Self-determination and self-discipline go hand in hand in Bougainville.

Update: 23. Nov. 2019: Voting in the referendum started peacefully today providing more than 206,000 Bougainvilleans with a democratic chance to have their say about their future through an internationally recognised process. The results are expected two weeks after voting closes on 7 December. The autonomous region’s President John Momis casted the first ballot in the interim capital Buka today. “Bougainville is on the verge of freedom, we are on a mission, and our mission is to liberate Bougainville and enable the people to be free to decide and manage their own affairs,” he said, outside the polling station.  “I’m calling on the national government [of PNG] to follow the peace agreement and that is for the two governments to sit down and consult over the result of the referendum. We should not rush things and give it the time it deserves to give a good outcome …  It could be five years, as long as the final outcome is determined.” Mr. Monis is due to retire ahead of the Bougainville presidential elections in March and the referendum is the crowning moment of a five-decade-long political career. This referendum is the result of a bloody uprising in 1989 against Australian miner Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper and gold mine, which resulted in up to 20,000 deaths. See: Bougainville - The long struggle for freedom

'Never turning back', PNG's Bougainville separatists expect vote for independence

Voters proudly show off the flag of Bougainville, the symbol of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, as they head to cast their ballots. Picture: SBS News

By Melvin Levongo - 21. November 2019

BUKA, Papua New Guinea (Reuters) - Twenty years after combatants snapped arrows to signal the end of hostilities in the Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville, voters will on Saturday cast ballots in a long-awaited independence referendum.

Prominent separatists say the independence movement cannot be stopped.

“Bougainville is never turning back because we paid a very high price for our independence, losing 20,000 lives during the conflict,” Martin Miriori, who led an interim government in Bougainville in the latter stages of the war, told Reuters.

“All Bougainvilleans are ready and very excited that their day, which is only once in a lifetime, is fast approaching, and we are ready to vote ... for independence.”

Just over 200,000 people are registered to vote in the non-binding referendum, which runs from Nov. 23 to Dec. 7, at polling stations across the South Pacific archipelago, as well as in Australia and the Solomon Islands.

Voters are expected to overwhelmingly back independence, according to Australia’s Lowy Institute think-tank, although they could opt for a second option on the ballot, for greater autonomy rather than outright independence.

The result of the vote, which is being overseen by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, will go before the PNG parliament in Port Moresby and be subject to negotiation.

The referendum terms were agreed as part of the peace process in the aftermath of a decade-long war, ending in 1998, between Bougainville’s rebel fighters and PNG forces.

The fighting was triggered by disputes over the now shuttered Panguna gold and copper mine, then run by a forerunner of giant mining company Rio Tinto, with anger over land royalties and the pollution of the rivers from mining at the core of the dispute.

“The goal was to have a referendum as a means of restoring total peace,” said Sam Akoitai, a Bougainville MP who fought alongside PNG security forces during the conflict.

He said subsequent negotiations with the national government would likely focus on prospects for Bougainville to sustain itself economically.

Bougainville was once the economic engine of PNG, generating almost half its gross domestic product through the Panguna mine alone, but it now relies on significant funding from Port Moresby.

Attempts to restart the Panguna mine have been unsuccessful amid competing mine claims and divisions among landowners.

The vote comes at a pivotal time in the South Pacific, with a growing competition for influence between the United States and China.

Two island nations have recently severed ties with Taiwan, to align with China.

The United States and its Pacific allies have, however, plugged a funding gap that could have seen the referendum called off in a move that sidelined China from the process, two sources told Reuters.

Bougainville campaigners were asked to stop canvassing for votes on Thursday and Friday to allow people to consider their choices and reflect on their future, chief referendum officer Mauricio Claudio said in a statement.

“Now is the time to reflect, whether it be in silence, in prayer or in quiet discussions with one another,” said Claudio.

(GRAPHIC: Tug of war in the Pacific - here)

Reuters Graphic

Reporting by Melvin Levongo in Bougainville; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Robert Birsel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Bougainville BACKGROUND:

To understand Bougainville’s links with Papua New Guinea, some historical context is required. Although the island’s indigenous population had inhabited it for centuries, it got its name after French colonizer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, a scientist who undertook sea voyages, particularly to the Pacific in 1776, to colonise new territory for France. Interestingly, despite having the island named after him, Bougainville never actually set foot upon it. According to some resources that deal with Bougainville’s history, the nomenclature for the tropical flower Bougainvillea can also be attributed to Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

In 1885, during Germany’s period of colonisation, the island of Bougainville came under the German protectorate of German New Guinea. The outbreak of WWI changed the power structure in the Pacific and in 1914, Bougainville and other islands nearby, including what is now Papua New Guinea, fell under the control of Australian forces. The League of Nations controlled the island till 1942 when during WWII, American, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese military forces battled for its control. The battle resulted in the Japanese withdrawing from the island and Australia taking over its administration.

According to captions provided for this photo by the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, “soldiers of the 42nd Battalion negotiate a deep section of swamp during a patrol towards enemy territory in January 1945.” (Photo credit: Australian Government; Department of Veterans’ Affairs)

This arrangement lasted till 1975, ending with Papua New Guinea gaining independence. “There have been previous attempts to declare Bougainville independent—when Papua New Guinea became an independent country in 1975, and again in 1990,” says Wolfers.

In the late 1970s, a decentralised system of provincial government was introduced in Bougainville and the current autonomy arrangements were implemented following the constitutional enactment of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001.

Why does Bougainville want complete independence from Papua New Guinea?

“There has subsequently been dissatisfaction among Bougainvilleans over implementation of the agreed arrangements for Bougainville autonomy, particularly in regard to the constitutionally guaranteed financial grants to which the Autonomy Bougainville Government (ABG) is legally entitled, but which the (Papua New Guinea) National Government has not provided in accordance with the ABG’s calculations,” explains Wolfers.

The Panguna mine is seen in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, in this Planet Labs satellite photo received by Reuters September 26, 2017. (Reuters)

The conflict in Bougainville and the desire of Bougainvillean people for independence is rooted in the historic plunder of the resource-rich island that has large deposits of copper and the unequal distribution of wealth that followed. After the discovery of copper during the 1960s deep in the Crown Prince Ranges in the center of the island, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto’s Australia subsidiary, Conzinc Rio Tinto, set up the Panguna mine, also known as the Bougainville Copper Mine, that holds some of the world’s largest reserves of copper and is the world’s largest open cut copper mine. Extraction of the resource in the Panguna mine began in 1972 under the management of the Bougainville Copper Limited, controlled by Conzinc Rio Tinto that lasted till 1989. The Bougainville Copper Limited was partly owned by Conzinc Rio Tinto that controlled 56 per cent of stake while the Papua New Guinea government owned 20 per cent, till Conzinc Rio Tinto divested its control in 1989.

According to various data sources, the export of copper extracted from the Panguna mine contributed significantly to Papua New Guinea’s economy, with some figures estimating its contribution upto 45 per cent of the country’s export revenue.

Researchers say the protests that later inflated into a civil war were started by a local leader named Francis Ona who had witnessed foreign interests engage in wide-scale plunder of indigenous lands. Ona went on to become the leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a secessionist group that waged war against the Papuan New Guinea Defence Forces during the civil war. The mine created job opportunities for people from Papua New Guinea and Australia seeking their own fortunes, leading to conflicts with Bougainvillean locals who also reported discrimination and racism at the hands of foreigner mine workers. Mining activities over the years also caused environmental degradation of Bougainville’s lands and water.

A supplied image shows local residents holding banners and placards during a protest at the former Bougainville Copper Limited’s (BCL) Panguna mining operation located on the Pacific Ocean island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, May 3, 2017. Picture taken May 3, 2017. (Reuters)

The mine was at the center of the decade-long civil war fought between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force in the 1990s. The conflict cost as many as 20,000 lives and displaced 40,000 of the island’s 200,000 inhabitants.

Before the war, the Panguna mine generated more than $1 billion in national tax revenue and accounted for about 45 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total exports, 17 percent of its internal revenue, and 12 percent of its gross domestic product. It essentially paved the way for the nation’s transition to independence from Australia. But Panguna landowners and local employees — angered by the environmental destruction from the operation, poor wages, and unfair distribution of revenue (less than 1 percent of profits were reinvested in Bougainville) — eventually took up arms. 

In 1988, landowners led by Francis Ona broke into storerooms at the mine, stole explosives, and blew up Panguna’s power lines. In response, Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent in the military. Soldiers burned down villages, executed collaborators, and raped with impunity. When that failed to crush the resistance, PNG, with the support of Australia, enforced a naval blockade cutting the island off from the rest of the world. 

When that, too, failed the government hired a U.K.-based private military company to carry out its operations in Bougainville. The Sandline affair, as it came to be known, was eventually leaked in the Australian media – first there was a public outrage, and then came the resignation of then-PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan.

Bougainville Copper Limited, (BCL) a subsidiary of the British-Australian resources giant Rio Tinto, owned the mine at the time of the conflict and despite extracting around 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold in its final year of production was forced to close as it appeared the separatists were not going to back down. The conflict officially ended nine years later, but Rio Tinto never returned.

In 2001, after a peace agreement was reached that gave Bougainville autonomy within PNG and ensured that an independence referendum would be held by 2020, some of the islanders launched a class action lawsuit in the United States against Rio Tinto. 

Panguna landowners accused the company of genocide, citing the company’s support for the blockade of the island by PNG forces. The plaintiff’s lawyers claimed the mine’s manager in Bougainville at the time “encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of starving the bastards out.”

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare provided the court with a sworn affidavit stating that it was Rio Tinto calling the shots during the war.

“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the Government. The Government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its’ requests,” he wrote.

“BCL was also directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active role. BCL supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel and troop barracks.”

Due to the unrest in the area in the years that followed Rio Tinto’s withdrawal, no official investigation has been conducted on the impact the mining operation has had on the surrounding environment. It is known, however, that around 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated every day in Panguna and that the mine tailings were discharged down the principal river system, the Kawerong-Jaba, which now flows blue because of toxic mixtures of heavy metals and other chemicals. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2002 that the mine was pumping 110 million cubic meters of waste, contaminated with cyanide and other chemicals, into the sea each year. 

For years, the Bougainville government has asked the company to make contributions to help with the clean up. It has also asked Australia, as the former colonial power responsible for authorizing the mine. Rio Tinto has refused. So, too, has the Australian government. 

As Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader Francis Ona once said,

“Land to us is our lifeline, and we cannot be separated from it.”

In the aftermath of the civil war, the Panguna mine was closed in May 1989, with the total withdrawal of Bougainville Copper Limited employees by the following year.

Now, Australian Iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest as well as several other smaller mining companies have shown interest in resuming operations at the mine. 

Forrest has friends in high places. In September, along with several other high-profile Australian business chiefs, Forrest was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump’s state dinner hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Forrest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, is the fourth largest iron ore producer in the world. Its main areas of operation are in Western Australia, but in recent years the company has increased its efforts abroad, especially in South America, where it was granted 32 exploration licenses in Ecuador alone. Last week, it was confirmed that representatives from Forrest’s company had traveled to Bougainville in recent months to explore “potential opportunities.”

Also interested in Panguna is the Australia-based RTG Mining Group, which has the support of Philip Miriori, the chairman of the Panguna landowner association. Bougainville President Dr. John Momis, however, has accused RTG of attempting to bribe his government and of waging a subversive propaganda campaign. 

Another landowner group, the Panguna Development Company, supports the mine’s former operator, BCL, in its bid to return to Panguna — pitting the two groups against one another. 

They are, however, united in their opposition to Momis’ plan for Panguna, which would see the government and Australian mining company, Callabus, set up a new joint company that would be given a monopoly over the island’s mineral wealth. It is not clear how the government intends to proceed with this scheme since the legislation to enable it was blocked by the Bougainville legislature several months ago. 

Recently, the battle for Panguna entered new territory when rumors emerged of a Chinese delegation having offered $1 billion to fund the transition to Bougainville independence along with offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture. An independent, resource-rich Bougainville would be a valuable ally to China as it seeks to have more influence in the South Pacific.

In a public presentation to ward councillors and MPs, filmed by a crew from 60 Minutes, Sam Kauona, a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general, unfurled a large map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, highways, ports, airports, and luxury hotels. 

“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” he said. “Where is Australia and the U.S. and Japan? Earlier this year I met representatives from Fortescue mining, but I have been waiting 10 months for them to make a commitment.”

It’s estimated that Panguna mine still holds around $60 billion worth of copper, gold, and silver.

With the independence referendum beginning on Saturday, many local leaders admit that they would like to see the mine reopen as a way to boost revenue, yet distrust of giving a foreign mining company access again still looms large. No matter the results of the referendum, any company looking to make a buck is sure to find opposition in Panguna. This is, as long as past mistakes are not forgotten.

The long-drawn civil war in Bougainville was brought to a halt only due to the Bougainville Peace Agreement. “In short, the referendum was not prompted by (dis)satisfaction with current autonomy arrangements, though the choices on offer in the referendum and the way that Bougainvilleans vote have obviously been influenced by experience of current autonomy arrangements,” Wolfers explains.

 

Birth of a nation 

Bougainville's independence referendum explained

It is a vote that has been 20 years in the making. On Saturday, residents of the remote archipelago in the Solomon Sea will start to decide their future

By  - 19. November 2019

Bougainvilleans will go to the polls over the next two weeks to decide whether they wish to become independent from Papua New Guinea  Bougainvilleans will go to the polls over the next two weeks to decide whether they wish to become independent from Papua New Guinea. Photograph: Eric Lafforgue/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On Saturday, the people of Bougainville – a small archipelago of islands flung 700km off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea – will begin voting in a referendum that will determine if their beloved homeland will become the world’s newest nation.

It is a vote that has been nearly 20 years in the making. In 2001, as part of a peace agreement to end a devastating decade-long civil war, the government of Papua New Guinea promised the population of Bougainville, then about 200,000 people, that they would one day be able to cast a vote to decide their future.

The results will be announced in December. It is expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of independence, with some observers anticipating a “yes” vote of more than 90%. But the road to this point has been long and tortured and the path ahead could be just as problematic, even if the result is as emphatic as predicted.

Gold, copper and war

At the heart of the story of Bougainvillean independence is a mine, which lies at the centre of the main island.

Panguna mine, a huge open-cut gold and copper mine, provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s export income in the years after it opened in 1972. As Papua New Guinea became independent of Australia in 1975, Bougainvilleans began to ask whether or not Bougainville would fare better on its own, rather than having its resources cut out and used to prop up a bigger nation.

“[Panguna] led to many Bougainvilleans asking what was in it for them. Their resources were being exploited for the benefit of Papua New Guinea,” says Anthony Regan, who is a legal adviser to the Bougainvillean government, in a position funded by the Australian government.

In 1988, tensions over the mine escalated, causing Papua New Guinean police and defence force officers to be deployed on the island. Fighting between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and PNG government forces developed into a full-blown civil war, which saw an estimated 20,000 people, out of a population at the time of 200,000, killed.

Guerillas of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), some still wearing camouflage, watch the signing ceremony of the Bougainville Ceasefire Agreement at Arawa on Bougainville 30 April 1998.  Guerrillas of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, some still wearing camouflage, watch the signing ceremony of the Bougainville Ceasefire Agreement at Arawa on 30 April 1998. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty Images

“The fighting stopped in 1997, because leaders on all sides were recognising it was going nowhere,” says Regan. “Even the moderates in the Bougainville government could see they might be left with a Pyrrhic victory where Bougainville won, but Bougainville was left so divided that it would be no victory at all.”

Over two years Bougainvillean leaders thrashed out a deal with the Papua New Guinean government, coming up with a Bougainville Peace Agreement. The thorny issue of independence was dealt with by both sides agreeing that an independence referendum must be held 10 to 15 years after the first Autonomous Bougainville Government was elected (by June 2020), but that the vote should be non-binding. The final say as to whether Bougainville will become an independent country rests with the PNG government.

‘A tremendous effort’

The effort required to conduct a vote like this in Bougainville, an autonomous region where 90% of people live in rural hamlets and villages, where roughy half of the population are illiterate, which has no radio or television network that covers the entire population, where just a few hundred copies of Papua New Guinean newspapers are brought from the mainland each day, and where the scars of a brutal war are still felt, is “tremendous”, says Mauricio Claudio, the chief referendum officer of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), which has been set up to administer the vote.

“The primary challenge was the lack of time the BRC was given to implement this referendum,” says Claudio, an American, who was only appointed to the role and arrived in Bougainville at the beginning of the year. Funding for the BRC came in late, as did the appointment of a chair of the BRC, the former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

But Claudio also names issues with: “Communications, infrastructure, inclement weather, unreliable power and just the propensity for natural phenomena and catastrophe. It’s a tough environment.”

Watched by New Zealand’s foreign minister Don McKinnon (2nd R), Gerard Sinato (2nd L), premier of the PNG-aligned Bougainville Transitional Government, and Joseph Kabui (R), representative of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, sign a peace accord in Christchurch in July 1997.  Watched by New Zealand’s foreign minister Don McKinnon (middle), Gerard Sinato (left), premier of the PNG-aligned Bougainville Transitional Government, and Joseph Kabui (right), representative of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, sign a peace accord in Christchurch in July 1997. Photograph: Ho/Reuters

Despite this, in less than a year, the BRC has conducted the most comprehensive electoral enrolment process in Papua New Guinea’s history, with an electoral roll that has 20% more names on it compared to the roll used in the 2015 ABG elections. At the close of the enrolment period 205,731 voters were registered to vote, with close to a 50-50 gender split.

As part of the peace agreement, the ABG has conducted significant reconciliation work between groups who stood opposed during the conflict, as well as a large-scale gun collection program. Though the preparation has been frantic, the BRC believes it is ready for the vote.

“Our assessment is the referendum will be a peaceful one and a credible one,” says Claudio.

‘We want to be free’

Over the course of the next two weeks, starting in the larger townships of Buka and Arawa, and then moving to more remote areas, voters will be able to attend one of 829 polling stations – 800 of which are in Bougainville, 25 in PNG provinces and four in remote mining locations – to cast their vote. Bougainvilleans living abroad have also been able to vote, with two polling stations in Australia and two in the Solomon Islands.

They will be asked whether they wish to vote for greater autonomy from PNG or for independence from it, but there is little question about which way the vote will go.

“People are not divided,” says Helen Hakena, a peace and women’s rights campaigner in Bougainville. “The majority of Bougainvilleans want to vote for independence, because we are saying we want to be free. There has been a long struggle for our people, starting in the 1960s, and we would like to put an end to our struggle for self-determination.”

But with the Panguna mine closed since the conflict began and without other operational mines or developed industries, the question of how an independent Bougainville would support itself hangs over the vote.

A rusted truck remains at a Panguna mine that was shut down after villagers Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville fought a decade long civil war.  A rusted truck remains at the Panguna mine, which was shut down after villagers fought a decade-long civil war. Photograph: Ilya Gridneff/AAP

According to a report by Satish Chand, a professor of finance for the University of NSW, the ABG collected just K2.4m (US$705,000) from company taxes, customs duties and other taxes, compared to the K41.3m (US$12.1m) it received from the PNG government, meaning the ABG had “by 2016 reached just six percent of the distance to fiscal self-reliance”.

Hakena reluctantly counts herself in the group who will not vote for independence because of fears an independent Bougainville would not be able to provide services to its people.

“It does hurt my pride as a Bougainvillean woman,” she says. “I don’t think Bougainville is ready, even though I would like us to become free and to become an independent nation.

“I will be voting for greater autonomy because I would like Bougainville to be financially secure so that we can have all the services that we are enjoying now, which is not 100%, but we are still fortunate that we have the schools, we’ve got the health people, the airport, communication, transport, everything. We don’t own anything at this time, everything we have is owned by Papua New Guinea.

“Bougainville enjoyed financial security during the good times before the crisis, we were really very well off, unlike now, the crisis spoiled everything, so we are back to basics now.”

The danger of disappointment

The other question is what will happen after the vote, given the fact that it is non-binding.

Volker Boege, a research fellow at the University of Queensland, has travelled to Bougainville regularly for years as part of a group conducting dialogues throughout Bougainville about the peace agreement and the referendum.

He said in the early days of these dialogues, it was clear that people assumed: “We vote for independence, we have a party and the next day we are independent. They are now realising that this is not the case, it’s a non-binding referendum, the leadership of PNG and Bougainville will have to negotiate, the final say is with the PNG parliament.”

The process could take years, Boege says, with some Bougainville observers estimating it could be a decade before an independent Bougainville is established. There are fears that the Papua New Guinean government, which does not wish to lose part of its nation, or set a precedent for other independence-minded provinces, might drag out the process.

“Expectations are high, yes, there is the potential or the danger of the feeling of frustration or disappointment coming to the fore after the referendum,” Boege says.

“Of course the big question mark is about the PNG side. How will the PNG side actually respond and behave and what kind of commitment will there be?”

Women in tribal colours attended a Bougainville reconciliation ceremony ahead of independence referendum in Kokopo in East New Britain in November 2019, as part of the peace process.  Women in local colours attended a Bougainville reconciliation ceremony ahead of the independence referendum in Kokopo in East New Britain in November 2019, as part of the peace process. Photograph: Elizabeth Vuvu/AFP via Getty Images

He says Bougainvilleans are “very happy” with the replacement in May of the longstanding PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill by James Marape, who is regarded as more open to an independent Bougainville.

While international organisations say they are not anticipating violence in the region as a result of the referendum, Hakena’s experiences in the civil war – in which she lost many family members and gave birth to her child prematurely alongside women who died in labour due to lack of health care – make her fearful about what will come.

Her organisation, the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, which started out of the conflict, providing counselling to those affected by its violence, has been telling the women in their network to prepare in case of violence, or in case Papua New Guinea blockades Bougainville, as it did during the conflict.

“We’re saying, you have to grow your own food like you did in the crisis, we grew our own vegetables,” she says. “We are preparing our people, growing our own food, fishing, getting their own medicine, putting food in the house. That’s what we’re telling our women – be prepared because we don’t know if there will be problems.”

Article Supported by Judith Nielsen Institute

(*) Author:

Kate Lyons

  @MsKateLyons