Little Island that Roared: The story of Bougainville

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne Eisen, the Independence Institute

National Review Online. February 6, 2002 9:05 a.m.

It's a true-life modern-day David-and-Goliath story with the victor still undetermined. Struggling against international mining interests and the governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia, the people of the South Pacific island of Bougainville are the underdogs in a decades-long struggle for self-determination.

Bougainville has been poisoned and plundered. Its people endured a military blockade which prevented food, medical supplies, fuel, and arms from reaching the island, and which killed 10 percent of the island's population. Most of the casualties claimed by that blockade were not armed combatants, but women and children. The world never saw pictures of the starving children of Bougainville because the blockade blocked out journalists, as well.

The American and European Left complain endlessly about the Iraq embargo which, unlike the Bougainville blockade, allows the delivery of medicine and food. The Iraq embargo is premised on protecting the safety of the whole world, by reducing Saddam Hussein's capacity for construction of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, the Bougainville blockade served mainly the interests of an oppressive clique. Yet while Kofi Annan bemoans the Iraq embargo, the U.N. was complicit in the Bougainville blockade.

We started investigating Bougainville last spring, when we learned that the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) had established production of a copy of the M-16 automatic rifle during its 10-year war of independence. That development was revealed to us by an anonymous source present at the United Nations Asia Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference, held in the Spring of 2001.

The conference was tightly controlled, and neither press nor observers were present. During off-the-cuff remarks delivered at the end of the session's 15-minute "discussion time," conference participants were informed that BRA insurgents had been fabricating their own guns. Completely cut off from imports by the lack of funds and by the blockade, the BRA used materiel and equipment salvaged from mining operations, and materials left on the island after World War II (including thousands of tons of ammunition, and machine-gun parts salvaged from wrecks). Initially, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (many of whom were skilled tradesmen) manufactured crude single-shot firearms, but they soon learned to build more sophisticated guns.

Any mention of Bougainville was conspicuously absent from the U.N.'s Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, held just a few months later. This was the conference where the U.N. renewed its call for increased control over civilian firearm possession and gun manufacturers. The stated intent of the conference was to prevent possession of firearms without government approval, with the pretext of attaining greater political stability throughout the world.

As the "leader" of the world's governments (most of which are dictatorships), the U.N. spearheads civilian disarmament, filching bits and pieces of sovereignty from its member nations in the process. Widespread knowledge of the Bougainville "problem", and what happened there, would only serve to undermine the U.N.'s attempted power grab by underscoring the folly of a policy touted as capable of restricting firearms to agents of government.

Tucked away in the South Pacific, Bougainville is an island near Papua New Guinea (PNG), with a population of approximately 200,000. Named for French sailor Captain Louis de Bougainville who, in 1768, established trade with the islanders, it is the largest island in the Solomon chain. For years, Bougainville was controlled by various colonial powers. During World War II, it saw extremely fierce combat, the last Japanese stronghold in the Solomons.

After the War, Bougainville was placed under Australian control as a United Nations Trust territory. Against the wishes of its people, Bougainville found itself ruled by Papua New Guinea when PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, despite the fact that the Bougainvilleans are more closely related to the Solomon Islanders culturally, ethnically, and geographically; PNG lies more than 900 kilometers away. In defiance, Bougainville declared itself the independent Republic of the North Solomons 15 days before PNG gained independence.

In 1960, copper was discovered on Bougainville, and in 1963, the company that eventually evolved into what today is known as Rio Tinto (a leading international mining conglomerate, based in London and Australia) commenced operations.

Their land is of utmost importance to the people of Bougainville. Inheritance is maintained through the matrilineal clan system, passing from mother, who is both titleholder and custodian of the tribal land, to eldest daughter.

When, in January 1965, it became apparent that a large open-pit copper mine was to be established, local villagers protested. A hearing was held in the Warden's Court in the town of Kieta, and the court awarded a mining license to Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (a subsidiary of the mining company now called Rio Tinto). Under the court's interpretation of Australian law, what is "on top of the land" was the villagers', but what was underneath — the copper deposits — belonged to the government, and not to the titleholders of the land.

That ruling ran contrary to traditional Bougainvillean ownership. It was also contrary to traditional Anglo-American common law, by which subsurface and mineral rights belong to the owner of the surface land. To the villagers, it was incomprehensible how, after countless generations, the land was no longer theirs.

When the bulldozers came, Bougainvillean landowning women resisted, and lay down with their babies in front of the machines. While Americans sympathized with the brave, unarmed Chinese student who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, there were no journalists to document similarly brave acts in Bougainville.

Construction of the mine proceeded, accompanied by chemical defoliation of an entire mountainside of pristine rain forest (i.e. the "top of the land" which belonged to the villagers), and huge amounts of toxic mine waste were dumped onto the land and into major rivers. According to a lawsuit filed in November 2000 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, by 1988,

the mine…dug a crater six kilometers long, four kilometers wide and a half a kilometer deep…[It] produced over one billion tons of waste…vast tracts…are still barren and devoid of vegetation many years after closure of the mine…Thirty kilometers of the river valley system was converted into moonscape…What the people of Bougainville see is one of the worst human-made environmental catastrophes of modern times.

But the mine turned out to be an enormous source of income for PNG. Rio Tinto gave the PNG government 19 percent of the mine's profits, which at the time, amounted to one-third of the government's income — ample incentive for PNG to overlook environmental damage.

In response, Francis Ona, the son of a dispossessed village chief, formed the Panguna Landowners Association (soon to be known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army). Ona and his followers shut down the mine on December 1, 1988, using explosives stolen from the mining company to destroy a transmission tower that supplied power to the mine.

In April 1990, the PNG government, with the assistance of the Australian government, imposed a total blockade of the island in an attempt to reopen the mine, and to prevent Ona and the BRA from acquiring arms. However, it was women and children who were most affected by the blockade: Pregnant women died in childbirth, and young children died from easily preventable diseases. According to the Red Cross, the blockade resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 children in just the first two years of operation.

The blockade of Bougainville — which supposedly ended during a 1994 ceasefire, but which nevertheless continued informally until 1997 — was directly responsible for the deaths of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people. PNG thus ranks among the more successful mass-murderers of the 20th-century, having wiped out 10 percent of the Bougainville population.

Instead of forcing the populace into submission, the blockade had just the opposite effect. In May 1990, Ona declared the independence of the Republic of Meekamui ("The Sacred Island").

Meanwhile, control of Bougainville became even more important economically; an aerial survey in the late 1980s had discovered rich deposits of other minerals, including gold and even offshore oil.

The U.N. was apprised of events taking place in Bougainville at least as early as 1991. That summer, a BRA delegation to the U.N. Committee hearing in Geneva on the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples accused the PNG government of numerous atrocities committed against the islanders. Some of these — extrajudicial executions, "disappearances", ill-treatment and arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of women and children — were detailed by Amnesty International.

In his address to the parliament of Rwanda on May 7, 1998, Kofi Annan offered an apology: "All of us who cared about Rwanda…fervently wish that we could have prevented the genocide…in their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda." There was no apology forthcoming for Bougainville, however — just silence, and the determination to disarm the surviving islanders.

To help neutralize the BRA, Papua New Guinea created, funded, and armed the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF) ensuring its loyalty to the central government, and placed a bounty on Ona's head.

However, the BRA proved more than a match; they were not only expert guerrilla fighters, but expert in psychological warfare. According to PNG officer Yauka Aluambo Liria, who documented the early years of the Bougainville campaign (Bougainville Campaign Diary, 1993), it was not long into the fighting that rumors began to spread among the PNG troops about the magical "puri puri" powers possessed by the BRA members from the inner jungles, which enabled them to change into dogs and scout PNG positions, steal weapons, and even kidnap PNG soldiers.

In spite of being isolated from the rest of the world, and lacking friends, funds, and sophisticated armament factories, the BRA prevailed. They outmaneuvered trained, well-armed soldiers wielding M79 grenade launchers and mortars, and who were backed up by Australian-supplied Iroquois helicopters outfitted with automatic weapons.

Having failed in the military arena, PNG switched tactics. On August 30, 2001, an unrealistic Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed by Bougainvilleans who had strong political ties to PNG. Bougainvilleans loyal to revolutionary leader Francis Ona did not sign. The agreement put a formal end to hostilities, provided for the establishment of an autonomous Bougainville government, and a referendum on full independence from PNG to be held within 10 to15 years.

But the most important part of the Peace Agreement (at least to PNG, Australia, and the U.N.) — and what independence is utterly contingent upon — is the Rotakas Record of May 3, 2001, an agreement which laid out a "phased weapons disposal plan", and which, upon implementation, would result in complete disarmament of the BRA. Some of its details were reported by Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier:

The weapons disposal plan includes…collecting all weapons from ex-combatants and locking them in the containers with robust but simple padlocks. The unit commanders will retain the keys and trunks but allow UN officials to verify the exercise. During the second stage, the weapons would be double-locked in larger containers with one key held by the local commander and one by the UN…After the PNG Security Forces withdraw from each command area the Company Commanders shall deliver arms held by them to one central collection point in each command area….The decision on how these weapons should be finally dealt with will be made within one month of the constitutional amendments coming into effect.

In short, this means that BRA company commanders will soon no longer be in control of their weapons. And the implied threat is that if their weapons are not forthcoming, neither will be the independence referendum.

But what is the purpose of disarming a people who are headed toward greater autonomy and freedom? Upon independence, disarmament would be a moot point because Bougainville would then be self-governed, and the Bougainvilleans would be free to do whatever they liked, including retaining their arms.

One of the witnesses to the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement was New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff, whose country agreed to provide 200 containers (basically, large trunks) for the storage of weapons to be handed in by Bougainvillean ex-combatants. As the first batch of 15 gun lockers were flown in on November 20, 2001, Goff declared: "The challenge now lies with the Bougainvilleans, particularly ex-combatants, to show their commitment to the Weapons Disposal Plan as expressed in the Bougainville Peace Agreement."

The real challenge, however, will be to convince Bougainvilleans who used those arms to halt the plunder of their land, to unilaterally disarm. Francis Ona, whose independence movement still controls up to 20% of Bougainville, refused to participate in the peace process. The June 11, 1999, Sydney Morning Herald quoted a defiant Ona as stating: "There are thousands of home-made weapons hidden in the villages and they will never be handed back until Bougainville becomes independent."

On January 24, 2002, the Boroko (PNG) Independent characterized the weapons disposal plan as proceeding smoothly. In a story entitled "Weapons Disposal Making Good Progress", the newspaper reported that the plan's implementation was "gaining momentum" as a whopping 105 guns had been surrendered and locked in containers.

PNG's lukewarm attitude about burying the hatchet is evident in its treatment of the plaintiffs (Bougainville survivors, including Ona's father) in the lawsuit against Rio Tinto: PNG threatened them with retribution, including hefty fines and imprisonment of up to five years. While Rio Tinto has belatedly offered the Bougainvillean villagers $12 million for reparations, the California lawsuit asks for a great deal more. That settlement would do more than just compensate victims; those dollars would go a long way toward repairing the scar left in the earth by the mining operations.

A year after the lawsuit was filed, the Post-Courier reported that PNG was attempting to block the suit by asking the U.S. government to intervene against the villagers. In what has been described as "an unprecedented move", the U.S. State Department notified presiding Judge Margaret M. Morrow for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California that "The success of the Bougainville peace process represents an important United States foreign policy objective…[and that] continued adjudication of the claims [of the plaintiffs]…would risk a potentially serious adverse impact on the peace process…."

But dismissal of that lawsuit would have a serious adverse impact on the restoration of the land, itself. If ever there was a cause for the environmentalists to rally 'round, it would be the plight of Bougainville.

The process of independence moved another step forward on January 23, 2002, when the PNG parliament unanimously voted in favor of constitutional amendments relating to Bougainville. One of these amendments would permit Bougainville to become autonomous under PNG, and the other would permit Bougainville to hold its referendum for independence in 10-15 years. Bougainville would be given control of its own foreign affairs, banking system, aviation and shipping rights. Also, the "legislation allows Bougainville to have its own disciplined forces.…"

However, one might ask, if Bougainville is to have its own "disciplined forces," why should they have to reacquire weapons in March, after the second reading in parliament turns the amendments into law?

One might also question the intensity of the request for, especially, high-power weapons to be turned in; after all, those arms are not being used to commit mayhem upon Bougainville civilians. Those were the weapons that the rebels needed to change the balance of power when PNG used helicopters to control the battlefield from above.

Finally, if peace is the real objective, why not disarm all combatants? Why not disarm, especially, the aggressors — the governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia — instead of only disarming the victims who fought back? Why insist on disarmament first, and postpone a referendum on independence for 10 or more years, when independence is the key to a lasting peace? Why should the people of Bougainville believe that once they are disarmed and helpless, the government of PNG will honor its promise ten or fifteen years in the future?

The Americans who fought their own war of independence never would have disarmed themselves in exchange for a promised vote on independence a decade or more later. Why should American foreign policy attempt to pressure the people of Bougainville to follow such an obviously risky course? Why should the State Department take the extraordinary step of attempting to choke off the ability of victims of human-rights abuses to sue in a federal court which has proper legal jurisdiction?

And when will the people of Bougainville have their claims presented to the world by those First Worlders who believe in the preservation of pristine environments and the protection of traditional cultures?

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