De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty

By Tozun Bahcheli; Barry Bartmann et al. | Go to book overview

11

Bougainville

The quest for self-determination

Ralph R. Premdas

The copper-rich island of Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), had sought since 1989 to secede and form a separate sovereign state. In a punishing and protracted military struggle with the secessionists, the PNG government finally made peace in 1997. Under the auspices of New Zealand, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the PNG government signed the Burnham Declaration calling for a cessation of hostilities, the end of the embargo of Bougainville, the demilitarization of the island and the insertion of an UN peace-keeping contingent. The Burnham Declaration was optimistic even though the crucial issue of Bougainville's status was left untouched, with neither party in the conflict yielding on its essential stance. In March 2000, the two parties agreed on a working plan called the 'Loloata Understanding' under which negotiations commenced with a view to accord Bougainville 'the highest possible autonomy' within an unified Papua New Guinean state immediately, and a referendum in the near future to determine finally the status of Bougainville. These negotiations periodically proceeded smoothly but floundered just as often, especially when the prospect of an independent Bougainville beckoned to the central government after a referendum. Distrust is deep and the negotiations appear as a desperate ritual that precedes an apocalyptic resumption of civil war. The central government still believes that Bougainville can live satisfactorily within the unified state while Bougainville bides its time to exit either through a peaceful referendum, or by force if necessary.

The crisis had become an unbearable albatross, the most devastating event since PNG became independent in 1975, draining national confidence and embattling and enfeebling three different governments. Successive PNG regimes found themselves mired in a quagmire in their struggle with the Bougainville secessionists, costing the state an enormous outlay including the closure of the lucrative mine which provided a substantial part of the country's revenues. Bougainville also paid a steep price, its society thrown into almost complete shambles, its entire attention preoccupied with the struggle which displaced most of its people and turned a great many of them into refugees.

As in other parts of the post-Soviet world, secession in PNG became a major cause of warfare with attendant refugee flows and humanitarian suffering. Ethnonational strifes have featured as the most frequent source of open armed conflict in recent years 'based on communal rivalries and ethnic challenges to the

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