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‘Having regard to the many difficulties and unknown factors….....’ The Bougainville memorandum that might have been written

Memo-8-march-2012CHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - The recent article by William Nakin MP about Bougainville’s forthcoming referendum on its political future made me wonder just what sort of advice may have been given to Peter O’Neill about what he should or should not say on such a sensitive issue. With this in mind, I used some of my rusty bureaucratic skills to write an imaginary briefing note on the subject to Mr O’Neill. It is, I think, a useful device for making explicit some of the complications involved that neither Mr O’Neill nor Mr Nakin seemed willing to articulate. Perhaps this may stimulate some of our PNG colleagues to consider the problems that will arise irrespective of the outcome of the referendum in June next year - CO



TO:                 Prime Minister
FROM:           Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister
SUBJECT:      Bougainville


You have sought advice on the options available for dealing with the possible outcomes of the referendum on independence planned for Bougainville on 15 June 2019. There are a number of significant policy considerations for the government, irrespective of the outcome, which are discussed below.


Bougainville has been inhabited for at least 33,000 years. Its people speak languages belonging to three language families whose origins are unknown and presumably ancient, together with languages of the Austronesian family, which arrived from western areas with migrants of the more recent Lapita culture about three millennia ago. Bougainvilleans have developed an identity distinct from other ethnicities in Papua New Guinea.

Germany established control over Bougainville and Buka, Choiseul, Shortland and the Treasury islands in 1885, as part of European colonization in the Pacific. The British Empire established a protectorate in 1893 for the southern Solomon Islands, expanding it to include the eastern islands in 1899. In 1900, Germany transferred all of its claims in the Solomons, other than Bougainville and Buka Island, to Great Britain. Britain in return withdrew from Western Samoa.

During World War I, Australian forces occupied Bougainville together with the rest of German New Guinea. In 1920, after the war and the defeat of Germany, the League of Nations placed the territory (including Bougainville) under Australian mandate.

Bougainville is rich in copper and gold. The mining of these minerals has been the subject of considerable social tension over the last fifty years. Local people have made two attempts at secession in reaction to mining exploitation and related issues.

This resulted in nearly a decade of conflict as a result of which it is estimated that up to 20,000 Bougainvilleans died with many more displaced. The bulk of the province's infrastructure was also destroyed. While a peace process brokered by New Zealand was implemented, many of the underlying issues that contributed to the conflict remain largely unresolved and the process of rebuilding continues.

There is a legacy of bitterness directed towards the rest of Papua New Guinea which derives from the activities of the PNG Defence Force during the conflict as well as from historical cultural factors.

It is important to note that the conflict in Bougainville had multiple causes. However, that said, secessionist thinking in Bougainville appears mostly based upon a separate ethnic identity from the rest of Papua New Guinea.  Also, unlike most other provinces of PNG, it does not share a land boundary with any other province. Consequently, separatist sentiment is reinforced by the physical separation from the PNG mainland.

Bougainvillean identity is more strongly associated with the Solomon Islands than any part of PNG. Directly prior to Papua New Guinean gaining independence, Bougainville pursued the possibility of a political union with the former British Protectorate of the Solomon Islands. This is a unique element of Bougainville's identity which remains extant.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement. to which the PNG government is a signatory, commits to a referendum on Bougainville's political future. The PNG government is not obliged to accept any particular outcome under the terms of the agreement with the Autonomous Government of Bougainville (ABG) established as part of the peace process.


The planned referendum will, irrespective of its outcome, generate many challenges for both PNG and the ABG.

In the event that the referendum results in a strong vote for independence, the PNG government will be confronted with tremendous pressure from Bougainville and, very possibly, from other countries with an interest in the region, to honour the implicit promise in the peace agreement that an unequivocal vote for secession will secure the PNG government’s consent and support.

Failure to grant independence in these circumstances will be seen a gross breach of trust on Bougainville and elsewhere and it may very well incite a renewed attempt to achieve independence by force. In this context, it should be noted that the PNGDF was previously unable to effectively suppress or overcome the activities of the comparatively small and poorly armed guerrilla force, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

It also is instructive that during World War II the Japanese army, with hugely greater resources, was unable to locate or eradicate the handful of Australian coast watchers who operated on the island with the active support of the local people.

A foreseeable problem of serious concern will be how other ethnic groups in PNG may react to any decision to support independence for Bougainville. There are many potential fracture points within the social fabric of PNG that could conceivably be exploited to promote secessionist sentiments.

For the ABG, a vote for independence will oblige it to negotiate a transition strategy during which it will be confronted with the logical consequences of independence, which will include a progressive reduction in funding from the PNG government.

It also can be anticipated that current PNG public service staff will wish to be withdrawn from Bougainville, although there may be some compensating return by Bougainvilleans currently posted on the PNG mainland.

As an independent entity, Bougainville will very likely be unable to sustain the already comparatively modest level of government services that it already receives from PNG. It has no significant industrial or mining industries and its agricultural sector is predominantly based upon subsistence farming. In short, it will be left in a penurious state unless the PNG government or some other entity provides it with funding to supplement its meager internal resources.

It is entirely possible that Bougainville will once again seek to merge with the Solomon Islands which itself is struggling with severe economic and internal governance problems. It has been the subject of a major intervention through the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) led by Australia and New Zealand which has included PNG participation.

An independent Bougainville may well require or even seek a similar intervention to RAMSI if the ABG is unable to reconcile the serious actual and potential inter-communal tensions that already exist on the island, notably in relation to the prospective reopening of the Panguna mine. This is a prospect that would not be relished by the Australian and New Zealand governments in particular, although they would probably reluctantly assent to such a proposal.

If the referendum produces only a bare majority of support for independence, then both the PNG government and the ABG will be confronted with extremely difficult decisions about the island’s future. The absence of solid majority support for independence will potentially incite inter-communal strife as those who want independence may, once again, opt to force the issue by violence and intimidation.

Such an outcome is probably the worst of all possible scenarios because it leaves both the PNG government and ABG with the problem of how to legitimize whatever solution they may be able to negotiate for the future.

The same may well be the case if the majority of votes cast are for remaining part of PNG (although this seems improbable) because a sizeable minority of Bougainvilleans may well find this result so unacceptable that they will actively work to undermine efforts to create a new and viable long term relationship between the PNG government and the ABG or its successor.

In summary, there a very many uncertainties involved with the referendum and any outcome, even if decisive, will bring with it the necessity to enter into complex and difficult negotiations with the ABG.


Having regard to the many difficulties and unknown factors that still surround this very complex issue it is impossible to provide even general advice on how the government should proceed.

As things stand, the most sensible position appears to be to press on with the planned referendum while giving no private or public commitment to any particular course of action until the results are known. Once this occurs, it should be possible to provide advice on the specific issues and problems that arise.

Iama Pengian
Department of the Prime Minister

11 April 2018


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Philip Fitzpatrick

A nice summary Chris.

For a lengthier exposition see Leonard Fong Roka's 'Bougainville Manifesto', published by Pukpuk and available on Amazon.

No doubt the prime minister has read it LOL.

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