WHILST in Bougainville a couple of years back I loved the cool evenings when I used to go for a swim in the Buka Passage.
This provided comfort from the hot humid days. I also remember travelling down to Tinputz from Kokopau. The trip along the dusty limestone road was punctuated by white crosses that reminded everyone of the end of conflict.
I have since had a fondness for Bougainville as it seemed so shocking to me that such beautiful people living in Paradise would be subject to the horrors of war.
My view has always been a sense that the PNG government had betrayed its own people. The Bouginvilleans themselves took Rio Tinto to the courts in the United States however the courts rejected their case.
The interaction of forces that triggered the Bougainville crisis are complex. For instance, was it driven by secessionist sentiments that predate PNG’s independence or were these sentiments exploited by Panguna landowners in order to drag the island into their dispute over distribution of royalties?
There is also the narrative that the PNG government was fighting a proxy war for foreign interests.
Being in Bougainville and meeting people on the ground doesn’t make me an expert. But I find Bougainville’s reconstruction remarkable. Starved off finances from outside, the people have used their own initiative to literally build from scratch, albeit rather chaotically as is the case at Kokopau.
Seeing the entrepreneurial spirit of Bougainvilleans made me wonder what could have been had there not been conflict on the island. I find a paradox in the Bougainvillean experience in that rather than providing more political, financial and environmental concessions; the state would risk losing much of its revenue by going to war.
I never understood this paradox until I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The book essentially takes the reader to a journey through history that is framed by the lens of the Milton Freedman and the Chicago school of economics.
If one applies The Shock Doctrine to the Bougainville situation, one sees the opportunity that the war provided. As key players like Francis Ona and Joseph Kabui are now out of the picture, history is being reinterpreted to suit the needs of those seeking opportunities in Bougainville.
As seen recently by the visit by the PNG prime minister to Bougainville, some of the original demands that triggered the crisis can be whitewashed in the name of peace.
And so as Bougainvilleans still traumatised by the war, remain in a state of shock and confusion, opportunists have invaded the island to peddle their versions of salvation and the road to heaven.
Naomi Klein highlights something that Bougainvilleans need to take note of – economic independence. Whilst she points out the case of South Africa’s ANC gaining political concessions and losing economic power, Bougainvilleans need not look any further than PNG.
Throughout PNG, unregulated exploitation is rampant. Papua New Guineans aren’t in control of the economy nor is their government regulating it. The Constitution is trampled on and amended to suit the needs of whoever pays the political prostitutes in Waigani.
In Bougainville also, the absence of regulatory mechanisms means that exploitation thrives much like the rest of PNG. During my visit I found that part of the anti-Chinese sentiment was driven by Bougainville’s petit bourgeoisie who didn’t like the Chinese undercutting the profits they make from ripping off their own people.
When Momis helped write PNG’s Constitution he and the Founding Fathers wanted to maintain the egalitarian ideals of traditional societies. What they perhaps did not fully grasp was that PNG’s trajectory was into the modern western model of development. As such, social stratification was an inevitable consequence.
The challenge was to regulate the upward movement of wealth and power. Somare certainly may have been weary of this when he introduced the Leadership Code to regulate the behaviour of leaders.
The unfortunate effect of this perhaps has been that Papua New Guineans have disproportionately placed the nation’s short comings on its leaders. To a certain extent this may be justified but when one looks at the high turnover rate of politicians, it may actually be that the wrong people are being heavily penalised.
I find in Klein’s The Shock Doctrine an untold narrative that perhaps best explains events in this country including the Bougainville crisis. If as claimed by some that there was foreign encouragement for the PNG government to go to war, it would most definitely not have been in a PNG interest to do so.
A post war Bougainville provided the “clean slate” foreigners needed for a fresh start whilst placing the PNG government at a disadvantage for being the “aggressor”. New legislative arrangements as well and the potential for softer demands over Panguna would seem more likely in such an environment. As such, in the rush towards independence, Bougainville risks selling out on the economic roots of the revolution, much like South Africa’s ANC.
PNG’s most recent application of The Shock Doctrine has been in the wake of the PNGLNG Project. In the mid-1990s during the Skate years, no one was willing to lend money to the government. Today they government is swimming in a cesspool of foreign debt.
With the US economy showing strong signs of recovery it seems likely the Federal Reserve may hike rates. Not only will this increase the cost of borrowing, it will also lead to capital flows to a more politically stable market like the US as opposed to “emerging markets” like PNG.
Whilst on Bougainville, the oppression was done via economic and military means, the rest of PNG has faced the brunt of economic warfare. The billions being borrowed in the name of Papua New Guineans have made foreign corporations filthy rich whilst the majority of Papua New Guineans walk in rags. What has unfolded in recent times has essentially been corporate welfare paid for by the poor.
Foreign multinationals enjoy tax breaks and government concessions whilst their poorly paid workers carry the national tax burden. According to the 2014 National Budget figures, PNG workers will be the largest contributors to government revenue. This stratification of wealth in favour of the wealthy has been highlighted in a recent Asian Development Bank report. The report acknowledges that whilst PNG is expected to have a 21 per cent growth in GDP next year, the gap between rich and poor is expected to increase.
A government that is heavily in debt is not likely to negotiate from a position of strength. It will be at the mercy of economic policies shoved down its throat by those who own the debt. It will also be vulnerable to cheque book diplomacy as illustrated by the recent Constitutional amendments related to the Manus Island Detention Centre.
Having said all that, it is wrong to think that Papua New Guineans are somehow innocent victims of foreign interference. Throughout history Papua New Guineans have been both active and passive participants in the shaping of the nation. In the case of Manus Detention Centre, disaster capitalism presented itself in terms of the Sunamist’s dream of spin-off businesses related to the Manus Detention Centre.
The privatisation of asylum seeker detention centres has been disastrous. Both the Sunamist guards and the asylum seekers have now been vilified while the Australian government has come out almost untainted.
Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics spawned the notion of profiting from disasters. The Sunamists aimed to profit from Australia’s privatisation and outsourcing of asylum seeker detention centres. In Bougainville, powerful warlords and the petit bourgeoisie are profiting from the carnage of war.
PNG’s lack of infrastructure has certainly being beneficial to the profit margins of Chinese construction companies. The so called problem of crime has been beneficial to the security industry.
Even the “disaster” of the state not being able to regain Oil Search shares traded to IPIC, was and opportunity for Oil Search to raise funds to finance its acquisition in PRL 15 (Elk/Antelope). I could go on but I hope you get the narrative of how the world of disaster capitalism works.