Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomon Islands archipelago and administratively belongs to the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. This autonomous region, together with the island of Buka and the Carteret Islands, has an area of 9,318 km² and a population of over 234,300.
The history of Bougainville is marked, mainly, by two factors: its relationship with different colonial powers and tribal conflicts. It was colonized by Germany and annexed in 1899 to German New Guinea. Subsequently, during World War I, Australia took control of the territory from 1914 to 1975. The Australian occupation was characterized by the repression of independence movements and the exploitation of natural resources. When Papua New Guinea gained its independence in 1975, Bougainville became a province.
On the other hand, as is the case throughout the entire conglomerate of islands in the Pacific, tribal conflicts within the country have been a complex phenomenon inherent to its historical and cultural formation. With over 800 ethnic groups and a similar number of languages, diversity has made it difficult to develop a strong nation-state, leading to situations like Bougainville over the years.
The control of land, resources, or honor are the main reasons for these confrontations. Gold and copper are the most important resources in the region, giving rise to a new player in the conflict: foreign companies that, on occasion, ally with some clans for exploitation. A determining point in this matter is found in 1960, when the Anglo-Australian company Conzinc Rio Tinto discovered large mines of both resources in Bougainville. This would be the trigger for the long and complex path to the independence of the region, marked by an armed conflict that lasted for ten years and pitted the government of Papua New Guinea against the island’s independence movement: the Bougainville Civil War or Revolution.
THE FOUNDING OF THE BOUGAINVILLE REVOLUTIONARY ARMY AND THE CIVIL WAR
The Bougainville Civil War broke out in 1988 when the Papuan Army violently repressed the indigenous inhabitants of the lands occupied by the gold and copper mines known as Panguna, operated by the company that discovered them, Rio Tinto. The inhabitants took up arms due to disagreements with the distribution of benefits produced by the exploitation of the mine and its environmental impact.
The island’s independence movement split into several factions opposed to each other, representing the different clans, although under the umbrella of the so-called Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), founded and led by Francis Ona in 1988, a charismatic and controversial traditional leader and activist for the rights of the indigenous people, as well as one of the main voices critical of the situation of the Panguna gold mine.
The conflict soon intensified with attacks by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) on the armed forces of Papua New Guinea and government-aligned civilians in 1989, along with the declaration of martial law in Bougainville, and the takeover of most of the island by the secessionist militias in 1990. This triggered a series of military offensives by the central government, with a stalemate in the conflict until a new declaration of permanent martial law in 1993, which gave the armed forces of Papua New Guinea the power to arrest, detain, and prosecute civilians without due process.
Martial law was applied inconsistently in Bougainville. In some areas, the Papuan Army was accused of human rights abuses, such as arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. In other areas, martial law was applied more justly, with the armed forces of Papua New Guinea working to protect civilians from violence. Among other measures, a curfew was imposed throughout the island and the assembly of more than five people and the possession of weapons were prohibited. Martial law was criticized by human rights groups, who alleged that it was being used to repress the civilian population and foster a sense of fear and repression in Bougainville.
This dark but important chapter in the second half of the conflict came to an end on April 30, 1997, with the Arawa Peace Agreement. Under the mediation of Australia and New Zealand, it established a number of key points: a transition process that made Bougainville an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, an immediate ceasefire between the BRA and the government of Papua New Guinea, the establishment of a buffer zone between the parties, the creation of a peace and reconciliation commission to investigate abuses committed during the civil war, and the holding of a referendum on the independence of Bougainville. Francis Ona played a key role in the negotiations, and the BRA went from being a military force to legally establishing itself as a political party in 1998.
The United Nations deployed an international mission to Bougainville (UNOMB) on October 1, 1998, making it the first UN peacekeeping mission in the Pacific. The mission had a three-year mandate and aimed to oversee the ceasefire, help with the demobilization of armed forces, and support the peace process. The functions of reconstruction of the island, promotion of peace and reconciliation of the island ended up extending until 2005, when the mission withdrew, considered a success of the transnational organization.
THE PATH TO PEACE AND INDEPENDENCE
Although the armed conflict ended in 1997, the peace agreement was not signed until 2000, followed by the handover of weapons on May 3, 2001, in the well-known Rotokas language. The so-called Bougainville Interim Government (BIG) was first established in 1997 with Joseph Kabui as president until 2005, followed by John Momis until his resignation in 2020 and the current Ishmael Toroama.
The Arawa peace agreement was a success in that it brought an end to the Bougainville Civil War. However, the agreement has been criticized for not fully meeting the aspirations of Bougainville’s independence advocates.
This conflict had a high human cost. It is estimated that some 20,000 people died, which represents approximately 10% of the local population before the conflict.
Despite the death of its leader and main ideologue in 2005, the BRA re-emerged in 2019 in its armed wing, accusing the government of Papua New Guinea of not complying with the terms of the Arawa peace agreement. This dissatisfaction has translated into a series of attacks on military bases, police patrols, and mines, with numerous fatalities to date.
On November 23, 2019, the region held a referendum to decide its future. The consultation was open until December 7, and citizens were faced with the question that could determine the future of the region: greater autonomy or total independence from Papua New Guinea. The referendum was the result of a long process leading to the cessation of hostilities after more than ten years of conflict between the region and the Papuan central government. Although the 2000 peace agreement was a major breakthrough, the ultimate goal of self-determination seemed to be a long way off.
However, the process of independence would not end there. After the positive result of the referendum with almost 98% of the votes in favor, the next step would be negotiations between the autonomous governments and the central government, followed by a vote in the Parliament of Papua New Guinea that would be the final decision of the entire process. With 2027 as the target date for the culmination of the process, it will not be until then that it will be known whether Bougainville becomes a new country or gains sovereignty and self-government within the current Papuan structure.
The Bougainville government, led by President Ishmael Toroama since September 25, 2020, is working to establish the institutions necessary for a future independent state. This includes the creation of an army, a police force, and a judicial system, as well as an economic development plan for Bougainville, which is currently dependent on mining. The plan includes provisions for investment in agriculture and tourism to diversify the economy. The drafting of a constitution will also establish the guidelines for the form of the state and its relationship with the Papuan central government, which is supporting the Bougainville independence process. However, there are some groups in Papua New Guinea that oppose independence, and this could lead to tensions in the future.