Feb 02, 2004

History of Bougainville

The island that would later be called Bougainville was first sighted in 1768 by the French explorer Louis de Bougainville who gave the island its name.

The German New Guinea Company as a part of their holdings that included the islands of New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland and all of the Solomon Islands later annexed the island.

By agreement of 1899 between Germany and Great Britain, Bougainville was separated from the other Solomon Islands and remained under German control while the Solomon Islands went to Great Britain.

Bougainvilleans objected to their separation from the Solomon Islands.

At the beginning of WW I in 1914 Bougainville was occupied by Australian and after the defeat of Germany, the German territories, collectively called New Guinea, became Mandate territories of the League of Nations and, in 1920, were placed under Australian administration.

During WW II Bougainville was the scene of fierce fighting. The Japanese occupied the island early in 1942. US troops had overtaken the island of Bougainville by March 1944. After the war, Bougainville was again put under Australian administration, this time as a United Nations Trust territory.

In 1960, Australian geologists found copper in Naisioi land, Bougainville. The transnational company Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a joint venture of the Australian based companies Conzinc Rio Tinto and Broken Hill Corporation, began prospecting in 1963. No environmental impact study was carried out.

In 1968 elections were held throughout Papua New Guinea. Bougainville called for a referendum on secession, but the Papua New Guinea government did not honour this request. Self-government was given to Papua New Guinea on December 1973 and full independence from Australia on September 1975.

On the first of December 1975, two weeks before Papua New Guinea gained its independence; Bougainville unilaterally declared its independence emphasising its wish to remain separate from the new state of Papua New Guinea.

Bougainville appealed to the United Nations, but without success. A year later, negotiations with the Papua New Guinea government resulted in an agreement for limited autonomy as a province of Papua New Guinea. Bougainville was to have its own Provincial government. Many people complained that the people did not democratically elect the Bougainvilleans on the delegation that signed the 1976 agreement.

By 1988, tensions had escalated into violence, as it became increasingly clear that mining profits from an Australian joint venture on the island were not benefiting the people of Bougainville and that the mining activity was seriously damaging the island’s environment. That year, an organised group of traditional landowners, later known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) forcibly closed the mine and demanded the re- negotiations of contracts. PNG responded by sending in the Police Riot Squad and then the army, displacing some 24000 villagers.

The fight to close the mine escalated into a struggle for self-determination and indigenous control of the land as the population of Bougainville turned massively against PNG. Defeated, the PNG army left Bougainville and imposed a blockade on the island in April 1990. On May 17, 1990, Bougainville declared its independence officially for the second time, from PNG and established the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG). In April 1991 the PNG army, taking advantage of the hardships caused by the blockade, re-invaded Bougainville.

Since 1990 there have been many serious attempts to reach a political settlement to the conflict. The negotiations led to the signing in November 1994, of the Margini Charter, which paved the way for the establishment of the Bougainville Transitional Government (BTG), under the auspices of PNG. The charter committed PNG to restoring services on the island, and setting up a transitional government for Bougainville.

As the BIG boycotted the meeting, PNG saw the opportunity to select BTG representatives. In 1996 however the BTG premier was assassinated, with independent inquiries verifying the involvement of the PNG security forces.

With the complete failure of the peace accord and the inability of the PNG army to win the war in Bougainville the PNG prime minister announced that his government had hired Sandline, a mercenary company based in South Africa, to wipe out the rebel leadership in Bougainville. The international and domestic opposition led to the resigning of the Prime Minister of PNG. Elections in July ushered in a new era in Bougainville relations.

Following peace talks in Burnham, New Zealand in October 1997, four AFP members were deployed to Bougainville as part of the Truce Monitoring Group. The TMG concluded in April 1998 and was replaced with a Peace Monitoring Group. In January 2001 Bougainville and Papua New Guinea reached an agreement that would give Bougainville a referendum on independence.
The peace accord consists of a time-line for a referendum that should be held between 10 and 15 years from the election of the first autonomous government of Bougainville, that will be held within the next 12 months.