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The Bougainville Conflict: Political and Economic Agendas

Page history last edited by Peace Studies 12 years, 2 months ago

FrontPage     Resources     Concepts:Themes



Regan, Anthony J. (2003) ‘The Bougainville Conflict: Political and Economic Agendas’ in K. Ballentine and J. Sherman (eds) The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed and Grievance, Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.


‘Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea (PNG) provides perhaps the only case in the world where a single large and highly profitable mining venture operated by a multinational corporation has been both at the centre of a violent separatist conflict (1988- 1997) and was also forced to close by that conflict – perhaps permanently. Those initiating violence against Bougainville Copper Ltd. (BCL) in November 1988 were not doing so in support of secession or an end to mining. However, throughout both the subsequent conflict and the remarkably successful peace process to date, both secession and the future of mining have remained issues of central importance. p.133 …

The Bougainville case does not support the pattern posited by Collier and Hoeffler. Although grievances about distribution of mine revenue were central to origins of the conflict, the conflict was not primarily about rebel access to the wealth of the mine, nor did that wealth provide the funding needed to make the rebellion more viable and thereby contribute to its persistence. Rather, as the following analysis will show, this was a conflict in which economic, political, and other agendas were mutually reinforcing. Consistent with Ross’s analysis, local grievances about the impact of mining operations and the way that its revenues were allocated fed into a long-standing sense of cultural and political exclusion felt by Bougainvilleans, precipitating armed rebellion. Less certain is the extent to which a desire to capture mining revenues for the benefit of Bougainvilleans fueled separatism, as those supporting independence from PNG have been divided from the start on the social desirability of mining, whatever its economic costs and benefits. p.134

At 1,000 kilometres east of the mainland national capital, Port Moresby, Bougainville is the most remote of PNG’s nineteen provinces. Composed of a group of islands – the two largest of which are Bougainville and Buka – the region is geographically, culturally and linguistically part of the Slomon Islands chain. Bougainville’s integration into PNG is relatively recent; it became part of PNG rather than the Solomon Islands in one of the ‘accidents’ of late-nineteenth century colonial map-drawing. Its relations with successive colonial authorities, most recently the Australian –administered Territory of Papua and New Guinea (1946-1975), have often been troubled. In short, the later conflicts over the mine tended to amplify preexisting grievances arising from the accumulated impacts of colonial rule. p.134

Despite the profound intrusions of colonialism and postcolonial development, precolonial social structures, within which small landholding clan lineages are dominant, have shown a high degree of resilience. Most of Bougainville’s population of 200,000 rely on subsistence agriculture in isolated rural communities – a fact that accounts for both their high level of de facto autonomy from the state and their continued cultural and linguistic diversity. pp.134-35 ….

From the mid-1980s, the long festering grievances of marginalized young landowners resurfaced, fed by a number of tensions related to mining as well as to other mounting socioeconomic problems. These tensions contributed to a growing sense of crisis in Bougainville in the middle to late 1980s. The NSPG [North Solomon Provincial Government] clearly felt the pressure and responded by developing new policies to deal with problems associated with crime and squatters, land distribution patterns, and unemployed youth. It also began exploring ways to strengthen traditional authority, in response to increasing concerns about the way that modern development was seen to be eroding customary social formations. While there was growing awareness of social problems, there was little, if any, concern among any of the authorities that major social disruption was approaching.

From the mid-1980s, Francis Ona and other leaders of a group of young landowners began to challenge the leadership of the Panguna Landowners Association, whose members they claimed were benefiting unfairly from the mine and had failed to represent all landowner interests. From late 1987, the young landowners sought to take control of the PLA. By early 1988, they had also secured the support of disgruntled semi-skilled Bougainvillean mine workers, as well as Damien Dameng’s Me’ekamui Pontoku Onoring, the prominent traditionalist opponents of mining. Known as the ‘New PLA’, they made a series of escalating demands against BCL, including a huge monetary compensation for environmental and other impacts of mining operations, a 50 percent share of mine revenue to the landowners and the NSPG, and the transfer of ownership of BCL to the people of Bougainville within five years. The government responded by setting up an independent inquiry. While critical of some aspects of BCL’s operations, its report largely dismissed the landowners’ claims about environmental damage.

In November 1988 the New PLA and its allies responded by attacking BCL buildings and destroying the power supply to the mine. … The authorities, however, did not play according to script. Instead of concessions, they sought to restore what they viewed as a serious breach in law and order by deploying mobile squads of riot police. … With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the riot-squad deployment was a disastrous move. Trained mainly to deal with intercommunal fighting in the Highlands of PNG, the riot squads employed their standard tactic of using violence to intimidate communities into ending their conflicts. In Bougainville, police reprisals were directed indiscriminately at communities in and around the mine lease areas. This action had little direct impact on the small but growing groups of ‘militants’ supporting Francis Ona, but provoked outrage and further violence among the general populace, many of whom until then had little reason to support Ona’s nascent movement.

Within weeks of being deployed, the almost entirely non-Bougainvillean riot squads became seen as the enemy by many. There was rapid mobilization behind Ona, who emerged as the central leader of a diverse (p.144) coalition of actors and interests, which eventually adopted the name Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). Composed of small, armed units based in and supported by local communities, the BRA was never a hierarchical and tightly organized body. Units retained a high degree of autonomy, but would often cooperate in particular operations, employing guerilla tactics that the PNG forces had not been trained to counter.

In this way, both the attacks and the reprisals they elicited touched off simmering tensions and acted as the catalyst for mobilization of a wider ethnonationalist rebellion, in which secession came to be seen as a panacea for for a wide range of accumulated social and economic ills.  Initially, Ona’s objective was to effect a redistribution of mine revenues. He soon found, however, that wide support was conditional on his embracing the goal of secession, and at least paying lip service to those committed to closure of the mine. From February 1989, he took up the secessionist cause and began to mobilize widespread support. As always, however, the picture in Bougainville was complex. There were people in all areas who opposed the rebellion. There were interrelated regional and nascent class interests in this opposition; as in the past, in Buka and parts of north Bougainville, and in more developed areas of the east coast, as well as among the emerging Bougainville elite who had benefited from mining and related businesses, there was considerable, if uneven, support for remaining part of PNG. p.145 …

Unable to contain the escalating violence, the PNGDF was evacuated following a March 1990 cease-fire. In the months before and immediately after March, there was a mass exodus of the 15,000 to 20,000 non-Bougainvillean residents, as well as many Bougainvilleans, especially the elite and skilled workers. All formal government authority lapsed after departure of the security forces. Surprised by the withdrawal and unprepared for rule, it took nearly two months for the BRA to establish the Bougainvillean Interim Government, with Ona as its president. One of its first acts was a unilateral declaration of independence in May 1990. The new government adopted a national program, influenced by the traditionalist ideology articulated by Dameng and others, based on communal self-sufficiency, restored egalitarianism, and a rejection of both outsiders and the modernizing influences of the outside world. pp.146-7 …

… peace efforts were attempted at the earliest stages of the conflict and continued to be made at various points thereafter, at the initiative of both the national and Bougainvillean authorities, and in a number of instances with facilitation and mediation by governments in the region. By the mid-1990s, several factors converged to make the conflict receptive to negotiated resolution. In essence, there was a growing unwillingness on all sides to bear the cost of continued conflict.

By 1996 the conflict had taken a terrible human and material toll on Bougainvillean society. p.149

Leadership talks in New Zealand in January 1998 resulted in the Lincoln Agreement. It provided for an ‘irrevocable caese-fire’, continuation of the regional monitoring force (now called the Peace Monitoring Group –PMG), establishment of a UN Observer Mission on Bougainville (UNOMB), and a program for a political settlement to begin in 1998. p.151….

As a result of unforeseen difficulties in implementation of the Lincoln Agreement, negotiations for a political settlement did not commence until June 1999, and they continued for over two difficult years before producing the Bougainville Peace Agreement in August 2001. The main focus was on a referendum and autonomy as an alternative to secession. The future of mining was not specifically on the agenda. However, it was understood on all sides that this would be a matter for Bougainville to decide, although PNG would reserve its right to a share of revenues should the mine be allowed to reopen. That understanding is reflected in the peace agreement, which includes three main elements:

-         A constitutionally guaranteed referendum for Bougainvilleans on independence for Bougainville from PNG, deferred for a period of fifteen years.

-         Constitutional arrangements for development of a high degree of autonomy for Bougainville in the interim, under which the arrangements with respect to powers and distribution of revenue in relation to future mining are provided. p.151

-         A complex multistage plan for the disposal of weapons by former Bougainvillean combatants, various stages being tied to both withdrawal of PNG security forces and the passing and coming into operation of the constitutional laws on referendum and autonomy.

As of late 2002, the implementation of the peace agreement was already well under way. p.152

The prospects for peace and development in postconflict Bougainville and PNG in general will largely depend on how well the manifold tensions of social and economic modernization are managed. Given the devastating impact of the conflict on the economy and livelihoods of Bougainvilleans, the main goal of the population and the leadership is rapid economic development, and ultimately fiscal self-reliance. While there are major differences from the situation in the 1980s, insofar as there are now no mining operations and revenues, similar socioeconomic dynamics may be in place, as many people struggle for access to a much smaller pool of economic resources, which could create new divisions and tensions. In today’s postconflict situation, where resort to violence as a method of redressing grievances is still deeply ingrained, it might prove even more difficult to resolve these tensions than in the 1980s. p.152 …

Based on the evidence from Bougainville, the conceptualization of economic factors that may contribute to conflict as ‘greed’ and of political factors as ‘grievance’ is an unhelpful, and indeed misleading, dichotomy. Economic factors can themselves give rise to legitimate political grievances. In the Bougainville case, political and economic factors are closely interwoven – at least they cannot be meaningfully separated. The main causes of the conflict were the specific and generalized grievances of many Bougainvilleans toward BCL and the PNG government over mining. While these grievances were very much economic in nature, they were also inherently political: for Bougainvilleans, the struggle over mining operations and revenues was part of a longer and larger ethnonational struggle to redress Bougainville’s historically marginalized political status. Without an understanding of Bougainvill’s specific historical and cultural context, it would be difficult to understand the interplay of the various political and economic factors that operated to produce the outcomes that occurred. pp.159-60


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