Hands Off Bougainville!

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The ink is hardly dry on the August 5 agreement signed by the interim Bougainville government and the national government of Papua New Guinea (PNG), yet already PNG has reneged on its side of the bargain by landing seventy troops and thirty police on Buka Island, just north of the main island. Moses Havini, the Australian representative of the Bougainville interim government, speaking on the ABC’s World Today program on 3 September, described this action as an invasion.

The talks, held on board the New Zealand Navy ship, Endeavour, lasted several days. Former Premier of the North Solomons Province and current Justice Minister in the interim government, Joseph Kabui, led the Bougainville delegation. Kabui demanded that the five-month-old PNG blockade be lifted and that services be returned to the island. The delegation insisted that no PNG troops or police return to the island and refused to abandon their claim to independence. They did, however, agree to “defer” the declaration of independence.

The talks were in constant danger of breaking down. They reached deadlock when the PNG delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Michael Somare, refused to restore services to Bougainville unless PNG police also returned. But then PNG backed down and agreed to accept a pledge by the Bougainville side to guarantee the safety of workers restoring services. The statement signed by the two sides said that the longterm political status of Bougainville would be addressed as part of a continuing dialogue. Further talks, scheduled to continue on 24 September, must be in doubt because of the provocative actions of PNG.

The current conflict began in November 1988, when militant landowners. under the leadership of Francis Ona. began a campaign of sabotage against the Australian-owned copper mine at Panguna in the centre of Bougainville. But the demands for secession and the grievances against the mine have a long history.

Bougainville, which is geographically and culturally part of the Solomon Islands, was arbitrarily separated from the rest of the Solomons by an 1899 Anglo-German treaty. To suit the colonists, Bougainville and surrounding islands were attached to the colony of German New Guinea, the northeast part of New Guinea Island. The island of New Guinea was itself divided arbitrarily into three sections. The west, now known as West Irian, was ruled by the Dutch until 1963, when Indonesia took over. Papua, in the southeast, was ruled by Britain until it was handed over to Australia in 1906. Seized by Australia at the start of World War I, the German colony in the northeast was thereafter ruled as a UN “protectorate.”

Australia’s interest in New Guinea was primarily strategic. Military strategists perceived the islands as an inert shield. Australia showed little inclination towards developing the local economy, and the colony remained an economic backwater. By 1941, Papua and New Guinea were less developed than anywhere else in the Pacific. The colonies were “administered” by a sleepy bureaucracy, and large areas were not administered at all.

But with World War II, Australia became anxious about defence, and the strategic significance of New Guinea again came to the fore. Policy makers began pouring budgetary support in to the colonies, not to foster economic growth but to instil a sense of loyalty and economic dependence. Eventually, Australia was able to create a small loyal layer of compliant locals who would look after its interests after the independence, which the Australian government recognised had to come eventually.

This process was accelerated in the 1960s, when the Australian Labor Party, then in opposition, began demanding decolonisation. When the Whitlam ALP government was elected in 1972, it announced that Papua New Guinea would become independent within three years. Independence came to PNG without any referendum, and cries for secession from both Papuans and Bougainvilleans went unheeded.

The people of Bougainville in particular were quite adamant that they wanted no part of this new “nation.” They wanted their own independence. In 1970, CE Barnes, then Australian Minister for Territories, visited Bougainville and was told by local people in no uncertain terms that they wanted secession. These demands were backed up by the Kieta Local Government Council.

When the Australian government refused to listen to the demands for secession in the leadup to PNG independence on 16 September 1975, the Bougainvilleans demonstrated their determination by declaring themselves independent and raising their own flag on 1 September. They said they were acting under the UN Charter, which guarantees the rights of minorities and the right of a people to self-determination.

This was a day of celebration for the Island of Bougainville. Over 8,000 people crowded the Arawa Market square to cheer the declaration of independence by the interim chair of the republic, Dr Alexis Sarei. Dr Sarei said independence was the Bougainvillean people’s answer to years of disregard by the Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities. Popular support for the declaration ran deep. Few of the 90,000 islanders worked on their independence day, and a spokesperson for Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) said that virtually no local people reported to work that day. Celebrations were held in other parts of the island, and the move for independence had official support from the Catholic Church.

Yet Whitlam was intransigent in his opposition to the Bougainville declaration and emphasised that Australian policy was that PNG would become independent as one country on 16 September. One year later, Bougainville was forced to sign an agreement to stay with PNG after extracting concessions on regional autonomy.

The people of Bougainville clearly considered themselves forced into being a part of PNG right from the very beginning. This history is certainly a recipe for instability. But add in an additional factor — a huge copper mine which radically altered the way of life on the island and devastated the environment — and the situation, not surprisingly, became explosive.

Prior to the opening of the Panguna mine, the people of Bougainville lived by subsistence farming and the production of cocoa and copra. They had a matrilineal society with the land being passes from generation to generation through the women.

Minerals were discovered by prospectors of Bougainville between the two world wars, but the rugged terrain and the existing methods of extraction meant that mining was not economically viable. In the 1950s copper prices rose rapidly, and extraction methods improved. The new techniques made the possibility of copper mining in Bougainville profitable. In 1963 CRA, a subsidiary of the giant Rio Tinto Zinc, began prospecting and in 1964 flew giant earth moving equipment over the mountains and into the Panguna valley.

The Nasioi people were forced off their ancestral lands. Company manager CR Bishop summed up the company’s lack of regard for the local people, saying, “They’ll have to be resettled. Right below their ridge, we’ll be sinking an open-cut mine 4,000 feet long and 2,000 feet wide. They won’t like moving, but it is for their own good.”

The local people resisted the invasion. Ill feeling ran high. They put up signs on their land saying “Tan bu” — “Keep Out!” Women played a particularly militant role in the resistance. Over 1,000 local villagers in Kieta attended protest meetings. In Panguna 200 people stormed the CRA campsite. More than 100 police were sent in to help mark out boundaries after the land was compulsorily acquired by the colonial administration. Twenty women engaged in combat over a survey peg and succeeded in snatching it from the company surveyors in protest. But eventually the police, using clubs and tear gas, beat the people off the land.

The Bougainvilleans were fighting for their traditional lands, which had been passed down through the women since the earliest history of the tribe. They were fighting for their way of life. They were not concerned with money or prospects for work. D Grove, Director of Lands, Surveys and Mines for the Territory of PNG, summed up the people’s hostility and demands: “They do not want royalties; they do not want money for damages caused to their land; and they do not want the occupation fees, which the law says the company shall pay them. They simply want the company to go away.”

Nasioi people described their relationship to the land in terms that transcend ownership in the capitalist sense: “Land is our life. Land is our physical life, food and sustenance, land is our social life; it is marriage; it is status; it is security; it is politics; in fact it is our only world. When you take away our land, you cut away the very heart of our existence. We have little or no experience of social survival detached from the land. For us to be completely landless is a nightmare, which no dollar in the pocket or dollar in the bank will allay; we are a threatened people.”

The company claimed it made peace with the thousands of Nasioi people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the mine, but nothing could be further from the truth. The anger of the people has festered and grown as they’ve watched the environmental and social destruction brought about at Panguna.

Traditional ways of life have been destroyed. Alcoholism has become a problem. Rainfall has decreased due to deforestation around the mine site. Tailings from the mine have been dumped into the Jaba River, which flows to the sea of the west coast. The tailings have killed the fish in the river and its mouth has silted up, forcing the relocation of eight villages. The silt being dumped into Empress Augusta Bay is making the bay uninhabitable for a vast number of organisms. The forests that once occupied the Jaba Valley are unlikely ever to return, because the tailings are foreign to the vegetation in the area.

No wonder the people of Bougainville are disgusted. They have plenty to be angry about! The PNG government, bought off by Australian interests, cannot back the people of Bougainville in their claims against the mining company, because the country’s economy is completely dependent on mining and Australian aid. Manufacturing is almost non-existent in PNG, with only 8% of local agricultural produce being processed locally. The country relies heavily on imports, over 45% of them coming from Australia. Foreign banks, particularly the Australian giants Westpac, ANZ and National Australia Bank, dominate the banking sector.

The Panguna mine contributed 16% to PNG’s gross domestic product and a massive 40% to its export earning. In 1988 more than 70% of PNG’s total export earnings came from the sale of just two commodities, copper and gold.

The agricultural sector is in crisis as world prices continue to plummet. The price of coffee, cocoa, coconut oil and palm oil are all down; some by as much as 20%. The PNG economy is a complete disaster, and its dependence on mining earnings will continue to increase. Six new mines are on the drawing board and, since 1981, a whacking 70% of all capital expenditure in PNG has gone into just one project: BHP’s Ok Tedi mine in the country’s highlands. The commencement of its production meant that people were evicted from their homes, villages uprooted and hunting areas destroyed. In January 1990 this new mine, which is PNG’s biggest export earner after Panguna, was temporarily closed due to protests by local landowners. The super profits of the six new mines will be undermined if concessions are granted to the Bougainville landowners. These mine deals must rely on agreements with these landowners, similar to those reached at Panguna.

The PNG government cannot afford to do without the earnings of the Panguna mine, so it will not accede to the Bougainvilleans’ demands. The government is also fearful that if independence is granted to Bougainville, other regions of the unstable amalgam that makes up PNG will start raising the same demand.

Meantime, for the people on Bougainville, time has been running out. The Panguna mine is now middle aged. In 1987 demands for compensation from Bougainville Copper Limited began to escalate. “Moderate” capitalist politician, Father John Momis, leader of the Melanesian Alliance and member of the national parliament for the North Solomons Province (NSP), began voicing the people’s resentment. He claimed they had been reduced to passive dependence and demanded funding for their self-reliance and dignity. As part of the Melanesian Alliance Business Policy, he raised the demand for BCL to pay 3% of its total earnings in compensation to the people of Bougainville. BCL rejected this demand.


In November 1988, the campaign of sabotage against the mine began, and on May 1989 the mine was forced to close. Campaign leader, Francis Ona, who came from Guava, one of the villages destroyed by the opening of the mine, formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), which has continued to grow in strength. The campaign began with demands for massive compensation, but by the time the mine was forced to close, the objective of the action was secession from PNG.

A month after the mine was mothballed, the PNG government imposed a state of emergency on Bougainville, and with this 26 June declaration came a reign of terror by PNG police and security forces. The state of emergency decree gave security forces increased powers of arrest, detention and seizure. PNG’s Australian-trained military went on a rampage. Women were raped, suspected BRA members tortured and murdered in custody, and crops destroyed. More than 1,600 villages were burnt down by PNG forces in search-and-destroy missions, and over 4,000 villagers have been herded into makeshift government camps. Amnesty International reports that the victims of defence force violence include political leaders, medical workers and villagers. Two victims of violence were Joseph Kabui, the Premier of NSP, and Michael Laimo, the NSP Minister for Agriculture. The pair was severely beaten by police in separate incidents during 1989. Laimo lost an eye when members of the PNG Police Riot Squad stopped his car, beat him and struck him with the barrel of gun. Kabui was dragged from his car by police, punched and hit with a rifle butt and forced to lick blood from the side of a police vehicle.

Aloysius Minitong, an outspoken critic of the environmental destruction caused by the BCL mine, was tortured after being arrested in December 1989 because of “suspected membership of the BRA.” While in police custody, he received knife wounds requiring stitches and injuries to his knees, which rendered him incapable of walking. He was then transferred from the police station to an army camp, where he was beaten and kicked about the head until he lost consciousness. He was hospitalised for one night and then removed against medical advice to military headquarters in Arawa, where he received further beatings. He was then moved to the Arawa police station, was denied medical attention and died in his cell three weeks after being detained.

Amnesty International and church and welfare workers have documented many cases of murder, torture and wilful assault by PNG authorities. PNG’s Justice Minister Bernard Narakobi responded in June 1990 by calling Amnesty International “an illegal and immoral organisation.”

By March this year, the BRA had almost complete control of the of the whole island, and on 18 May, Francis Ona declared Bougainville independent. The declaration was faxed around the world, but within minutes of the announcement, PNG had cut all telecommunications to Bougainville. PNG Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu declared the declaration unlawful and swiftly responded with a complete blockade of the island. The declaration was also immediately rejected by Australia. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans freely admits that he had discussed the blockade with PNG before it was imposed.

The blockade brought immense hardship to the people of Bougainville. Power was been cut off, the hospital in Arawa closed and fuel in short supply. Many people have died of malaria and other preventable diseases because of lack of medicines.

An intelligence resumé, put together by the Defence Intelligence Branch in April 1990, outlines a “Contingency Plan for the North Solomons Province.” The document assesses the strength of the BRA in its three command areas — Northern, Central and Southern. Military strength and local support is strongest in the Central Command area, where people have suffered the worst deprivation as a result of BCL’s mining activities. The document recommends establishing a blockade and states, “The situation in the province is also just right for the civil population to be turned against the BRA by a carefully planned and executed psychological warfare. A perfect situation for such an exercise should exist after three to four weeks of implementing a shipping blockade.” The document states explicitly the desire to foment a civil war in Bougainville between the strongly secessionist central area and the less committed north and south. It advocates methods of trying to create such a rift. One strategy recommended is to delay talks and prolong the blockade, so as to “deliberately worsen the hardship the people are already facing. Simultaneously, a psychological warfare effort must go into action to exploit the situation.”

Australia’s sordid role in the whole Bougainville crisis is a disgrace. Statements by Gareth Evans that “Australia cannot interfere in the affairs of a sovereign nation” and Hawke’s comments to anxious luncheon gatherings of Australian business people in Port Moresby that “Australia cannot solve PNG’s problems” do not hide the fact that the Australian ruling class is worried that lack of stability in the region may halt its plunder of New Guinea’s mineral resources.

Leader of the Bougainville delegation at the Endeavour talk, Joseph Kabui, did not mince words when it came to laying blame for the situation in Bougainville. “Australia has behaved like a short-sighted colonial master,” he told a NZBC reporter. Foreign Affairs Minister Evans has defended the blockade of Bougainville, and Australia has armed PNG to the teeth. Australian imperialism is a willing and active partner in the terror unleashed by PNG upon Bougainville.

The Australian Defence Force trains and supplies the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) through the Defence Co-operation Program (DCP). There has been a steady increase in DCP funds to PNG in recent years. About 100 Australian defence personnel are on secondment to the PNGDF, and PNG Officers are trained in Australia.

At a November 1988 meeting, Australia promised four ex-Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Iroquois helicopters to the PNGDF. The helicopters were delivered and went straight into service in Bougainville. These helicopters, which are flown by Australian pilots and paid for by Australian funds, were used to fire at people on the ground in Bougainville, and 10 to 20 people were killed in February this year. The helicopters have also been used to dump bodies of suspected BRA members into the sea after their murder by PNGDF troops. Evans explicitly defended the use of the Australian supplied helicopters for this purpose.

Australia is clearly endorsing a military solution to cut down the Bougainville rebellion. In January this year, an additional $A15 million in new aid to the PNGDF was announced after the Australia-PNG Ministerial Forum, held on 19 January. This new aid is on top of the $A54 million, which had already been allocated under the DCP. The additional funds are for the “fast track” training of the 450 new frontline soldiers to bolster combat capability on Bougainville.

Just how far is Australia prepared to go? In February this year, Evans said, “The stakes in Bougainville are extraordinarily high, and Australia’s self-interest dictates that further deterioration in the situation must be avoided at all costs.” Evans also stated, “Some appropriate involvement by Australian defence forces can’t be completely overruled.” Former Defence Minister Kim Beazley and Evans have both been reported as favouring sending Australian troops, but the government has stopped short, so far. However there is no denying that Australia is running a CIA-style covert operation.

All Marxists defend the right of Bougainville to secede from PNG, because Bougainville is quite clearly a separate nation from the rest of PNG. The modern nation state of Papua New Guinea is an unstable hotchpotch created by colonialism. It comprises nine different language groups and nineteen provinces, each with its own provincial government. Australian working people must demand urgently that Australia get out of Papua New Guinea. We must all demand that the blockade of Bougainville be lifted immediately.

Nevertheless, an independent Bougainville would not solve the problems of the Bougainvillean people. All it would do is cut out the middleman: the PNG national government. Bougainville does not have the economic resources to “go it alone” without the Panguna mine. With the mine, BCL would still be an exploitative, environmentally destructive multinational. The Bougainvillean people’s aspirations for decent lives, free from imperialist domination, can only be met as part of a socialist federation of the Australia/Pacific region.

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