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PNG is undermining Bougainville's independence moves


PAPUA New Guinea was built at the cost of the alienation of the Solomon island people of Bougainville.

The Bougainville people were belittled by the influx of non-Bougainvillean and non-Solomon people and cultures. Bougainville suffered environmental destruction that will take hundreds of years for ecology to put right, caused by the extraction of ore to finance PNG’s independence.

For this injustice, a people took up an armed struggle against the state of PNG, its peoples and the mining company, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).

This armed crisis was backed by an unprepared political leadership and resulted in a decade long struggle of civil conflict, ultimately resolved by a negotiated multilateral peace process that was more-PNG friendly and not Bougainville oriented.

The Bougainville economy collapsed with the crisis while other PNG’s provinces were advancing. With the Bougainville peace process, it was obvious that PNG came stronger while Bougainville’s chaotic recovery process was choked.

Bougainville’s Constitution guarantees that a referendum on independence will be held as early as 2015 provided certain conditions are met, which include weapons disposal and the establishment of good governance.

The PNG and Australian governments hailed the referendum terms as a ‘breakthrough’ and a ‘milestone’, but Bougainvilleans questioned it.

Former Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) leader Sam Kauona accused the late Joseph Kabui and Joel Banam, who led the Bougainville delegation to sign the terms, of giving “too much away to a dishonest government” and added that “the survival of the PNG/Bougainville peace process depends very much on honesty, fairness and transparency… If we have not learned from our past mistakes then this struggle could go on for another 40 years.”

Honesty, fairness and transparency are foreign attributes in the current context of PNG’s dealing with the Bougainville people and government. In the entire tour of Bougainville by PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill in January, he hardly talked about Bougainville’s rights to a referendum or self-determination.

In a David Lornie Post-Courier article in February, Maurua: PM to clarify views on referendum, a Siwai pastor said “I’m feeling that I don’t understand Papua New Guinea’s position on independence. They are not serious about what we think because 2014 is the last year before we enter the window of referendum.”

This is one of many doubts on Bougainville and those with guns seem to be happy that they did not throw them away so long as PNG seems to play with Bougainville.

Again PNG’s thinking was captured by Anthony Regan in a 2010 article, Light Intervention: Lessons from Bougainville:

The logic is that in the 10 to 15 years from the establishment of the ABG in 2005, the PNG government has the opportunity to work closely with the ABG to promote all forms of development in Bougainville in a way that could be expected to encourage Bougainvilleans to consider the possible merits of remaining a part of PNG when it comes time to vote in the referendum.

PNG is at work. It succeeded in influencing the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) to create friction and now it is all about winning Bougainvillean hearts to get them to see Bougainville and its problems through a PNG lens and not a Bougainville lens.

And the Peter O’Neill 2014 tour showed the proof of PNG activities to undermine the Bougainville government.

During the three-day tour, the PNG delegation announced multi-million dollar development projects like the re-opening of Aropa International Airport by the PNG government for Bougainville, thus exciting the people and a handful of leaders.

For all the project launchings, a PNG minister flies into Bougainville from Port Moresby to officiate - not an ABG minister.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) had endured continuous loud attacks from Bougainville’s representatives in the PNG parliament for not bringing development. Noteworthy in this respect have been Jimmy Miringtoro from Central Bougainville and Steven Pirika from South Bougainville, and to some extent Lauta Atoi from the North.

The regional MP, Joe Lera, is the exception - productively working with the ABG.

All these condemnation of the government came from national MPs who have the financial power over the struggling, PNG-dependent ABG.

An ABG parliamentarian sent me a text message few days ago saying:

We believe PNG has agents in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to disrupt our preparations for referendum. Our national MPs, except the regional MP, are all agents of PNG.

They feel comfortable with what they are receiving [from the PNG government] while majority of Bougainvilleans continue to struggle.

They use the DSIP funds to promote “PNG’s might” and attempt to convince and mislead Bougainvilleans thus undermining the ABG. Tasol ol bai tait (But they won’t succeed).

PNG’s intentions are clear. They are pursuing a disrespectful desire to keep Bougainville integrated with PNG so it can remain enslaved under the old claws of those pre-1990 days. 


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Marlene Dee Gray Potoura

I, as an ordinary Bougainvillean, have come to the conclusion that not only I suffered in a war. There are people in countries who have gone through worse.

I pray every day for forgiveness to reign in the hearts of each and every Bougainvillean so that peace and harmony can then lead to a stronger and well refined people, who are ready for Independence, who do not bear any grudges or grievances towards PNG or Australia, who will be proud of their history; who will stand tall and proud as a people, who soar above amidst all circumstances

Let peace reign!

Chris Overland

It seems to me that the aspirations of some Bougainvilleans for independence are a reflection of a quite recent phenomenon, being the rediscovery and reassertion by various population groups of ethnic, linguistic, tribal, religious and geographic differences.

In short, many modern nation states seem to be in the process of fragmenting.

For example, in Belgium there are ongoing tensions between the Dutch speaking Walloons and the French speaking Flemish.

In the United Kingdom there are serious efforts being made to persuade Scots that their best interests lie in separating from England after over 300 years of union.

The warfare currently being seen in the Ukraine is a reflection of very long standing ethnic and linguistic differences within that country.

In the Middle East religious sectarianism has, perhaps, reached its height with the emergence of the Islamic State which is using suicidal fanaticism and extreme brutality to establish a new Caliphate encompassing huge tracts of Iraq and Syria.

In many, perhaps most, of these cases the aspirations for "nationhood" reflected in these various movements are not grounded in any rational consideration of what this actually means.

The proponents of fragmentation mostly resort to historic and emotional arguments about how different they are to "the others" rather than the nitty gritty about just how their proposed new state will actually function.

My observation is that it is nations based upon a Federal model (e.g. the USA, Canada, Germany and Australia), which is designed to accommodate differences by granting a high degree of autonomy to their provinces and regions, that seem least susceptible to these break away movements.

These federations were created in two cases by tedious negotiations and a national plebiscite (Canada & Australia), by the application of Bismarckian machinations and military force in Germany's case and via a revolution and then an especially horrible civil war in the case of the USA. There are obviously many road to a successful federation.

Federal structures are often hard to make work because they can only be governed through long and sometimes tedious consensus building. Politicians find this annoying and frustrating, as do bureaucrats, but it does promote durable political solutions to problems unlike those simply imposed by quasi imperial central agencies.

All this is a slightly long winded way of suggesting that both the PNG government and the ABG look towards creating a provincial Bougainville that has real authority (and the related finances) to govern itself within certain broadly agreed parameters, but remains an integral part of the larger PNG entity for various defined purposes such as defence, foreign affairs and trade, banking and currency, etc.

This requires that ugly word "compromise", but seems likely to offer the best way to achieve a durable governance structure for the long term.

Jimmy Awagl

With due respect, Leonard, it is quite a genuine concern from your perception on the issue of gaining independence for the ABG is valid on the other hand due to the the stated arguments.

However,the parliamentarian leaders from ABG are not raising their voice enough to convince the government to adhere to the voice of the Bougainvillians.

If they are hiding behind the cells of the Hela and Southern Highlands than how well will the ABG gain independence at the expense of LNG in Hela and SHP or likewise Lihir mine.

Other provinces we are feeding on the expense of the resourceful provinces to be a united state of PNG. Even our leaders are hiding behind the scene and become yoyos to the leaders of the resource provinces.

However, I believe the process of ABG gaining independence will take a while otherwise our thoughts will always remain illusion and prove others to see this concept in a more harsh and negative perception.

Leonard Roka

Nii and Overland-good comments but both of you come short to putting a Bougainvilleans boots on.

I look at the people on Bougainville (most will refer to them as illiterate and pig farmers) and they actually started our crisis and also suffered more than me and others. They have the population out there.

ABG legal advisor Anthony Regan also expressed my points well in his book, Light Intervention: Lessons from Bougainville (2010) that, especially on funding, that PNG had long hoped Bougainvilleans will vote for integration in the coming 2015-2020 referendum window but monitoring the trend of Bougainvilleans more expressing the desire for independence since 2009, PNG had even began to play up with funding especially the 2010 budget where Bougainville was not given its restoration and development grants (page 101).

And in the whole peace negotiation efforts of the late 1990s it was all clear that PNG was not willing to sign the numerous peace documents till it was given the right to veto the referendum results in Bougainville Peace Agreement's Paragraph 309 to 324.

Francis S Nii

I totally agree with you, Chris. I did express similar sentiments in one of my past articles.

History needs to be told as history and that's that. Continuous rhetoric of recomplaint and grievances driven by irrational propaganda will not benefit anyone, not even the people of Bougainville.

From Leonard's past writings, disharmony and internal conflicts among landowners, various remnants of rebel groups and the ABG still exist.

Such writing will only destroy the peace and development efforts of both Bougainvilleans and non-Bougainvilleans including the national government and ABG.

A mutual and harmonious relationship between the national government, the ABG, landowners and other stakeholders are of paramount importance to find common ground for the way forward.

Chris Overland

With great respect to Leonard, I think that his line of reasoning on the PNG government's activities is such that it inevitably leads to the conclusions he has reached.

It is hardly surprising that the government is anxious to convince Bougainvilleans to remain part of PNG. Why would it do anything else?

Also, just because the government wants Bougainville to remain part of PNG does not mean that it has malicious or exploitative intentions.

I would be very surprised indeed if Peter O'Neill and others did not understand and accept that they will need to negotiate a mutually acceptable deal with the ABG to reach their policy goal of keeping Bougainville within PNG.

The great danger for Leonard and others of like mind is that they will rationalise their way to another civil war simply because, if the truth be told, they would prefer to be independent regardless of the potential personal, social and economic costs involved for their fellow citizens.

It is perfectly reasonable for Leonard to point to the grievous failings of the past. History cannot be ignored.

However, there also needs to be a solid argument for Bougainville to became independent that is based upon facts, not rhetoric or a pronounced sense of grievance, and which is fundamentally forward looking in nature.

I have yet to see the latter put forward in any coherent way.

What history demonstrates conclusively is that once a newly independent country is free to chart its own course, its success or otherwise will depend upon having a viable strategy for social progress and economic growth, not an impressive list of complaints about its former colonial masters.

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