The tragic and slow road to Bouganville Independence

Bougainville Independence

Regularly slated as the worlds “next new country” following Bougainville\s almost unanimous vote for independence, they are officially to become so “between 2025 and 2027”, but how do things currently stand and just how realistic is this?

A background to Bougainville

Officially a part of Papua New Guinea, Bougainville has never felt itself to be part of either Papua New Guinea, nor the colonial states that preceded it. Instead it has had artificially borders thrown onto it by good old fashioned colonialism.

Papua New Guinea is itself in many ways a constructed country, one created from tribes that felt very little kin for each other. Included in this rag tag bunch were the people of Bougainville, a dark skinned race culturally different from the “red skins” of the mainland.

In fact they actually hold far more in common with the Solomon Islands, who they are geographically and ethnically connected to, something local politician Bosco emphasised by stating “Its like they came and drew an imaginary line without actually taking into account what relations the people here have”. A fact that whilst relatively common with colonialism, could have also been theoretically at least avoided, with both having previously been in British hands.

Said feelings led to the 1975 declaration of the Republic of North Solomons, of whom the then non-independent Solomon Islands stated they would like to join. Sadly neither state, nor a union were to happen with Bougainville instead going back into the PNG fold under the pretext of “increased autonomy”

Rio Tinto and neo-colonialism

Sadly not only would autonomy not actually be granted, but the region was also to be heavily exploited for its resources, principally copper and gold which were mined by British/Australian corporation Rio Tinto.

Profits from the mine were high, but the only problem was that Bougainville not only got to see very little of this money, but also suffered extremely heavy pollution due to said mining.

On the backs of the native population both the Rio Tinto and the Port Moresby elite got rich, while the people of Bougainville not only lived in poverty, but lacked even basic infrastructure compared to the “mainland”.

And it was these problems among many others that were to sow the seeds of the death and destruction that was to follow. 

The Bougainville conflict

By the end of the 1980’s discontent had brewed to such a level that there were a number of protests and acts of violence at the Panguna Mine, which were brutally put down by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), with as it would later transpire the tacit support of Rio Tinto.

By early 1990 the Bougainville Republic Army (BRA) were formed and the nascent country was plunged into anarchy. And while few have heard about this war a conservative estimate is that up to 15,000 local people were killed, something evidenced by not just the mass graves, but also the scars, often visible of the local people.

The war which would drag on until 2001 also saw a number of other controversial affairs, such as the government of Papua New Guinea trying to hire mercenaries from Sandline, as well as the island being completely and illegally blockaded for a number of years.

This later point had not only affected the health of people, but also education with Bosco telling us “We had to use coconut oil to run our vehicles and just survive off of the land. There were no soft-drinks, or packaged food and schools just stopped operation. Things are better, but you can still see this education gap in our young people today, there is a lost generation”.

Australian and Rio Tinto’s conduct during the war

Much like other conflicts within the region, such as Timor-Leste and West Papua, not only were the local people screwed over for money, but the west, principally Australia were essentially co-conspirators.

Australia for its part not only remained silent when the people of Bougainville were being slaughtered, but also funded and armed the military of Papua New Guinea. One way they did this was to provide “rescue” helicopters to PNG, without guns, which of course the country added machine guns too with deadly affect.

The role of Rio Tinto itself is much more complex, but also more tacitly evil, with the accusations against them in Bougainville and beyond being enough to even make a Bond villain wince.  Here they not only destroyed the environment, but have been accused of being complicit in human rights abuses, being a catalyst for the war, as well as even funding the military of Papua New Guinea during its campaign of violence. Not to mention of course the huge outflow of wealth that accompanied next to no investment in the region.

Much of this lack of investment can still be seen today with our guide to Panguna Mine and veteran of the war Stephen telling us “The only functioning roads we had were from the mine to the port, that is why we still have no infrastructure today. We are not stupid, we could all see this money just being taken from us, with them not even bothered enough to build us a road if it did not help them”.  Even today the roads attached to the mines are still some of the best in the country.

A fact that is brutally apparent when you traverse the country and its awful roads, with Land Cruisers being a complete necessity.

Peace and the slow road to independence

Peace was officially achieved in 2001, but it was not universally accepted by the people and various factions broke out away from the BRA. This would lead to a short cvil war which itself claimed numerous casualties, of which Stephen was almost one of them “I still have bullets in my leg, but they were not from PNG, but from here. At first no one trusted each other and everyone thought everyone else was traitor or collaborator”.

These factions actions caused rifts in the country that can still even be seen today, through entities such as the “Twin Kingdoms of Papaala and Meekamui” a micro-nation that was originally formed through factionalism, but now exists as a state within a state. The “Kingdom” has been accused of being everything from a cult to essentially a Ponzi scheme, whatever it is thought is anything but harmless. Currently it controls 1/10th of the population and land of the country. It is also heavily armed and has been quoted by many as an issue that needs to be dealt with should the country actually gain independence.

Yet despite the problems some form of unity was achieved, which was to lead to the 2019 referendum where over 98 percent voted in favour of independence.

Independence to be declared between 2025 and 2027

After the vote it was declared that Bougainville would declare independence not immediately, but between 2025 and 2027, although this has been interpreted differently by the two sides. Papua New Guinea have said they view the dates as being the deadline for an “agreement”, Bougainville though do not see things this way.

The autonomous region  currently led by ex BRA fighter Ishmael Toroama have stated that the country will become independent during this time, regardless of what PNG and indeed the wider world think about things.

Sadly though the later option, whilst perhaps morally right ignores two very important factors. Firstly for it to be allowed independence two-thirds of the PNG parliament will have to approve such a change, something extremely unlikely to happen (for context Bougainville sends 4 representatives to the 111 member National Parliament of Papua New Guinea).

And secondly Bougainville is lacking in infrastructure to such a degree that it would quite simply struggle if it went it alone. People can often have romance when it comes to self-determination, but as we have seen in recent history with South Sudan and to a lesser extent Timor-Leste, it is not an easy road.

This leaves a situation that can seemingly only lead to one thing, conflict, something the local populace are only to aware of, with ex-fighter and driver Junior stating “We don’t need a majority to declare independence, we already have that from the people”.  And if it were to mean war? “I don’t think it would lead to war, but if it did we would fight again”.

For now though no one knows, and we can but wait to see what actually comes to pass. .