A conflict is brewing in the Pacific and the unlikely cause of it has been Australia’s deputy prime minister Richard Marles whose comments regarding Bougainville look to have stirred up jarred emotions.
Like French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Guam, Bougainville is seeking independence and the fight for this did not start peacefully.
The Bougainville conflict between Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army lasted 10 years between 1988 and 1998.
According to a former Bougainville leader John Momis, this was the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of World War II in 1945, with an estimated 15,000–20,000 Bougainvilleans dead.
A peace deal in 2001 allowed for the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and Bougainville’s independence 20 years down the line. That time has now arrived.
The Australian deputy PM responded to questions about Australia’s involvement in bringing about the independence to which he replied that Australia would support the actions of the PNG Government.
The PNG Government is now reluctant to grant Bougainville its independence fearing a similar demand from any of its other provinces and losing its control over the billions of dollars worth of minerals found in the provinces.
ABG president Ishmael Toroama has warned PNG prime minister James Marape to continue implementing the Bougainville peace agreement as they approach the next stage of the independence negotiations.
“Since the cessation of the Bougainville civil war and the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001, Australia has maintained its neutrality,” he said.
“This is the very first time it has come out clear, without much surprise to us, to support the government of PNG on the issue of Bougainville’s independence aspirations. It has become clear now why our requests for resources and assistance for independence preparation-related activities have been ignored.
“I would like to remind the Australian government that it was they who instigated the Bougainville crisis through their involvement with Rio Tinto when they suppressed the rights of the people of Bougainville.”
History backs the comments made by Mr Toroama. Under Australian rule, lode gold was first discovered on Bougainville in 1930. The discovery of vast copper ore deposits in the Crown Prince Range on Bougainville Island during the 1960s led to the establishment of the huge Bougainville Copper Mine by the Australian company Conzinc Rio Tinto.
The Panguna mine began production in 1972 under the management of Bougainville Copper Ltd, with the government of PNG as a 20 per cent shareholder.
At the time, the Panguna mine was the largest open cut mine in the world. It produced more than 45 per cent of PNG’s national export revenue, and was, as such, vitally important to the economy.
Conflict began to emerge from the start of mining operations at Panguna. Many of the local landowners were opposed to the mine because it attracted an influx of workers from other parts of PNG.
In addition, they were concerned about adverse environmental effects, while seeing most of the mine profits leaving the island. Prior to PNG’s independence in 1975, Bougainville Island had attempted to secede and become independent.
Its representatives reached an agreement with the Australian administration for further decentralisation, which satisfied concerns at the time but never really eventuated.
Mr Toroama said Mr Marles statements were seen as a veiled threat by the government and people of Bougainville.
“The Bougainville Peace Agreement spells out a process of healing and a way forward for Bougainville and PNG through a peaceful approach which is based on the core values of our Melanesian traditions and cultures,” he said.
“This is not something I believe the Australian Government would have an understanding of.”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has been asked to elaborate on Mr Marles statement but is yet to reply.