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The Bougainville Deal

Spring 2009 In Situ

The Bougainville Deal

bougainvilleHow Australia and New Zealand helped solve a PNG pickle – Alexander Downer reflects on Papua New Guinea

The island of Bougainville off the east coast of Papua New Guinea is known to few. It has no television station, is strategically remote and is constitutionally part of Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country which itself has very little international profile.

At first approach, Bougainville is a South Pacific paradise; its generous cladding of jungle covers a mountainous terrain which flows down to the translucent waters of the South Pacific. Yet between 1988 and 1997 Bougainville was the home of a bloody conflict which, by some estimates, directly and indirectly killed four times as many people as died in the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

The origins of the Bougainville conflict are complex. Put at its simplest, the ethnic differences between the majority of Papua New Guineans and the Bougainvilleans were accentuated by the existence of a large, profitable Australian-owned copper mine.

Bougainvilleans identify ethnically more closely with their neighbours in Solomon Islands than the rest of PNG but, as is so often the case, the arbitrary drawing of colonial boundaries put them inside PNG. That in itself was problematic, but the opening of a hugely profitable copper mine in the 1960s gave the ethnic tension a new edge. The mine provided about 25% of the PNG government’s budget, a major share of the country’s export income and a substantial number of jobs for people from throughout PNG.

For the Bougainvilleans, the mine certainly generated economic activity. But for many Bougainvilleans, the mine also changed their society, as workers from other parts of PNG and foreigners changed the social makeup and mores of the island.

The ensuing conflict began with the traditional owners of the mine trying to extract substantial increases in rents, the mine owners and the PNG government refusing, and violence erupting around a growing Bougainvillean demand for independence and the closure of the mine.

Various acts of violence successfully forced the mine to close, and several years of conflict ensued between what became known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the PNG defence force and its allies, the Bougainville Resistance.

The effect of the mine’s closure and a succession of attempts to solve the problem by military force were extraordinarily costly to PNG. As the neighbouring metropolitan power and the mine owner, Australia had to try to solve the problem.

As a first step, Australia encouraged New Zealand to host peace talks between the Bougainvilleans. New Zealand was of a similar mind to Australia, but it was perceived by the Bougainvilleans to be more neutral; most Bougainvilleans thought the Australian government’s interest was in reopening the mine regardless of the consequences for Bougainville.

The peace talks, which began in 1997 in New Zealand (with Australia providing the substantive financing), included representatives of all the major parties to the conflict – the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the Bougainville Resistance and the government of PNG. The talks agreed to a truce which gave space for further talks about the basis for a long-term settlement.

The challenge was to consolidate the truce. The Australian government established an unarmed Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) comprising police and civilians from Australia, New Zealand and several South Pacific nations. This PMG was an essential component of building community confidence in the peace process. Although the PMG was unarmed, its very presence on the ground and its capacity to observe and report on any breaches of the ceasefire proved highly successful.

The subsequent agreement by all the parties to the conflict to disarm was also managed by the PMG and authorized by a UN observer.

The agreement to a truce and ceasefire monitored by the international community gave space for the negotiations on a long-term political settlement. It was clear to all that the status quo ante was finished forever, and the Australian and PNG governments made it clear that the reopening of the mine was not a priority. This created a less tense and confrontational atmosphere for the talks, because the very existence of the mine had the potential to recreate the explosive debate about resource sharing.

Instead, the talks focussed on whether the ethnically distinct Bougainville could achieve extensive autonomy without becoming independent. Both the PNG and Australian governments feared independence for Bougainville would cause the collapse of PNG, as other provinces sought the same release from Port Moresby.

Despite the truce and ceasefire, the talks were difficult and protracted; support for independence in Bougainville was high.

Ultimately, a deal was brokered by Australia, under which Bougainville would elect its own autonomous government, but still remain part of PNG. After between 10 and 15 years, the Bougainville Government could ask for a referendum on independence, and the national parliament would make the final decision on whether or not to hold such a referendum.

The Bougainville peace process was successful for a number of reasons. First, after years of conflict, the people of Bougainville – particularly the women – were anxious for peace. Second, the PNG government eventually realized – with some aggressive prompting from Australia – that it could not settle the problem militarily. Third, Australia and New Zealand provided a catalyst and a venue for talks, but, in the main, allowed the locals to negotiate their own solution. Fourth, Australia structured a multinational peace monitoring group which was unarmed and therefore perceived by Bougainville to be benign, impartial and competent. Fifth, Australia, as the major power of the region, only intervened when it had to – for example, to break the deadlock over the referendum. This was perceived by Bougainvilleans, and Papua New Guineans more generally, as their peace, even though it would not have been possible without the assistance of Australia and New Zealand.

A peace process will never work if foreigners try to use it for their own glorification; it must be owned by those who are parties to the conflict, not foreigners.

Less than a decade after a final agreement was concluded, Bougainville lives in peace, the mine remains closed, PNG has thrived again, and Australia and New Zealand’s role in the peace process is all but forgotten. That is a very good outcome.


Alexander Downer was Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, and is now the UN special envoy to Cyprus.

(Photograph: George Steinmetz/Corbis, Alex Smailes/Sygma/Corbis)

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