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The peacemaker: The Toroama story

Ishmael toroama portrait
Ishmael Toroama. A brave and effective fighter in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army who became recognised as a peacemaker

| Australian National University | Edited

CANBERRA – Ishmael Toroama, who was elected president of Bougainville in September 2020, is little known outside Papua New Guinea’s only autonomous province.

He was born in 1969 in Roreinang village in the rugged and remote Kongara area of central Bougainville, southeast and not far from the Panguna copper and gold mine and part of the Nasioi language and culture area.

Roreinang is a strong United Church (formerly Methodist) area of influence, and Toroama comes from a religious family. He has maintained a deep religious commitment all his life, often being described as a ‘born-again Christian’.

He was about 19 when the 10-year Bougainville conflict began in 1989, and he joined the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) fighters at an early stage.

As PNG security force action against the nascent BRA intensified in the first half of 1989, BRA leader and Panguna landowner Francis Ona based himself in Kongara.

Already recognised as a brave and effective fighter, Toroama became a bodyguard to Ona. By early 1990 he had developed his own strong following of young fighters, a unit that operated with some autonomy under the loosely structured BRA.

In March 1990 PNG security forces left Bougainville under a ceasefire at which point some of the disparate BRA elements began to behave in an undisciplined manner and assaults and looting became common.

North Solomons Provincial Government officers were targeted as PNG agents. Toroama, aged about 21, intervened to prevent mistreatment of at least one senior officer not previously known or linked to him.

In October 1994, a pan-Bougainville peace conference was held in the main Bougainville town, Arawa. Arrangements had been negotiated between then PNG prime minister Sir Julius Chan and the BRA chief of defence Sam Kauona.

But at the last minute the leadership of BRA and its associated Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) decided not to participate and BIG/BRA members were directed not to attend. Toroama, then about 24, ignored the direction, attended and spoke in favour of peace.

He also provided support and encouragement to the BIG legal adviser, Theodore Miriung, who had also ignored directions against attending the conference. Miriung emerged as a significant voice for unification of the then deeply divided Bougainville people.

In April 1995 Miriung was elected premier of the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG), established as a peace-building measure and replacing the North Solomons Provincial Government that had been suspended since mid-1990.

Later in 1995, Miriung took the lead in persuading both the PNG and Australian governments to agree to talks in Cairns, Australia, between BIG/BRA and BTG. Francis Ona, head of BRA and BIG, opposed the talks.

Toroama confronted Ona and BIG/BRA eventually participated in the talks, which achieved unprecedented progress towards an understanding amongst the divided Bougainville leaders.

Despite an agreement that further talks should be held in 1996, escalations of the conflict between late 1995 and 1997 delayed the leaders re-engaging but the process did later continue at Burnham, New Zealand, in July 1997.

Towards the end of the Burnham talks, problems arose in reaching agreement on the release of the five PNG police and defence force members held as BRA hostages since the September 1996 Kangu Beach massacre.

Toroama, then second in the BRA hierarchy, was influential in persuading the wider BRA leadership to agree to release the hostages as a goodwill gesture to PNG.

This was seen as an important contribution to Bougainvillean and PNG leaders later engaging through the Lincoln, New Zealand, talks.

In mid-1999, just as the often difficult negotiations for the Bougainville Peace Agreement began, Sam Kauona departed Bougainville for a two year training program in New Zealand and Toroama became the BRA’s chief of defence.

He held this position through the two years of peace negotiations (1999–2001) and the subsequent two years of the initial implementation of the weapons disposal process (2001–03).

He unified a coalition of diverse BRA elements, developed cooperation with the pro-PNG Bougainville Resistance Forces (BRF) leadership and guided the BRA into agreement on numerous compromises.

He did this by bringing together previously opposed Bougainville factions and between the large Bougainvillean negotiating team and the PNG government. All this activity was central to reaching the final settlement of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.

At the same time, the BRA, BRF and PNG were negotiating a weapons disposal agreement, with Toroama again playing a strong leadership role in what were difficult negotiations

After the peace agreement was signed in August 2001, it was essential to immediately mobilise the BRA and the BRF to implement weapons disposal.  

Only when the United Nations certified the disposal was complete could arrangements for Bougainville autonomy be implemented and the timetable be put in place for the eventual referendum on Bougainville’s political future.

In the two years from the signing of the peace agreement to the completion of the UN certified weapons disposal, Toroama took the lead in persuading often reluctant BRA leaders and rank-and-file members to surrender their weapons for containment and later destruction.

From mid-2002 to mid-2004, he was one of three BRA nominees to the 24-member Bougainville Constitutional Commission, which consulted widely amongst Bougainvilleans to develop proposals for a constitution, especially provisions for establishing the Autonomous Bougainville Government.

Toroama then played a less prominent public but still active role in peacebuilding. He contributed to public debate on a range of issues.

He also played key roles, as a facilitator and as a party, to many of the numerous reconciliation ceremonies that resolved conflict-related divisions and disputes, mainly amongst Bougainvilleans.

Next: The businessman

This is an edited version of ‘An Assessment of Bougainville’s President Toroama Part One: A Little Known Leader’, published by the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, at http://dpa.bellschool.anu.edu.au/experts-publications/publications/8006/ib-202112-assessment-bougainvilles-president-toroama-part-one

Anthony Regan writes with 40 years’ experience in matters connected to Bougainville’s governance and future. He advised the Bougainvillean parties during the peace process and the Autonomous Bougainville Government in relation to legal issues arising in the preparations for the referendum


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