An entry in the 2016 Crocodile Prize
THE Bougainville Crisis was the biggest conflict fought on the soil of Papua New Guinea since World War II.
It came about as a result of landowner grievances over unequal distribution of wealth and large amount of environmental damage caused by the mining giant, Rio Tinto.
As a result of relentless rebel activities on Bougainville, the PNG government under Sir Julius Chan resorted to hiring Sandline mercenaries of the Executive Outcome company, the latter being a sub-contractor of Sandline International.
There were several reasons for this including Chan’s desire to restore order in Bougainville, to reopen the copper mine and to remove rebel leaders.
The explosive nature of the Bougainville crisis had taken Papua New Guineans and Bougainvilleans by surprise. The war worsened resulting in the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of assets and property.
Before the outbreak of the crisis a series of events took place. There was the November 1988 blowing up of power pylons and other acts of sabotage which led to the shut-down of the mine. As a result of these criminal acts, an order for police to “shoot to kill” was given by then Minister for Police, Paul Tohian.
The militants formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) under the leadership of Sam Kaouna and landowners’ spokesperson, Francis Ona, who was very vocal. They stated that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause.
As the rebel activities on Bougainville increased, the PNGDF (Army) was troubled that it was unable to establish a stronghold on the island and soon afterwards a blockade was imposed in an effort to force the militants to surrender.
The BRA and other elements declared unilateral independence and established an interim government in May 1990.
This followed the “St Valentine’s Day massacre” which had been carried out by the PNGDF in February 1990 that saw many casualties among militants and civilians.
It was during this time that prime minister Chan and his deputy Chris Haiveta became convinced that the only way to defeat the rebel activities on Bougainville was to engage an international mercenary organisation.
They believed the proposed operation was a last resort to get back the once wealthy province.
The Sandline mercenaries were tasked to “get the criminals,” by which the mercenaries assumed the rebel leaders on Bougainville.
Sandline’s plan was to use helicopters to support and ferry an operational force of contract soldiers to do battle where they would defeat the BRA and force a negotiated settlement.
In addition to armed force, the tactics used by the Sandline involved manipulating the media and using psychological warfare on the people of central and south Bougainville. This instigated fear in Bougainville and PNG as a whole.
The Sandline deal met opposition from Port Moresby Governor Bill Skate, who described it as “a crazy plan” because it reflected a failure on the part of the PNG government to address the crisis and issues of landowner grievance and environmental damage.
Soon after, in March 1997, the mercenaries were flown out of the country as unrest broke out on the streets of Port Moresby and prime minister Chan stepped down.
Historian James Griffin also believed that “long unattended corruption issues were seen as the result of Chan being ousted in Parliament”.
However, Chris Haiveta stated he had no regrets in signing the Sandline contract as he believed it was the right decision at the time.
It was not until 2001 that an official peace agreement was signed by the PNG government and the leaders of Bougainville.
The role of the Sandline mercenaries remains a topic of great controversy in PNG.