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FOCUS September 2003 Volume 33

Crisis and Peace in Bougainville

David Worner

An estimated 12,000 people died during the internal crisis that gripped Bougainville in the 1990s. Destruction and dislocation have also taken a heavy toll on the population of 180,000. However, after almost a decade of fighting, the people of Bougainville are now several years into a peace process that, notwithstanding setbacks and doubts along the way, is due to result in an autonomous government with elections scheduled for 2004.

Bougainville island is part of the North Solomons province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Geographically and culturally, however, it is closer to the Solomon Islands than the PNG capital of Port Moresby. Violence erupted in Bougainville in 1989. It was the result of a dispute over compensation due for the use of land by the Bougainville Copper Limited mining company, a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto Australia. PNG riot police and then the PNG Defence Force met sabotage of the mining operations with excessive force. Many human rights abuses were recorded including extra-judicial killings, beatings, intimidation and other abuses of the civilian population, and the burning of homes and villages. These abuses consolidated locals' support for the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and left a legacy of fear and distrust that the PNG forces are still overcoming. The conflict escalated into a war for independence.

During this time, Bougainvilleans who do not want independence from PNG created a militia called Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF). It was reportedly armed by the PNG forces.

Atrocities, however, were not committed exclusively by PNG forces. In many parts of the island, the population was polarized into supporters of either the BRA or BRF. The dispute that had begun over the mine degenerated into a war on the island with many thousands killed, many thousands more dying from illnesses due to forced dislocation, poor nutrition and lack of access to medical treatment following the destruction of food sources and health facilities.

A series of high-level peace talks sponsored by the governments of New Zealand and Australia led in 1997 to a ceasefire and, at the invitation of Bougainvillean and PNG leaders, the deployment of a neutral Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) made up of approximately 250 unarmed, mostly military personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu.

Following further confidence building measures, rounds of talks and agreements, the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in 2001. The cornerstone provisions of the 2001 Peace Agreement included the withdrawal of PNG forces from Bougainville; a weapons disposal plan; election of an autonomous provincial government; and the possibility of full independence from PNG. The elections for the autonomous government would be subject to UN-verification of weapons disposal and agreement on a new constitution for the province. Full independence would be subject to the outcome of a referendum to be held in Bougainville 10-15 years after an autonomous government is elected.

By the time the Peace Agreement was signed in 2001, a permanent ceasefire had already been established and the five-person United Nations Observer Mission (UNOMB) constituted. The UNOMB had a mandate to oversee the peace agreements and was supported by the International Peace Monitoring Group (PMG), which was similar in structure to its predecessor, the TMG. The unarmed PMG, initially a few hundred strong, was later scaled back to approximately 90 personnel, almost half of which were Australian Defence Forces, a quarter New Zealand Army, with the remainder being Australian civilians and Fijian and Vanuatu military or police. The PMG was predominantly centrally located near the town of Arawa in Bougainville (in the now defunct port facility of the mine) but small teams were based in six or seven district centres. The role of the PMG was to support the peace process and particularly assist with weapons disposal.

The weapons disposal plan involved three-stages. In Stage One, weapons were locked in trunks. Both the trunks and the keys were retained by local commanders of the combatant factions in villages throughout the island. In Stage Two, the trunks were transferred to shipping containers, of which there were approximately thirty around the island. Each container had two locks, one key held by the UN and one held by the area commander of either the BRA or BRF. In 2003, this system was modified due to break-ins and theft of trunks from the containers. Double-locked trunks were thereafter allowed to remain in villages rather than in the centralized containers.

In mid-2003, the UN was able to verify that Stage Two had been sufficiently achieved on the island. This was a prerequisite for allowing the elections for autonomous government to proceed. Provided that the constitution currently being drafted gains approval, the elections are due to be held by mid-2004.

Stage Three of the weapons disposal plan is yet to be reached. It is a decision by the two factions, BRA and BRF, regarding the ultimate fate of the collected weapons. While some weapons have already been destroyed, a decision should be made jointly to destroy all weapons or to retain them for the use by a future Bougainville police or defence force.

The surrender of weapons, witnessed and documented by the PMG, was usually conducted in ceremonies held in villages all over the island. The ceremonies were characterized by singing and dancing by the villagers, speeches by local political and factional leaders followed by a feast. In this way, Bougainvilleans marked an end to hostilities, ushering in a new era of peace.

Another significant role of the PMG was to facilitate communication in support of the peace process. This was accomplished by various means:

  • provision of transportation of leaders to meetings, usually via helicopter or four-wheel drive
  • investment in communication infrastructure - repair and maintenance of phone lines, satellite phone links, radio communication and the repair of the local radio station equipment
  • dissemination of information through visits to villages all over Bougainville, where community meetings were facilitated and monthly newsletters produced at the PMG headquarters were distributed.

The newsletters proved to be an important means of disseminating news about the peace process around the island.

A corollary to the PMG's role of information dissemination was the investigation of ceasefire violations (CFVs) and gathering of information relevant to the peace process across the island. CFVs were documented and reported to the Peace Process Consultative Committee (comprised of political and factional leaders, with representatives from the UN and PMG). The PMG also had a reporting function to its member-governments.

The PMG has now withdrawn from Bougainville. A ceremony on 30 June 2003 marked the end of another stage in Bougainville's path to peace. While the PMG has all but closed down its operations, a small contingent of representatives from the four member-countries, comprised of mostly civilians and called the Bougainville Transition Team (BTT) remains to support the UNOMB. It is likely that the BTT and the UNOMB will withdraw mid next year if elections for the autonomous government proceed as expected.

The conflict in Bougainville has left many scars but the peace process has largely been a success story. Progress has not been as rapid as many had hoped or expected. It has been an expensive, resource intensive exercise. In addition to the substantial role played by Australia and New Zealand, vital ingredients were the support of the United Nations and other Pacific countries. The fact that the PMG was not armed was also significant, reinforcing its role of supporting the Bougainvilleans' own peace process, rather than one of enforcement. Many argue that the process, supported by the UN and Bougainville's neighbors, could stand as a model response to a crisis such as experienced in Bougainville.

David Worner was a member of the Peace Monitoring Group in Bougainville from October 2002 - February 2003. He currently works for the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Views are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of AusAID.

For further information please contact: "David Worner" (