From Civil War To The Boardroom


Internment camps, the mortaring of children, aerial bombardments, assassinations, rape, and the denial of humanitarian aid — these are just some of the criminal state practices endured by civilians during Papua New Guinea’s decade-long civil war on the island of Bougainville (1988-1998). No senior official from Australia or PNG has been formally censured, let alone prosecuted, for their involvement in this dirty war.

To compound matters, over the past two years Australian mining companies have appointed to their boards of directors individuals that headed organisations directly responsible for some of the worst atrocities during this dark period. Universities and the media have played a part too, lending cultural capital to various senior players, without a word on the crimes that occurred under their watch.

Perhaps the most overt example to date involves Sir Rabbie Namaliu, who was PNG’s prime minister during 1988-1992. Under his prime ministership, the security situation on Bougainville gradually deteriorated, after aggrieved landowners shut down the lucrative Panguna copper and gold mine employing industrial sabotage. The mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), the PNG subsidiary of British-Australian giant Rio Tinto.

Fuelling the violence was a systematic campaign of state terror administered by the Namaliu government. During March/April 1989, state violence was primarily directed at communities believed responsible for the mine attacks — at the time the mine provided 24 per cent of government revenue. Dozens of villages were burnt to the ground by police mobile squad units.

Following these attacks a state of emergency was declared in a bid to combat an emerging insurgency led by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). This allowed the PNG Defence Force to come to the fore. In a series of progressively more brutal counterinsurgency operations, homes on Bougainville were bombarded with mortars — which included white phosphorous rounds — and grenades fired from Australian supplied helicopters. Those suspected of BRA affiliation were taken out and tortured, many were killed.

However, arguably the most harmful action taken by the PNG state under Namaliu’s prime ministership, was the decision to place a military blockade around Bougainville in May 1990. Nothing was allowed in, not even medical aid. The humanitarian effects were profound. Drawing on data collected by Bougainvillean doctors, Community Aid Abroad worker, Lissa Evans, warned in 1992 that “over 3000 people have died as a direct consequence of the blockade”.

For the PNG state this was a wholly welcomed effect. Indeed, when the government began experimenting with the strategic use of embargoes during late 1989, a senior civil servant told BCL executives, “when people start to feel the hardships in education and health they may start to turn against the militants”. This view was again reiterated in an internal planning document, authored by PNG’s Department of Defence:

“People are facing hardships as a result of the absence of medical [aid]and basic goods and services … the government should continually push for peace talks outside of NSP [North Solomons Province], at the same time cut off further shipping, deliberately to worsen the hardships people are already facing.”

Was Namaliu aware of the motives underpinning the military blockade of Bougainvlle? As prime minister one would expect so, and his testimony from September 1990 suggests he was complicit. Speaking at a press conference, Namaliu remarked:

"If for instance you look at the situation as it has existed now since March — the level of services in the province has collapsed totally … So in that sense it is difficult to entrench your position if you don’t have the goods to deliver to the people. Eventually the people themselves would get frustrated and will start applying, as they are in fact doing, pressure on you to either resume the services or something else might develop."

Given that the denial of humanitarian aid was coupled to a systematic campaign of torture and killing, all of which occurred under Namaliu’s watch, the former PNG prime minister would appear a bad choice for any company wishing to display its social responsibility credentials, especially if that company was itself directly implicated in the Bougainville war.

Yet in early 2011 it was announced that Namaliu had been appointed to the board of BCL — the very company which had fed, housed and helped transport troops as they sacked Bougainvillean villages — earning him K120,000 (A$55,000) annually.

Many others organisations also appear to suffer historical amnesia, including AusAID, Interoil, Marengo Mining, Kramer Ausenco, and Kina Securities, bodies which have all seen fit to appoint Namaliu to their boards (in the case of AusAID, Namaliu sits on their Advisory Panel for the Pacific Leadership Programme).

Additionally, Namaliu is a frequent visitor to the Australian National Univerity (ANU), indeed we are told, “ANU is delighted to have the opportunity to host this esteemed leader and analyst”. Namaliu is even part of the editorial team for the ANU journal, Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies.

Of course, were too many fingers pointed in Namaliu’s direction, there is every chance the finger would soon be pointed back at Australia, a country whose government placed inordinate pressure on the PNG state to employ military force against the Bougainville revolt. Nevertheless, for mining multinationals, much less premier universities, to uncritically engage a pacific leader who not only presided over the most brutal campaign of state violence witnessed in the region since World War II, but did so in a bid to reopen a mine, speaks volumes about the veneer of “social responsibility”.

It would be unfair to focus solely on Namaliu. Indeed, others from the period are also in receipt of largesse from Australian corporates. For example, in February this year Australian miner, Kula Gold, announced that the Bougainvillean businessman, Sam Akoitai, would be joining the Board of their PNG subsidiary Woodlark Mining Limited. While two years before Akoitai was made a non-executive Director at Pacific Niugini.

Indeed, for most of the 1990s Akoitai led the Bougainville Resistance. Set up during 1990-91, the resistance was a feared, loosely knit paramilitary organisation loyal to the national government. A senior PNG civil servant remembers: “He came in as the leader of the Resistance Forces, Sam Akoitai … We had to deal with him, we had to encourage him, and give him money. In the end he became the best thing, to have the Resistance Forces”.

Not everyone would agree. Amnesty International concludes that under Akoitai’s Chairmanship the Resistance Forces committed numerous atrocities:

“The Resistance Forces have been responsible for serious human rights violations including unlawful and deliberate killings and “disappearances” of civilians and BRA suspects. They are also alleged to have engaged in intimidation of those wishing to provide information about human rights violations and of government officials over delays in payment of their allowance”.

That is not to suggest that Akoitai necessarily ordered or participated in these alleged crimes. Nevertheless, given his senior position, serious questions remain over his responsibility for resistance atrocities.

That these questions have been forgotten, both in the case of Akoitai, Namaliu and many others, suggest a collective amnesia has set in. On the other hand, people on Bougainville remember the death and destruction well. Their stories, however, are gradually being erased from this historical record through a process of willed omission.

Unlike East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and many other post-conflict zones, there has been no truth commission for this war, let alone trials, reparations or indeed basic mental health care. Even attempts by victims to obtain legal redress through PNG’s national court system have been blocked, while a class action against Rio Tinto, currently underway in the United States, crawls along at a snail’s pace.

Yet in the absence of truth and justice, those individuals who shoulder greatest responsibility for the “widespread” and “systematic” attacks on Bougainvillean civilians (crimes against humanity), not the individual combatants, but their political and military masters, are free to assume corporate and public office.

Meanwhile, many on Bougainville relive painful memories from the war on a daily basis, seemingly forgotten by a world that would rather not know about their trauma, or those responsible for it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.