemplary corporate citizen'. Since independence in 1975, the company had paid more than US$650 million in company tax and dividends to the PNG government, US$60 million to Bougainville's provincial government, and US$20 million to local landowners. The latter payments were controversial. Land ownership among the Nasioi people is matrilineal, but the titleholders identified by Australian patrol officers in the 1960s were virtually all men.

Those opposed to the mine included people who wanted the profits used for the benefit of Bougainvilleans, and others like Francis Ona (a former truck driver and surveyor at the mine) who wanted it shut down permanently for environmental and philosophical reasons. On 22 November 1988, Ona's followers raided the company's armoury and stole dynamite, which was then used to blow up company installations. PNG's response was swift and brutal. Helicopters were used to strafe villages and the bodies of militants were dumped at sea. Widespread human rights abuses led to whole villages being abandoned and villagers fleeing to the hills to join the BRA, recently formed in protest against the mine and the PNG reaction.

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The BRA responded to the PNG attacks by killing suspected civilian collaborators and destroying property. Village militias formed in opposition to the independence movement were armed and supported by PNG, and known collectively as the Resistance. Meanwhile, the independence movement had unilaterally declared Bougainville independent, with Ona as president.

Sporadic attempts to negotiate a settlement, initiated by Australia, New Zealand and the protagonists themselves, all failed to have a lasting impact. In early 1997 the PNG government hired the London-based Sandline mercenary organisation to crush the independence movement. An outraged PNG Defence Force mutinied, ultimately bringing down the PNG government and arguably paving the way to a settlement of the Bougainville crisis.

Bougainvillean leaders had identified New Zealand as a mediator in the conflict, seeing it as more neutral than Australia with its close economic and military ties to Port Moresby. Later in 1997 peace talks were held at Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch between representatives of the BRA and the Resistance. Brokered by New Zealand diplomat John Hayes, with the encouragement of Foreign Affairs Minister Don McKinnon, the talks led to a lasting cease-fire. New Zealand also led the initial Truce Monitoring Group (TMG), made up of soldiers from New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu, and civilian members of the Australian defence forces.

A close relationship quickly developed between the Bougainvillean people and the Kiwi contingent. BRA commander Sam Kauona attributed this to the Maori influence. `A mutual respect existed between Bougainvilleans and Maori ... The Defence Force in New Zealand has blended a military culture with Maori custom. It is unique.'

On 30 August 2001, after three years of negotiations, a final peace agreement was signed between the PNG government and most of the Bougainvillean factions. New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff and VSA chief executive Terry Butt were among the thousands attending the ceremony. The agreement provides for a period of ten to fifteen years of autonomy, followed by a binding referendum on independence.

The long road to freedom

`What do I want? I want my freedom.' Those are not the defiant words of a BRA veteran, but the plea of a young woman too scared to go out alone. `Freedom to me is being able to walk down the street without drunk young men hassling me.'

Bougainvilleans are justly famous for their ingenuity. In the evening, the hills are speckled with pinpricks of light from villages that have constructed miniature hydro-electric plants by reversing old washing-machine motors. It is a tragic irony that of the local innovations developed during the PNG blockade, the most evident is the production of lethally strong distilled spirits. Jungle Juice (JJ), as the cheap local brew is known, is one of the biggest problems facing the province as it enters a period of autonomy. Its popularity among the many former combatants has predictable and devastating consequences. `JJ stops us being free,' says the young woman, who asks to remain anonymous. `People still have guns and if they get mad they can kill you.'

Joe Bakoi, assistant secretary of the BRA Defence Council, shares the young woman's dream of a Bougainville without guns. He is attending a two-day meeting of BRA southern district commanders to discuss the disarmament process. Similar meetings are taking place throughout the island. The agreement finally hammered out by BRA, Resistance and PNG representatives reflects the high level of distrust that still pervades the islands. In Stage One, BRA platoon commanders will collect all weapons from ex-combatants and lock them in containers under UN supervision, with the BRA commander retaining the key. In Stage Two the weapons will be locked in more robust containers with keys held by both the BRA and the UN. New Zealand is supplying 250 steel lockers for the purpose.

Wearing a US army singlet, camouflage trousers, combat boots and an expensive watch, Joe has the look of an effective soldier. He says many of the young men under his command feel they are missing out on the peace process.

They have nothing to do. Many of us young people have grown up during the crisis. We don't know what a normal life is. Some people have proposed that we ex-combatants form a security company. But if we started putting fences around our trade stores we would just be creating another Port Moresby. Fences just teach people that there is something to steal. We had a vision that we were fighting for, a vision of an independent Bougainville. But if we are creating fear among our community and fear amongst NGOs, then I don't think we can really believe in that vision.

*************
Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington journalist.

jeremy [at] scoop.co.nz

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