The island of Bougainville, which lies on Papua New Guinea’s eastern border, is recovering from a decade long war that killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Under an Australian-backed military blockade, that effectively severed the island’s contact with the rest of the world, communities came together and supported one another as the medicines dried up and the shops emptied.
Bougainvilleans have shown a remarkable capacity to survive and innovate under extreme conditions. However, in a report published last Friday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) argues that Australia must help Bougainville rebuild by trebling its aid. ASPI warns that a failure to act now could see hostilities on the island reignite.
At the core of ASPI’s proposal is the deployment of Australian manpower on Bougainville, to support capacity building in a range of sectors. The reports argues that this could include assistance from government, the voluntary sector, business and NGOs, in addition to the Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force.
The report is a serious intervention and it provides constructive recommendations well worth reading (though its sanitised account of the war is lamentable). However, it does appear to labour under one assumption – namely that the Bougainville war was “an internal PNG dilemma”, when it actually had significant international dimensions.
The Bougainville war was sparked when landowners shut the Rio Tinto owned Panguna copper mine, owing to its corrosive social and environmental effects. Rio Tinto’s PNG subsidiary implored the national government to assert its authority, and to that end provided significant logistical assistance once troops were deployed.
For Australia, the uprising on Bougainville came during a challenging period. The Foreign Minister had just signalled to allies that Australia could be trusted to keep the region open for business and strategically benign. The uprising tested the credibility of this statement.
Accordingly, Australia heaped pressure on the PNG government to deploy the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), which launched a counter-insurgency operation. The Australian government became directly involved in its implementation. For instance, Australia trained and armed the troops, flew them to the island, and even participated in offensive activities after it appeared the PNGDF were on the back foot.
Australian government officials were well aware of PNGDF atrocities; Australia had officers in line positions within PNG’s defence force.
Many on Bougainville remember the infamous Australian Iroquois helicopters – the very same model allegedly given to Indonesia for use in West Papua – that strafed villages with gunfire and grenades. The helicopters were also employed to dump the bodies of executed civilians in the sea.
Unfortunately, the Australian government has never acknowledged its involvement, nor has it ever apologised to the people of Bougainville for the covert operations it conducted.
Not surprisingly, many on Bougainville view Australia as having committed war crimes in service of the Australian-British multinational Rio Tinto. The distrust and suspicion has only been exacerbated by recent AusAID interventions.
In particular, AusAID has funded advisors, who are assisting the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) with preparations to reopen the Panguna mine, under Rio Tinto auspices. AusAID advisors have been involved in drafting new mining legislation and prepping the government and landowners for mine negotiations.
As I reported previously at New Matilda, some of those involved have direct financial links with Rio Tinto. Another key AusAID adviser controversially claimed the positive health effects of the military blockade placed on Bougainville may have “outweighed” the loss of life.
Tensions over AusAID’s role reached a crescendo last week when former rebel leader and Chairman of the Bougainville Resource Owners Representative Committee, Sam Kauona, published a two-page article in The National. It takes aim at the mining legislation, arguing in particular that it is being rushed through parliament to pave the way for Rio Tinto’s return via its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).
Kauona suggests the legislation aims to protect Rio’s existing claims over the mine:
“To be clear, it says that ‘You BCL retain everything to do with Panguna as if nothing happened’. Nothing happened? Bougainville knows that a war happened and up to 15,000 people died.”
He also alleges that the legal protection offered to Rio Tinto has been facilitated through collusion:
“It has struck the people on Bougainville that BCL and the inserted Australian Aus-Aid advisor(s), have had a long term well organised and well-funded secret strategic plan to grab back Bougainville resources for Rio & Co”.
While some will question Kauona’s motives, these allegations cannot be divorced from Australia’s legacy on Bougainville. The Australian government facilitated atrocious acts that served to protect Rio Tinto’s interests. It is not unreasonable for people to imagine today that the same skulduggery is occurring again, even if it is merely imagining.
The Australian government has created a situation of distrust in Melanesia, not only through its acts on Bougainville, but also in other areas like West Papua. In such an environment, pumping more aid into Bougainville has the potential to exacerbate tensions rather than resolve them, especially if people believe Australia has a mining agenda.
The Australian government needs to acknowledge its criminal past if amends are to be made. To that end, it would appear more appropriate to present future assistance as reparation, not aid.
Whatever program is implemented, Australian interlocutors must carefully listen to the people of Bougainville – the everyday people, not the more PR savvy elite – and learn to respect the social values that kept communities together through a war where gross human rights violations were frequent.
If village communities think that their future lies in agriculture and tourism, not mining, tut-tutting this wisdom with economic modelling will not be looked upon kindly. The performance of the former Australian High Commissioner, Ian Kemish, was disappointing in this respect. In August he implored Bougainvilleans to accept the return of Rio Tinto, saying:
“If it is your wish that development come back here … if that is your wish … you have to give the people [Rio Tinto/BCL] that can make that happen, confidence”.
Kemish forgets that before Australia imposed mining on the people of Bougainville in the 1960s, village communities were spearheading one of the most vibrant rural economies in the region. Had their island not been ruined by the mine and the war it generated, in all likeliness Bougainville might be one of the most "developed" places in the region today.
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