Something wrong when PNG’s wealth benefits others
Village Life

Bougainville’s referendum: Part 1 – The history

John Momis - "The Bougainville peace process has been remarkably successful and is recognised around the world as one of the best in the last 25 years"

JOHN MOMIS | Bougainville President

PNG Attitude is presenting edited extracts of Dr Momis’s recent address to the Papua New Guinea parliament in three parts representing the history, the present and the future of November’s referendum on Bougainville’s political future

PORT MORESBY - You may ask why there is such a strong interest in independence on the part of so many Bougainvilleans.

The origins of that go back at least as far as the early years after World War II, and probably began with resentment of the colonial administration’s neglect of development of Bougainville.

Then in the mid-1960s came the massive change brought by the BCL copper and gold mine which began operating in 1972. There was widespread resentment of the imposition of the huge mine by the colonial regime in partnership with BCL’s parent company, Conzinc Riotinto Australia.

In particular there was resentment of the very low levels of land rents and compensation that would be paid to local landowners.

It was no coincidence that in 1969 Bougainvilllean students at UPNG called for a referendum on independence, and that a Bougainvillean member of the colonial House of Assembly moved a motion in 1971 calling for such a referendum.

During the mid-1970s, the demand for Bougainville’s independence became stronger as PNG headed for independence. When the mine began operating in 1972, with very little of its revenue flowing to Bougainville, the educated leadership of Bougainville became spokesmen for independence.

Disagreements on the share of mining revenue came to a head in talks between Bougainville leaders and the PNG government in mid-1975 and were probably the most important issues behind Bougainville’s initial unilateral declaration of independence made on 1 September 1975.

There was another important reason for support for independence. It concerned the role of decentralisation in the independence constitution.

I was deputy chairman of the House of Assembly’s Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC), and had played a role in developing the CPC’s decentralisation proposals.

Those proposals were to a significant degree intended to be a response to Bougainvillean demands for independence.

If Bougainville had a constitutional right to a strong and autonomous provincial government, it would then be free to make its own decisions about managing development in Bougainville and would not need to consider independence. 

But in July 1975, in the course of debate about the then draft constitution in the colonial legislature, the PNG government deleted the decentralisation provisions from the draft constitution.

The deletion of these provisions contributed to a widespread view that Bougainville would be better off as an independent country.

I was then one of four Bougainvillean members of the House of Assembly (which on independence became the national parliament). I resigned from parliament in mid-1975 in support of the position of the Bougainville leadership.

Later in1975 I was one of two Bougainvilleans the leadership sent to the United Nations in New York in what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to gain support for Bougainville’s demands for independence.

When it became clear that there was no international community support for independence, the Bougainville leadership negotiated with the PNG government. By July 1976 agreement was reached on putting the decentralisation provisions back into the constitution, leading to early recognition of the North Solomons Provincial Government.

The issue about Bougainville’s share of mining revenue was resolved by agreement that mining royalties previously received by the national government would in future be paid to the provincial government

Initially, Bougainvilleans had high expectations of the provincial government system. The North Solomons Provincial Government became the best-run provincial government in PNG. But, as time went on, it became clear that the provincial government did not have the powers to deal with many aspects of the situation in Bougainville.

In particular, it could not deal with land, mining or freedom of movement of people from other parts of PNG into Bougainville.

Further, members of a new generation of people from the mine lease areas and nearby parts of Bougainville were increasingly concerned about the very small share of mine revenue received by landowners.

A loose coalition of Bougainvillean interest groups developed from the mid-1980s. It included younger generation mine lease landowners, the Arawa Mungkas association, pressure groups in Bana and Siwai, and the Damien Dameng-led indigenous political and religious movement called Me’ekamui Pontoku Onoring.

Francis Ona emerged as the spokesman for this coalition, which by 1987 to 1988 was trying to get the PNG government and BCL to listen to its concerns. In November 1988 members of the Bana pressure group used explosives to destroy powerlines which carried electricity for the mine from the power station on the east coast.

This action was intended to get the PNG government and BCL to take up negotiations with disgruntled Bougainvilleans. But the national government and BCL regarded the issue as a law and order problem, and police mobile squads were brought in.

The mobile squads unleashed indiscriminate violence on people from the mine lease areas. This violence ensured strong support developed for Ona and those with him.

Independence became one of the main demands of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) which was established in mid-1989, headed by Ona. Then almost nine years of conflict followed.

No one knows how many lives were lost. They included at least several hundred killed in armed conflict, many extra-judicial killings and many who died because of lack of medicines and services because of an air and sea blockade of Bougainville that operated between 1990 and 1994.

These deaths fuelled support for secession from PNG amongst many Bougainvilleans.

However, at the same time, the conflict was complicated. Opposition to PNG was not uniform. Numerous Bougainvilleans opposed the BRA and supported PNG. Armed groups, the Bougainville Resistance Forces (BRF), fought on the side of PNG.

When the peace process began in mid-1997, much of the initial effort was directed towards dealing with these differences amongst Bougainvilleans.

The peace process has been remarkably successful. It is now recognised around the world as one of the best processes in the last 25 years. The peace agreement was a joint process between Bougainvilleans and the PNG government. The role of the national government was very positive.

The process began in July 1997 with a meeting in New Zealand of leaders of the opposing Bougainvillean factions. Then in October 1997 the Bougainville leaders met with PNG leaders, again in New Zealand.

They agreed on a truce, and on establishing an unarmed regional truce monitoring group led by New Zealand. Then in January 1998, again in New Zealand, the leaders agreed on a ceasefire and on inviting the United Nations to provide an observer mission.

When the ceasefire came into operation in April 1998, the regional truce monitoring group became the unarmed Australian–led peace monitoring group.

In these early stages of the peace process, a lot of attention was given to the tensions amongst previously opposed Bougainville groups – especially the BRA and the BRF.

Only when Bougainvillean leaders were able to work together was it possible to work towards a political settlement to the conflict, with the previously opposed Bougainville leaders negotiating as a combined group.

There were some Bougainvillean groups that refused to join the peace process. The former BRA leader, Francis Ona, and some elements of the BRA claimed Bougainville was already independent under a unilateral declaration of independence made by Ona in May 1990, and never joined the peace process.

However, those supporting Ona were a small proportion of the BRA and it was not possible for them to challenge the peace process with violence.

Eventually, peace talks directed to achieving a political agreement to permanently end the conflict began in June 1999. The negotiations continued for more than two years, until August 2001.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement evolved with three main pillars: autonomy for Bougainville; weapons disposal by Bougainville factions and withdrawal of PNG forces from Bougainville; and an eventual referendum on independence for Bougainville.


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