Brief History of Bougainville Island

 

 

 

 

The Island of Bougainville was first named by French explorer Captain Louis de Bougainville when he sailed into the Solomon Islands in 1768.  This Island is the largest and most resource rich island in the Solomon Islands archipelago.  The countries known today as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were colonized by Great Britain and Germany in 1884, during which time these territories were divided and ruled in order to extract vast agricultural and mineral resources. 

In 1899 these two Colonial powers settled a border agreement where Bougainville was made part of the territory of Papua and New Guinea within the colonial boundaries of Germany, whilst the Solomon Islands south of Bougainville remained a protectorate of the British Empire.  Throughout the history of colonization the people of Bougainville have objected to the political divisions of their Islands, but have never had the power to stand up against their colonial rulers.

With the advent of WWI in 1914, the German Administration in Papua, New Guinea and Bougainville surrendered to an Australian military force.  Following the defeat of Germany in 1918, the German colonies were dissolved and became mandated territories of the League of Nations.  In 1920, the territories of Papua, New Guinea, and Bougainville were placed under Australian Commonwealth Administration, and during the 1920’s “gold rush fever” swept the regions of Papua, New Guinea and Bougainville.

In 1942, the South Pacific was invaded by the Japanese Imperial Forces and Bougainville was the scene of fierce fighting until 1945 when American and Australian troops re-won control of the Island.  After the war, Bougainville was again put under Australian Administration, this time as a United Nations Trust territory.

In 1960, Australian geologists found a rich copper deposit on Nasio land in central Bougainville. By 1965, under the auspices of Commonwealth law, the trans-national company Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a joint venture of the British company Conzinc Rio Tinto and Australian based company Broken Hill Corporation established the world’s third largest open cut Copper mine in central Bougainville.

In 1968 elections were held throughout Papua New Guinea in a step towards Independence. At the same time Bougainvilleans called for a referendum to break away from Papua New Guinea.  On the first of September 1975, two weeks before Papua New Guinea gained its independence; Bougainville secessionist leaders unilaterally declared its own independence and the people rallied by raising their own flags around the Island.  Unfortunately, this movement was quelled by armed Police from PNG.  Subsequently, full independence from Australia was granted to Papua New Guinea in September 1975 and Bougainville remained part of Papua New Guinea.

Bougainville leaders appealed to the United Nations without success but a year later negotiations with the PNG Government resulted in an agreement for limited autonomy as a Province. Named the North Solomon’s Province. Bougainville was able to form the first Provincial Government in PNG.

Bougainville, and by default PNG, enjoyed a period of development and wealth because of the Copper Mine. However because of the environmental degradation caused by the lack of environmental mining policies that are in force today, the Panguna landowners became angered by the environmental destruction caused by more than a decade of mining.

By 1988, tensions had escalated into violence as it became increasingly clear that mining profits from the 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, followed by the PNG Army, whose heavy handed tactics, extra-judicial killings, and gross human rights abuses ignited a violent guerrilla war.

The fight to close the mine escalated into a struggle for self-determination as the population of Bougainville turned against PNG. In April of 1990 with no chance of victory, the PNG Army withdrew from mainland Bougainville and imposed a sea and air blockade using Patrol Boats and Helicopter Gunships.  On May 17, 1990, Bougainville Rebel leaders again declared independence and the former Provincial Government leaders established the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG). In April 1991 the PNG Army, taking advantage of the hardships caused by the blockade, re-invaded Bougainville, but their war effort quickly turned into a stalemate which lasted until 1997.

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.

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 Sir Julius Chan announced, in 1997, 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 to this initiative led to a pseudo military effort, “Operation Rausim Kwik”, led by the PNG Defence Commander, Jerry Singirok, to rid the country of the contracted Sandline mercenaries. The operation was eventually successful, and after elections later that year Sir Julius lost office. 

Australia and New Zealand fostered Peace Negotiations in Burnham, New Zealand in October 1997, and the Bougainville Rebel leaders welcomed a new Peace initiative. A multi-national Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) was raised and sent to Bougainville led by the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces, and assisted by soldiers from other Pacific Nations.  History was made when these Peace Keeping soldiers entered the Bougainville war zone without any weapons. Due to the strong desire of the Bougainvilleans to end the conflict peacefully, a Weapons Disposal program was initiated under the watchful eye of the PMG, which hinged on the withdrawal of all PNG Defence forces from Bougainville.

Knowing that the world was now paying attention to their plight for self-determination, the Bougainville rebel combatants were happy to trade in their weapons for greater political and democratic freedoms, and they relinquished their military power to traditional Chiefs and political leaders.

The PMG withdrew from Bougainville in April 1998 after successfully guiding the Island through a disarmament process, restoration of essential services, and the establishment of a civil Administration body. In January 2001 Bougainvillean Leaders and the PNG Government reached an agreement on political Autonomy and Independence.  This will allow Bougainville to hold a democratic referendum for the Bougainville people to decide on breaking away from PNG to create an Independent state within 10 to 15 years. 

Within that period, Bougainville must successfully re-establish is own economy and allow stable Government to maintain a peaceful and prosperous environment, displaying confidence to the world that Bougainville can be independent. On the 15th May 2005 elections were held in Bougainville, with the formation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG).  Bougainville currently remains a Province of PNG but is now governed by the ABG. Bougainville has also developed its own Constitution which was ratified by the PNG Government.

The ABG is led by President Joseph Kabui, who has a Cabinet with 39 elected Members of Parliament. Bougainville has been at peace for the last ten years and the economy is reviving.  Currently there are major Mining companies and other international trading entities knocking on the door of the Autonomous Bougainville Government.  Now more than ever, the people are taking control of their destiny, and self-determination will see the return of economic and political prosperity.  Given these circumstances, the Landowners and the people of Bougainville are willing to reconsider the controversial issue of mining and since 2006 the issue has been optimistically debated by the people and the ABG.

 

(Source: various sites on the World Wide Web)

Disclosure Statement

The information contained in the “History of Bougainville Island” as above, is not necessarily the reflective opinion of the Husk Oil Group collective or any of its employees, but factual events available in the public domain.