THERE may be a war of words occurring around the transitional mining legislation passed through Bougainville's parliament last week, but the good news is that we now have our own law to deal with mining in the province.
Of course, mining has been a controversial issue on Bougainville since the 1960s. We all know it sparked a crisis that cost many Bougainvilleans their lives.
Observing the protests over the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) creating this mining law, both sides seem to have good reason for argument: Bougainville has ambiguous problems within which Papua New Guinea is the catalyst.
In his 1997 doctoral thesis, Dr Jerry Semos stated plainly that “in 1964, an Australian mining company, Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) came to Bougainville, uninvited.”
This forceful entry was legalised by the cruel Bougainville Copper Agreement of 1967. It was a tragedy that culminated in the deaths of 15-20,000 innocent Bougainvilleans since 1988.
Because of the ten years of destruction and bloodshed, the world saw the need that politics should be streamlined to accommodate Bougainville, and so emerged the PNG-friendly Bougainville Peace Agreement of 2001.
Analysis of the Agreement would show that the Bougainvillean leadership of the time gave too much to PNG. The late leader Joseph Kabui had a notable weakness: of not hurting others and desiring to maintain positive relations with all.
The peace process did not value the suffering of the Solomon people of Bougainville.
In a 1990s article, Bougainville: A sad and silent tragedy in the South Pacific, Bougainville leader Martin Miriori wrote:
On 16 September 1975, Papua New Guinea obtained independence from Australia. Bougainville's pleas for the people to be allowed to exercise their right to determine their own political future were ignored. Panguna became one of the largest opencast mines in the world, and the only source of finance for Papua New Guinea's independence. In essence, Australia gave Bougainville and her people as an independence gift to Papua New Guinea.
Bougainvilleans were an object given to PNG by Australia to exploit and finance PNG’s independence.
Raspal S Khosa, in his 1992 University of Adelaide thesis, The Secessionist Crisis 1964-1992: Melanesians, Missionaries and Mining, highlighted the Anglo-German Declaration of 1886 as dividing the Solomon Islands into two spheres of influence between Britain in the south and Germany to the north.
Then there was exploitation by foreign planters, two world wars and, from the 1960s, CRA threatening people's existence with the Panguna mine – hastily established to fund the development of PNG.
PNG knew that the chaotic experiences of the Bougainville people had disturbed their psyche and had attuned them to struggle for self-determination. But it did not respond appropriately.
This ensuing chaos led to the armed crisis that began in 1988 and which clearly PNG had no power to handle. Australia, in the cause of regional stability, backed PNG and tried to starve out the rebels – and the rest of the population – through a blockade.
With the support of small Pacific countries, especially the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and promotion of Bougainville’s cause overseas, a peace process began slowly developing.
As Anthony Regan’s 2010 book, Light Intervention: Lessons from Bougainville, put it, the conflict that was supposed to be an internal crisis internationalised and PNG lost control of Bougainville.
Peace prevailed on Bougainville not because of PNG (its police and army were forced out of Bougainville and it was Bougainvilleans who were fighting and killing each other) but because Bougainvilleans saw the need to end the conflict and work towards a lasting political settlement for their future.
But PNG took the upper hand in the peace negotiations and once again disrupted Bougainvilleans' right to self-determination which they had fought and died for. PNG was not willing to support Bougainvilleans and let them march freely into independence but enforced further burdens upon the troubled people of the island.
My personal experiences of leaders who participated in those peace negotiations with PNG and others in the late 1990s showed that PNG was always barking wildly at Bougainvilleans demanding us to do this and do that.
Anthony Regan’s 2010 work said:
This strong sentiment was a factor in the PNG government negotiations with parties sometimes arguing for limited roles for not only the UN and the PMG [Peace Monitoring Group], but also foreign advisers to the Bougainville leaders. Such arguments were a source of tension, as the Bougainville leadership in generally supported expansive roles for the international intervention, and strongly opposed any suggestion of interference by [PNG government] in relation to sources of advice utilised by Bougainville.
PNG was not there to address the injustices faced by Bougainvilleans under PNG but to undermine us. It is known throughout Bougainville that PNG was not willing to sign the Bougainville Peace Agreement unless it was given a veto power over the outcomes of the prescribed referendum on independence.
The PNG criteria forced on the leaders of Bougainville were that Bougainville must be weapons free, the economy must be self-sustaining and autonomy must be functional. Let me quote Regan again:
The logic is that in the 10 to 15 years from the establishment of the ABG in 2005, the PNG government has the opportunity to work closely with the ABG to promote all forms of development in Bougainville in a way that could be expected to encourage Bougainvilleans to consider the possible merits of remaining a part of PNG when it comes time to vote in the referendum.
All PNG government activities on Bougainville, including the Peter O’Neill tour in January this year, have been part of this strategy to undermine the Bougainville people’s right to freedom.
And under this threat, the ABG is struggling to create laws like the mining bill to assert its functional capacities as a government that can carry Bougainville forward.
The ABG moving forward to a referendum for an independence that will be well based on a viable economy is a threat to a PNG that is wanting to undermine the authority of the Bougainville government and keep the province integrated within PNG.
This is the ambiguity of Bougainville today.