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Current Situation in Bougainville

History of Bougainville conflict

Bougainville Island is a province of Papua New Guinea, located over 900 kilometers from the mainland (Taillemite, 2011). Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French navigator, named the island after himself. The Germans, however, were the first European colonizers to arrive at Bougainville and the neighboring Islands of Buka, Treasury and Choiseul. The Germans transferred the claims to Solomon Island to Great Britain. The German New Guinea Company continued to occupy Buka and Bougainville. Australian forces occupied the Island during the World War I and the defeat of the Germans. In 1920, the League of Nations declared the territory to be under Australian mandate. The declaration came at the backdrop that the Europeans were most superior in governance as well as economic interests in civilizing and developing such territories.

During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied the Bougainville Island and used it a counteroffensive base against the United States of America. In 1944, the Americans defeated the Japanese, who later surrendered in 1945 (Regan, 2010). The Australian Army took over the Island from the American control. The Australians controlled Papua New Guinea and Bougainville under United Nation trusteeship.

The Bougainville Island is rich in copper mines and shows traces of gold mines. The discovery of the mines led Rio Pinto Zinc, an Australian firm, to establish Bougainville mine. The company started its operations in 1972 at Panguna mine which became world’s largest open cut mine at the time. Papua New Guinea benefited from the mine’s revenue as it contributed improvement of the economy. This brought about the belief by Bougainvillea’s that an export-oriented massive industry for resource extraction was the only economic progress way. This was never the case, the resource extraction massive scale industries did not bring out any physical evidence of positive change to the people and the society. Urban decay was evident everywhere in PNG towns; crime, massive unemployment, squatter settlements and cottage businesses takeover by the Asians that the New Guineans and the Papuans ought to own.

Non-Bougainvilleas, mostly from Papua New Guinea arrived at the Island. Other ‘white-skinned’ people, mostly Australians arrived to work at the mine. The local community opposed the occupation by foreigners (Regan, 2010). People lost their land to the company and forced to relocate to barren land. Many landowners opposed the influx of workers and raised environmental concerns and protested profits from leaving the Island. Mining cause considerable damage to the environment as the company dumped million tons of waste material into the rivers.

Before PNG gained independence in 1975, the Bougainville Island wanted to secede. The mission was unsuccessful after PNG agreed to decentralize governance. Tension broke into violence in 1988 where PNG defense force faced the local people around the Panguna Mine. Bougainville Revolution Army (BRA) rebelled against the government leading to the closure of the mine. The foreign workers left the island and PNG forces withdrew in 1990. The BRA under the leadership of Francis Ona took control of the Island and declared independence in May 1990. Subsequently, the PNG government imposed a blockade on the Island and remained in force until 1994.

Francis Ona established an interim government appointing himself as president. The government, however, had little effect as the island started to descend into disarray. There arose criminal groups affiliated to BRA that caused havoc through pillage, murder and rape. Based on separatist and ethnic characteristics, the conflict led to a civil war. Between the year 1990 and 1997 the dual civil war involved the Papua New Guinea and secessionists (Hermkens, 2015). The other conflict involved the secessionists and anti-secessionists in Bougainville. Conflicts had nothing to do with ideology or secession but land and local identity. The outcome of the conflict led to the death of between 15,000-20,000 Bougaivilleans (Ellwood, 2014). The Civil war ended in 1997 after series of negations. Bougainville and Papua New Guinea reached a political settlement in the year 2001 guaranteeing a high level of autonomy.

The island enjoys fifteen years of peace after the bloody conflict. The South Pacific Island has not had peace after the Second World War II. Bougainville remains fragile after the peace agreement and peace should never be taken for granted (Braithwaite, 2010). A number of factors pose tension including reopening of Panguna conflict in Bougainville and the surrounding islands (Wallis, 2013).

Current political situation

The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) fought for autonomy for customary social grouping during the fight for independence. The army wanted to make the social groupings strong as well improve Bougainville state structures. In 2001, the Bougainville Peace Agreement guaranteed the local people autonomy of highest levels. There was a referendum to be held after 10-15 years after the establishment of the first autonomous government. The referendum would decide whether people of Bougainville want to remain a PNG province or be independent. The referendum and independence of the island would lead to reopening of the Panguna mine (Hermkens, 2013). This has been the potential issues in the current Parliamentary and Presidential election campaigns in Bougainville.

Panguna mine

The centrality of Panguna mine sparked war and reopening it draws serious attention. Today, the government and the rebel groups are negotiating conflict-prone problem in Bougainville. Reaching a consensus on Panguna mine will be critical for Bougainville peace. The government tried to pursue this consensus from the year 2009 (Australian Government, 2013). The landowners’ interests were paramount in the talks. Despite the developments, the recent public forums are less comprehensive and not inclusive. Negotiations involve former combatants and Meekamui Movement factions took part. However, after sometimes, a hard-line Meekamui decide to leave the talks. The rebels protect accessibility to the mines. Such groups enjoy community support especially those living downstream and were subject to earlier environmental degradation. The government must deal with hardliners critically whether marginalized or not- they pose potential conflicts.

The referendum and political status

In the near future, Bougainville will hold a referendum that could be a major rise in conflicts and potential instability (Wallis, 2013). Various factors could play a part in the lead up to the referendum, the outcome and post-referendum situation. The referendum question to date is not available to the citizens. The procedure is not clear. There is no clarity on whether independence is the only alternative to the current arrangement. The vote may not be for or against independence thus creating a high level of uncertainty.

The issue of timing is also significant. The Island could not hold the referendum in 2015 as ABG held the election (Ellwood, 2014). If held in 2017, the referendum would coincide with PNG polls. A new government will be coming in while the other will be exciting and the period is highly unstable. The government must be sensitive to significant issues (Smith, 2013). The PNG parliament will likely delay the referendum due to the national campaigns. Addressing weapons disposal have been a great problem for the ABG. Good governance and weapon disposal issue must be resolved before holding the referendum. The outcome of the election can cause the armed groups to rearm (Wallis, 2013).

Economic situation

Bougainville Island is considered as the richest and largest island of the said Solomon archipelago. Oral history in early days claimed that goods traded as far as the Malaita Island would end up on Bougainville Island. This mutual practice is believed to exist today despite the people being divided between the two countries. This ascertains Bougainville island potential regarding economics, without solely looking at the large-scale projects in mining, as a powerhouse concerning economics to its sister islands and citizens. In the economic history of Bougainville Island, the 1989 year is noted as the year when the islands economy dragged down as a result of conflict brought about by armed secessionist. The economy that was the backbone of the Papua New Guinea state came to an unfortunate standstill. This crisis was as a result of the systematic denial of the freedom of Bougainville in decision making in addition to it being enslaved by aliens that gave back nothing tangible in terms of economics after exploiting her (Hermkens, 2013).

Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming economic activity to Bougainville Island and its people was the mainstay throughout the days of pre-colonial. The people of Bougainville lived by tilling the customary land, domesticating animals and growing food crops for survival art Roka, (2014). However, mining was introduced into the Bougainville Island psyche solely for the benefit of PNG. The gold mining industry does not take advantage of the proceeds by PNG. The government is weak and cannot prevent looting and gold leaving Bougainville illegally.

Cocoa and copra

According to Roka, (2012), Cocoa and copra are other agricultural activities that can improve the economic situation in Bougainville. By the year 2006, the production of cocoa and copra reached a record 15, 000 tons annually. The local government can establish companies to export the products to the international markets rather than selling to Britain and PNG only (Jennings P & Claxton, 2013).

Social factors

Mining is a great issue that divides the people at Bougainville. Land owners in the areas rise concerns about the mine reopening citing environmental effects. The issues remain tense, but the government gave veto power to the landowners. They will decide on the matter and final say. The reopening of the will be crucial in the economy of the autonomous island (Callick, 2011). If the landowners decide on reopening the Panguna mine, full operation will resume in the five or seven years. Economists indicate, ‘good governance’ depicts viable economies, especially in the context of an aspiring state, and this has increased attention on the mine. Mining will contribute significantly to the revenue of the government. The Papua New Guinea will need to explore their mines and operations will begin the next 15 to 30 years.

The closing down of mines, destruction of infrastructure, plantation and garden contribute to slow rehabilitation process. Since 1994, the government faces a serious financial crisis due to fiscal indiscipline. They government lacked the capacity to fund rehabilitation especially in areas where little development took place before the Bougainville conflict. There are efforts to re-innovate education and health provision facilities. The central Bougainville where the government controls faces serious scarcity in food and medicine. The international community assists the people of Bougainville but requires structures in the delivery (Braithwaite, 2010).

The security situation

The peace agreement gave powers to Bougainville to establish its own institutions. Francis Ona, who led the country during the civil war, is not part of the agreement. Ona and his armed group pose great risk of emerging new conflicts. Various armed groups are posing significant threat to stability and peace in the Autonomous Island (Hermkens, 2013). The Meekamui movement blocks roads accessing to Panguna mine (Hermkens, 2015). Despite the efforts to get solutions, the reopening of the mine could trigger violent responses from the hard-line faction within the movements. The meaningful consultations leads must continue with the armed group prior to reopening of the mine.

There are an estimated 500 BRA armed soldiers in each region- Siwai, Kongara, Biun, Panguna and Wakanui regions. Security is alarming as many young people are without jobs and easily access weapons (Dobell, 2012). There is evidence that BRA in recent weeks carried out recruitment of soldiers. The BRA are in possession of semi-automatic and automatic weapons including the reconditioned machine guns used in the world war II. Shotguns, homemade weapons and rifles in their numbers are in supply. Weapons flow in from the Solomon Islands. There are reports that the rebels steal weapons from the police and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (Dobell, 2012). The number of weapons in circulation is unknown. There are 14 militia groups in the southern part of Bougainville that openly bear arms. According to Hammond (2012), guns pose the threat to human life and are an inhibiting factor to outstanding reconciliation.

Emergence of Civil Society organizations

The ongoing public debates and peace talks are not inclusive. The critics indicate that the representatives from key constituents are left out. To date, there have been few forums held, but the turnout is always low. The outreach program raises the question as landowners are not participating adequately. Women activists identified that women voice. The voice of women is always essential in societies that are traditionally matrilineal. Re-opening of the mine continues without meaningful stakeholders’ voices thus raising significant concerns (Jennings & Claxton, 2013).

According to Jennings, Claxton, & Australian Strategic Policy Institute (2013), the elders, chiefs and non-government actors put effort to promote peace and stability in the conflict-prone Island. The religious, churches or faith-based organizations, women-led civil society, are making their contribution. The civil society effectively supports peace building and reconciliation efforts (Reddy, 2012). Re-emergence of NGOs helps in health, education, community development and capacity building for good governance at various levels. Women-led organizations are playing a big role in peace building efforts. The organizations have sought international attention through contacting New Zealand and Australia (Dinnen, Doug &Caroline, 2011). In 1997, women participated in Burnham talks and the Lincoln Agreement of 1998. Catholic Women Association use faith to reach is inaccessible by other entities (National Council of Women & United Nations, 2010). The church participates in reconciliation processes in addition to providing of humanitarian aid. The church offers a forum for community members to air their views.


The journey towards independence of Bougainville has been long and costly. To date, the journey is yet to come to an end. Although there is a referendum to be held before 2020, there must be proper timing of the vote. Bougainville and PNG Government must consult widely to achieve good governance before and after the referendum (USAID, 2013). There must be proper negotiation before reopening of the Panguna mine to assist in resuscitating the economy. The government must address the weapons held by the communities. Weapons disposal poses great danger to the successful independent process of Bougainville.


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