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Independence from PNG: A core belief for many Bougainvilleans

BRF guerillas
Bougainville Resistance Force fighters guard the coffin of a boy shot dead by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (Ben Bohane)

Extract from a talk by ANTHONY REGAN to last week’s Bougainville referendum conference in Port Moresby. You can read here the full Bougainville News coverage of the conference

PORT MORESBY - The impacts of the Bougainville conflict were severe. Varying estimates of the numbers of conflict-related deaths have been made from 3,000 up to 20,000.

When it is realised that Bougainville’s population immediately before the conflict was about 150,000, and that 10,000 to 15,000 left Bougainville as a result of the conflict during 1989 and the first half of 1990, then even 3,000 deaths was an appalling outcome.

The deaths include perhaps 1,000 or more from conflict, inclusive of both Bougainvilleans and several hundred PNGDF and RPNGC personnel.

In addition, there were many extra-judicial killings by all groups involved in the conflict, as well as unknown numbers caused or contributed to by the Papua New Guinea blockade of Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA)-controlled areas.

These deaths, and the many more injuries that occurred, caused grave trauma for Bougainville and also for the rest of PNG.

Another source of grave trauma for Bougainville was the displacement of 60,000 people from their hamlets and villages to displaced persons camps, called care centres.

Trauma in Bougainville was also caused by the deep divisions amongst Bougainvillean communities caused by the conflict.

Other impacts included destruction of virtually all public infrastructure and private sector productive assets, and destruction of the capacity of Bougainville’s provincial government (which was suspended in June 1995) and of the national government agencies previously operating in Bougainville.

For PNG, the deaths and injuries suffered by many PNGDF and PNGRC personnel was a source of grave trauma, and contributed to significant loss of morale in both organisations.

The extent of the divisions amongst Bougainvilleans was manifested in the establishment of opposing government structures, inclusive of a Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) associated with the BRA, and from early 1995 the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG), which was quite closely associated with the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF), which had a nominated member to represent it in the government.

Amongst the BRA personnel and the extensive support base it enjoyed in many Bougainvillean communities, PNG was seen as at fault in the events involved in the origins of the conflict, and in particular in relation to the indiscriminate violence wrought initially by the police mobile squads, and later by the PNGDF. Many felt deep bitterness towards the PNG state.

As a result, the cause of independence from PNG became a deeply held core belief for many Bougainvilleans, and for many those views remain little changed by the almost 17 years that have elapsed since the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed.


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Peter Sandery

I'll qualify the comments below by saying that I have never set foot on Bougainville.

It is not just one mine that is in play, a large part of Bougainville is prospective for other porphyry copper deposits like Panguna and, off the west coast, for hydrocarbons.

It is these prospects that would be the bait to allow a possible re-opening of Panguna by a reputable operator, after the necessary re-assessment has been done.

Given this and the O'Neill government's propensity to make sows' ears out of silk purses, I cannot really see any Bougainvillean voting for anything but secession.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I imagine that many ordinary Bougainvilleans are dreading what might happen if the referendum is unsuccessful. They are thinking, could it all happen again?

All the elements are there for another civil war. There are mining companies pushing to re-open the mine and there are factions within the community arguing about the potential spoils.

On top of that the PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill is running a destabilisation campaign by saying that even if the result of the referendum is yes PNG may not recognise the outcome.

2019 is going to be a torrid year in Bougainville and the unrest could spread much wider.

I've seen no indication that Australia is gearing up for a bad outcome but that doesn't surprise me.

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