Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Bringing Peace to Bougainville

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Bringing Peace to Bougainville

Article excerpt

Stuart McMillan comments on New Zealand's experience in helping to bring to an end the longstanding conflict on its northwestern neighbour.

On January 23 of this year a peace agreement was signed at Lincoln University, near Christchurch, bringing to an official end the conflict that had continued on the island of Bougainville for the previous nine years. The peace agreement was the outcome of an intervention in the conflict by New Zealand. The path to the peace agreement itself was tricky. In addition there were risks to New Zealand's relationship with the government of Papua New Guinea and with that of Australia. This article backgrounds the issue, gives an account of the peace-making process itself and the New Zealand style, gives Australian perspectives, lists the New Zealand interests involved, and makes some suggestions about why the process was successful.

It could be argued that the process was successful precisely because it did not deal with two of the basic causes of the conflict: the future of the Panguna mine and the political status of Bougainville. The argument being advanced in this article is that the setting aside of these issues was a practical and rational action, and that it would be wrong to view the action as an attempt to get a settlement at any cost.

The Panguna copper mine owned by Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of CRA, now Rio Tinto, was the subject of' sabotage during the late 1980s, which led to its closing in 1989. Papua New Guinea sent in police and eventually the PNG Defence Force. At one time there were 2000 security personnel there, hut they failed to stop the violence. Forced to withdraw its security forces in early 1990, Papua New Guinea thereafter blockaded the island. That withdrawal by the PNG Defence Force led to a sense of outrage in the force itself, and this probably accounted for some of the excessive violence in the years which followed. Despite the central role of the Panguna mine in the conflict, it is probably more a catalyst than a direct cause of the war in the classical sense.

After the withdrawal of the PNG Defence Force, parts of the island remained under the effective control of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), a guerrilla group which aimed at complete independence. After 1992, however, the failure of the BRA to gain any international recognition, the brutality of some of the BRA forces, and the failure of the BRA to provide services, led to the chiefs in various areas inviting the central government back to restore order.

During the 1990s the conflict continued. The occasional incident involved an attack by the PNG Defence Force on the Solomons, which were considered to be sympathetic to the Bougainvillean rebels, and suspected of giving sanctuary to rebel Bougainvilleans and providing a staging post for arms. Since the last Bougainville talks Australia and New Zealand have agreed to store NZ$6 million worth of weapons purchased by the previous Solomon Islands government and unwanted by the present Solomons government. The arms were suspected of being for the BRA.[1] The blockade continued, causing some severe privation, including medicines and food. Bougainvillean people were unable to get their children educated. The PNG Defence Force tried unsuccessfully to re-establish order. Various acts of extreme violence were committed by both sides. Some news reports suggested that individual commanders of PNG Defence Force units acted without authority. It is improbable that Port Moresby would have authorised such actions as attacks on the Solomons.

Underlying causes

A more complete listing of the causes of the dispute on Bougainville would include the following:

[] The landowners believed that they were not being adequately compensated for the use of their land for mining and that they were not getting sufficient royalties. Some believed that the compensation was not being distributed appropriately. …

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