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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  >  International Relations   > Conflict Resolution in an Asymmetric Multi Lateral World > Country Studies > Bougainville - Papua New Guinea Peace Process > Bougainville Peace Agreement & Sri Lanka, 2002

Bougainville Peace Agreement & Sri Lanka

Raveen S Nathan
Circle Digest, December 20, 2002

[see also Bougainville Peace Agreement, 30 August 2001]

The peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Tamil rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has reached a point where number of examples of 'peace resolution processes' as well as 'models of coexistence' have been cited as examples that should be studied.

Most seem to be Euro-centric given that we are a colonized people and most of the brain trust of Sri Lanka is living abroad mostly in Western nations. Also the fact that the facilitator and the mediator is Norway too skews us towards looking at Western models.

There are many models that we can refer and learn lessons from that are not of the West. The most important one is the peace accord between the Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the rebels of Bougainville Island (BRA). It is called the 'Bougainville Peace Agreement" (BPA) and is a comprehensive document that is available in the net for any research scholar or political activist to refer to.

History of the conflict

There are many similarities between Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Both are nation states that grew of the de colonization process of great powers except that PNG was a colony of a colony, namely Australia. Just like Sri Lanka, PNG or parts of it were administered by different European powers, before ending up with their respective colonial masters.

Bougainville is a large island that is on the northeast corner of PNG Main Island. It culturally and politically belongs to the smaller Solomon Islands group to the south of it. Due to the quirk of colonial history, its custody ended up with the fledgling postcolonial government of PNG.

Postcolonial PNG government inherited not just the Island but also a potential problem in the form of a large mining contract awarded to Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) by the Australian colonial authorities. 

"BCL was 56 per cent owned by the Australian subsidiary Conzinc Rio Tinto, Australia (CRA) which is a subsidiary of the multinational mining company, RTZ" [2]. The PNG Government held about 20 per cent of its shares. BCL generated about A$6.2 billion in sales for the first 16 years of it existence and in doing so, "it had become the largest single source of revenue available to the PNG Government after Australian aid. Taxes from BCL alone accounted for 16 per cent of PNG's budget"[2].

The great mine of Panguna, in the Crown Prince Ranges of central Bougainville was administered by 'white' Australian �migr�s who lived a comfortable live style in the provincial capital of Arawa. Compared to the almost primitive and subsistence life style of the indigenous people, the living standards of the �migr�s and the imported labor force called as 'red skins' by the locals from neighboring PNG was a study in contrast.

Further the Indigenous people, especially those belonging to the Nasioi language group of Central Bougainville had lost sacred and productive land to the huge open pit mine which was growing bigger each day.

Melanesian Roots

Most indigenous Bougainvilleans were matriarchal. Mothers passed land to their children from generation to generation. This is was the most sacred and fundamental practice that was broken by the huge open pit mine. They were mostly organized around family groups further isolated from each other by language differences.

The native Melanesians had over a period of time assimilated the Polynesian seafarers that had eventually settled in lands as far as New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. Polynesian influences were still discernable in many coastal groups. Their commercial, cultural and sometimes historic political ties were with the other islands of the Solomon's group, which were navigable by simple rafts.

The pivotal moment

Although a national consciousness as Bougainvilleans was missing at the time of initial European contact, further interactions with American Catholic missionaries known as the 'Marists" and others had slowly instilled a sense of cohesiveness amongst the varied groups.

But the huge open pit mine changed all that. It was the single most event, that precipitated the civil war and now the BPA. The rights to the open pit mine was granted on land to which neither the Australian nor the PNG government paid any respect to modes of traditional ownership. Compensation was next to nothing and it was breaking apart the very fabric of Nasiosi nation. It made mothers unable to pass their traditional lands to their future generations thus breaking the spiritual connection between generations and their sacred land.

Not jus the Nasiosi Nation but the rest of the Bougainvilleans too viewed the vast operations as an infringement on their fundamental rights. Further the riches gleaned from the mine was only reaching the Australian managers: their imported PNG workers and the coffers of the PNG budget. The locals were completely left out of the deal.

Francis Ona

The second most striking example of the conflict in Bougainville and Sri Lanka is the forceful personality of Francis Ona. Just like Vellupillai Pirapaharan of the LTTE, he single-handedly brought forth the grievances of his people to the attention of the PNG government.

At first Ona had formed the "'New Panguna Landowners Association' and delivered an ultimatum to the company: pay up 10 billion kina (A$14.7 billion (1989 value) in compensation for the impact of the mine, or else"[2].

 BCL refused and that lead to an active program of sabotage by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) that eventually crippled the most profitable mine of PNG from operating.

The Civil war

"In the end, there was no final burst of gunfire, no mad rush of expatriates to the airport but through a mixture of deception and disobedience, Bougainville, in the first half of 1990, slipped from PNG's control. The mine was officially mothballed on 7 January 1990 but early negotiations led in March 1990 to a cease-fire being declared. The army quit as agreed, but then a decision by the Commissioner of Police and Controller of the State of Emergency, Paul Tohian, to withdraw the last thin line of ordinary officers on the ground, left Papua New Guinea without a single government official, politician or member of the security forces on the island. "[2]

Not just the huge copper mine the entire island and its entire infrastructure was with in the control of BRA.

The Blockade

But just like in Sri Lanka, the PNG government attempted to subdue the local population by using a brutal blockade.

 "All air and sea transport was halted. The blockade, which was enforced by Australian-donated patrol boats, largely succeeded. Only the water border with Solomon Islands remained open. As medical supplies dried up and emergency evacuations became impossible, the blockade became responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians - many more than died as a result of the fighting. "[2]

Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)

Unlike in Sri Lanka, 

"On 17 May 1990, the Independent Republic of Bougainville was declared amid a day of celebrations, marches and speeches led by the self-proclaimed President, Francis Ona who announced that the 'longstanding wish of the Bougainville people to become a separate nation' had finally been granted. 'From today Bougainville shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent nation.' Port Moresby cut the islands last remaining telecommunications shortly after the announcement. The interim government, announced by Ona, included the former Premier Joseph Kabui as Minister of Justice and Sam Kauona as Minister for Defence"[2]. 

But unlike the LTTE in Sri Lanka, which runs an efficient civil-military bureaucracy in regions under its control the BRA, were not at all prepared for their new role of maintaining law and order in the new de facto state.Opinion and decision-makers in Sri Lanka should treasure the fact that LTTE leadership has not done a UDI, thus keeping many options open still. But it should be noted that the UDI is still a viable option for the LTTE if the squabbling southern polity pushes it to that route.

Internal Carnage

Similar to government controlled Tamil regions in Sri Lanka, Bougainvillean groups sponsored by the PNG and those purportedly working for or against the BRA indulged in mass mayhem of mass murders, assassinations, wholesale disappearances and rapes. "Bougainvilleans, whether resentful of a clansman's prominence or coveting another's land, whether wishing to avenge the death of an antecedent or the despoiling of a female relative leapt into the lawless vacuum of civil strife, maiming and killing their own." [2]

Australia's role

Another chilling aspect of the similarity between Sri Lanka and Bougainville was the unrestrained use of helicopter gunshots to strafe civilians by the PNG defense forces. Australia provided the Gun-ships free of cost. Many people fled to the bush just to escape the strafing from air. This was apart from the Australian supplied patrol boats used in the brutal naval blockade.

As India has lost credibility amongst Sri Lankans Tamils as well as some sections of the Sinhalese as a viable peace maker in Sri Lanka, Australia too had soured its relationship with the indigenous Bougainvilleans. This opened the doors for others to play the role of the peacemaker namely New Zealand.

Chan's "war for peace"

Just like the Sri Lankan president Mdm. Chandrika Badaranike-Kumarantunga (CBK) followed a dual strategy aptly called as "war for peace", the interestingly named Julius Chan who became a Prime Minster in 1994 pursued a dual strategy of war and peace. This dual strategy only prolonged the misery and further exposed the inability of the PNG government to come up with a coherent policy to control Bougainville and defeat the BRA comprehensively. All his attempts lead to defeat and eventually a process of peace talks began in New Zealand.

"In the second half of 1997, two rounds of talks held at the Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch, New Zealand, were to break the deadlock in the decade-long Bougainville conflict. The Burnham talks occurred after five failed peace accords and two-failed cease-fire agreements. Joseph Kabui, then leader of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG), described the outcome of these talks saying:

'Contained in the Burnham Declaration is the most powerful of all democratic notions, that the people themselves will have the final say on the outcome of our work. Just as the discussions by our officials have brought us together here, our discussion together must get us back to Bougainville and back to a situation which places the decision back into the hands of the people" [3]

The path to the final peace agreement was torturous and it has three pillars. They are as follows;


"The Agreement provides for arrangements for an autonomous Bougainville Government operating under a home-grown Bougainville Constitution with a right to assume increasing control over a wide range of powers, functions, personnel and resources on the basis of guarantees contained in the National Constitution.


The agreement provides for the right, guaranteed in the National Constitution, for a referendum among Bougainvilleans' on Bougainville's future political status.

The choices available in the referendum will include a separate independence for Bougainville.

The referendum will be held no sooner than ten years, and in any case no later than fifteen years, after the election of the autonomous Bougainville Government.

The actual date of the referendum will be set taking account of standards of good governance and the implementation of the weapons disposal plan.

The outcome of the referendum will be subject to ratification (final decision making authority) of the National Parliament.

Weapons Disposal Plan

The agreed weapons disposal plan will proceed in stages, area by area around Bougainville, beginning as soon, as is practicable.

After the constitutional amendments implementing this Agreement have been passed by the National Parliament and by the time they take legal effect, remaining Defense Force and Police Mobile Unit personnel will have been withdrawn from Bougainville and weapons will be held in secure containers.

The containers will have two separate locks with the key to one held by the United Nations Observer Mission on Bougainville (UNOMB) and the other by the relevant ex-combatant Commander.

The UNOMB will verify that all parties are acting in accordance with the agreed weapons disposal plan.

A decision on the final fate of the weapons should be taken within four and a half months of the constitutional amendments coming into effect." [1]

Summary of the BPA

The main aim of the Bougainville Peace Agreement is to end conflict between PNG and Bougainville, and conflict within Bougainville.

To end conflict, it is not enough just to shake hands. It is also necessary to first try to fix up the things that cause the conflict. For us in Bougainville, that means fixing up both:

Problems that caused the original conflict with PNG starting in 1988; and the problems and issues that came up after that, and which caused conflict within Bougainville.

Any political agreement should not only deal with those issues, but must also take account of Bougainville's ability to run its own affairs in a post-conflict situation. In 1999 the leaders of almost all groups in Bougainville identified the problems and issues that had contributed to conflict. They included:

Basic grievances about land, environment and culture; . The strong wish of many people for Bougainville independence; . The conflict and divisions among Bougainvilleans, including divisions about Bougainville independence; . Destruction of or major damage to the main industries in Bougainville and to infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, health centres); . The weak economy in Bougainville (which means low levels of government revenue); . The weak capacity of the Bougainville Administration.

To deal with these things, the leaders decided that the best future political arrangements for Bougainville should be based on two things: a guaranteed but deferred referendum on independence; and high autonomy for Bougainville before the referendum. The reasons for choosing these political arrangements included:

Autonomy gives Bougainville power to deal with Basic Grievances - Bougainville will control land, mining, forestry, environment, foreign investment and culture; . Deferring the referendum keeps open the independence question, and also allows time for reconciliation and development of consensus among people divided on that issue; . Autonomy and deferred referendum together allows us to build up the economy and build up administrative capacity until a final decision on independence is made.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement has been negotiated over 23 meetings with the PNG from June 1999 to August 2001. In the Agreement, PNG has agreed to change the National Constitution to guarantee the following things:

1. Autonomy - a very high level of autonomy, under which Bougainville can:

Choose its name and government structures in its own Constitution; . Gradually take on most powers and functions of government; . Build up its own revenue through taxes as its economy grows, and until then get financial support from the National Government and donors; . Establish separate Bougainville courts, public service, police and CIS.

2. Referendum - a referendum for Bougainvilleans on independence for Bougainville,

Deferred for at least 10 years but for no more than 15 years after autonomy begins. The vote in the referendum will be subject to a final decision by the PNG Parliament. The constitutional arrangements for Bougainville will be protected from change by the PNG Parliament - they will only be changed if Bougainville agrees.

The Peace Agreement also provides for disposal of weapons by the BRA and the BRF, and for withdrawal of remaining PNGDF and Police Riot Squads. The PMG and the United Nations have been asked to stay in Bougainville to help with weapons disposal. These things will be part of wider 'demilitarisation' of Bougainville, which is also intended to deal with causes of conflict. For the presence of opposing military organisations and high-powered weapons has contributed to conflict and insecurity in Bougainville. Demilitarisation also includes:

Strong restrictions on future deployment to Bougainville of the PNGDF and Police Riot Squads; . Bougainville Police not to have anything like a heavily armed Riot Squad; . Commitment by all groups - including BRA and BRF - to working through the autonomous Bougainville Government.

As part of the efforts to deal with sources of conflict, the Peace Agreement provides both a new relationship between PNG and Bougainville, and a new government framework that allows Bougainvilleans to develop Bougainville in their own way. Before most things in the Peace Agreement begin to operate, the PNG Parliament must pass the amendments to the PNG Constitution needed to implement the Agreement. There is an urgent need for support and pressure from Bougainville to encourage members of Parliament to vote for the amendments. This can be helped by quick progress in developing a Bougainville Constitution and by quick progress in implementing the agreed weapons disposal plan.

After the amendments are passed, the success of the Agreement will depend on the efforts of Bougainville to implement it properly. (Joint Bougainville Negotiating Team, 29 August 2001)

[1] The Bougainville Peace Agreement.
[2] "The origins of the conflict" by Mary-Louise O'Callaghan - The Accord, Issue 12
[3] "From Burnham to Buin, Sowing the seeds of peace in the land of the snow-capped mountains" by Robert Tapi - The Accord, Issue 12. http://www.c-r.org/accord/boug/accord12/from.shtml 




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