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A Mined History: The Bougainville Referendum

It would be an understatement to claim that Bougainville, that blighted piece of autonomous territory in Papua New Guinea, had been through a lot. Companies have preyed upon its environment with extractive hunger. Wars and civil strife have beset its infrastructure and economy. Some 900 kilometres from the PNG mainland, it has been what might be described as “a reluctant part” of that political compact, indigenously separate and stubborn.

An inglorious example of company misbehaviour remains Rio Tinto’s predations through its Panguna copper mine, of which it was a majority shareholder for 45 years. Once it relinquished its share in Bougainville Copper Ltd, the company washed its hands of responsibility for the environmental damage wrought between 1972 and 1989. In the carefully chosen words of a company spokesman, as recorded by the news outlet Mongabay, “When BCL had to leave the site in 1989, we believe BCL operated Panguna in compliance with applicable laws and standards until 1989 when it was required to leave the country.” Much time had transpired since; the misdeeds had gone stale. “Given the lack of access since it has not been possible for Rio Tinto or BCL to confirm the nature, extent or cause of any alleged damage or pollution.”

The other side of misfortune has been found in the political domain, where an active secessionist movement, one also linked to the Panguna mine, has been operating. A decade-long civil war costing some 15,000 lives (the number may be as high as 20,000) and displacing 40,000 was waged between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force through the 1990s. Being ever complicated, there were other groups, some pro-government, operating with vicious impunity in the conflict.

Revenue from the mine proved mouth-watering for the PNG treasury, accounting for over $1 billion in national tax revenue, 45 percent of the country’s total exports and 12 percent of its gross domestic product. It was mining operations at Panguna that assisted PNG ease itself from Australian control. But the polluting site, in turn, became a subject of local conflict, with company personnel indifferent to paying fair wages and reinvesting proceeds back into Bougainville. In traditional colonial terms, the territory served as provider rather than recipient.

The Francis Ona raid on the mine’s storerooms in 1988, which saw the pilfering of explosives, signalled the commencement of hostilities that came to be known as the “Crisis”. A mine surveyor and active figure on the New Panguna Landowners Association, Ona had demanded compensation in the billions for the environmental damage caused by Bougainville Copper Ltd. The theft and subsequent destruction of Panguna’s powerlines saw the deployment of the PNG military. Killings, torture, rapes and the destruction of villages followed. The failure of the operation resulted in a joint PNG-Australian naval blockade of the island, another less than flattering illustration of Australia’s role in quelling revolt in the Pacific. In the meantime, rebels ensured the shutting down of the mine.

The exhaustion brought by attrition eventually paid dividends for the revolutionaries. The Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in 2001, guaranteeing its residents a referendum with an option for independence after a necessary period of autonomous government. Having observed those preliminary conditions, Bougainville duly conducted the referendum on independence. The result was unequivocal: 98 percent of the voters, some 176,928 people, supported independence, with a mere 3,043 preferring to remain with PNG.

The instrumental reaction, however, has been less optimistic. The referendum chair Bertie Ahern was enthusiastic but cautious. Vacuums are terrifying. They can be filled in undesirable ways. “They understand that the result is non-binding,” Ahern noted about the vote. But he also acknowledged that the result sent “shockwaves through [the PNG] system”, the result of “years of neglect and not following commitments.”

As ever, the dark history of the Panguna mine will have to be revisited. Even now, the divisions between the Autonomous Bougainville Government, the PNG government and various Australian investors hover with a certain menace. That said, any independent Bougainville will need an income stream and hard currency. That said, wrongs have not been righted, emotional debts left unpaid. As Helen Hakena of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency explained to freelance correspondent Catherine Wilson, “The elderly people are passing on their negative experiences to their sons, who will continue to hate the perpetrator’s family. There will be repercussions years later.”

Despite money being expended on reconciliation processes, these remain informal, incomplete and inconclusive. As Buka Island youth leader Alex Amon ruefully observed, “there is still something hidden in the darkness.” A truth commission might, at the very least, provide a forum of some placation, an easing valve. Short of that, Bougainville remains a powder keg, awaiting to be lit.

What comes after the referendum result is proving of enormous interest to regional powers and local interests. Political figures such as Sam Kauona, who spent time as a general in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, have been courting sources of Chinese investment in reconstructing the former capital Arawa. He also has an interest in an Australian apology. “Australia is supporting a lot in agriculture, social development and people have come to accept them but there has to be a time of reconciliation with Australia and Bougainville.”

The accommodating attitude to Beijing among the political classes of an invigorated Bougainville will set those in Canberra on edge. The mood against China in Australia is strong and pushing pacific states away from the oriental honeypot of incentives is a matter of high interest. The deputy mayor of Arawa, Genevieve Korokoro, shares no such concerns, keen on seeing Arawa established as the capital and having “a fibre optic cable coming in from Huawei China.”

In 2013, John Momis, the region’s president, would claim that, “We are the indigenous people of our motherland Bougainville. We alone have to decide our future, our destiny. No outsider can decide for us.” However noble this sentiment, it will not be allowed to be realised unconditionally. The sceptics and spoilers will be waiting in the wings to make the matter one of considerable, and unreasonable difficulty. Where there are resources, there are exploiters, internal and external.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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