A Sad and Silent Tragedy in the South Pacific
By Martin R. Miriori, Bougainville Interim Peace Office, Solomon Islands
Bougainville was so named by the French explorer, Louis de Bougainville, who sighted the island in 1768. Bougainville is estimated to be approximately 10,620 sq. km, with a population of about 200,000 people. It is approximately 1,000 km from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. It is divided by a narrow channel of 4-5km from the nearest point of the Solomon Islands, to the south. The main island of Bougainville is approximately 210 km long and about 100 km wide. To the north, lies Buka Island, separated by a passage 800 metres wide, and there are several atolls further north.
Bougainville is mountainous, rugged and covered with dense rainforest. It is rich in mineral deposits. Until the war broke out in 1988, Bougainville, largely through it hosting one of the largest open-cut copper mines in the world (at Panguna), accounted for almost 45% of all Papua New Guinea's total export earnings. The total revenue from this mine over the 17 year period between 1972-1989 was about US$6 billion. An additional 500 million tonnes of ore reserves remained when the mine was forced to close.
The war fought on Bougainville today can be seen as a by-product of the colonial errors arbitrarily made in the past in drawing up boundaries within the territories by the then colonial powers, without any due respect or consideration for the indigenous populations. An agreement was made in 1899 between Germany and Great Britain which allowed for the separation of Bougainville from the rest of the Solomon Islands "for the settlement of Samoan and other questions."
CAP: In November 1988 a handful of islanders stole company explosives destroying electricity pylons, buildings and machinery. By using guerrilla tactics they succeeded in bringing the mine to a standstill.
The two powers, competing to expand their spheres of influence in the Solomon Islands, saw fit to divide up the colony into two parts. The Germans, in return for concessions in Samoa, handed some of the Solomon Islands territory back to Great Britain, but kept Bougainville and attached it to its New Guinea territories in the north for administrative convenience. After the defeat of Germany during the First World War in 1918, the German territories, collectively termed New Guinea, became a part of a League of Nations mandate and were placed under Australian administration, along with the Australian territory of Papua. At this stage Bougainville's leaders began to object to being held as a separate entity from their traditional brothers in the Solomons. For ten thousand years they had been trading and marrying with the people from the Shortland Island and Choisuel, and they felt that the wrong of 1899 should be corrected. During the Second World War Bougainville was the scene of fierce fighting. The island was occupied first by the Japanese, then the Americans, and once again was handed over to the Australian administration as a United Nations Protectorate.
In 1960 there was a discovery of rich mineral deposits, of copper, gold and silver, on Bougainville. The landowners on and around the site objected to the idea of the mine, and were dealt with harshly by the colonial Australian administration. They were forced from their traditional land, their homes and gardens were destroyed, and no consideration was given to tradition, culture and family life. The rivers and streams were polluted, fish began to die and a process of tragic environmental damage commenced.
"Land is our life, land is our physical life - food and sustenance. Land is our social life, it is marriage; it is status; it is security; it is politics; in fact, it is our only world. When you take our land, you cut out the very heart of our existence." The relationship between people and land is perhaps the key relationship in Melanesian society. The above quotation from three leading Bougainvillean students in 1974 graphically demonstrates its importance.
In 1966 the colonial administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea forced the Bougainvilleans to accept the opening of the Con-Zinc Rio Tinto (CRA – an Australian subsidiary of British mining giant RTZ) - mine in the heart of the island at Panguna in Central Bougainville. The profits from the mine would not only benefit the company and shareholders, but would be used by Australia to help fund the administration of Papua and New Guinea. At this time self-government for Papua New Guinea was advanced, and again Bougainvilleans reiterated their right to self-determination as separate from Papua New Guinea, either to return to the Solomon Islands or to stand alone.
On 16 September 1975, Papua New Guinea obtained independence from Australia. Bougainville's pleas for the people to be allowed to exercise their right to determine their own political future were ignored. Panguna became one of the largest opencast mines in the world, and the only source of finance for Papua New Guinea's independence. In essence, Australia gave Bougainville and her people as an independence gift to Papua New Guinea.
After 20 years the mine had grown to huge crater half a kilometre deep and nearly seven kilometres in circumference, creating over a billion tonnes of waste. This was dumped into the Java Valley creating a wall of waste several hundred metres high, turning one of the island’s biggest river systems bright blue.
"Our fish in the river - sometimes we would find them dead, floating. Sometimes even fish in the sea. Each time we reported this to the health officers. Nothing was ever done about it. Every time we complained they would say it'll be alright. It'll be alright; you will get the money, but money compared to what we lost is nothing.
"In January 25th of 1990 my brother went to work as usual, the security forces went to him and told him not to say anything. He tried to ask them why they were taking him but he was bashed with the butt of the gun. He was beaten up, ripped off his clothes, thrown in the back of the car where ten of the soldiers were sitting and he was driven off. He was still screaming when they got their gun and they somehow maybe they hit the side of his mouth with their gun and two of his teeth fell off. Then he was shot in his heart once and another time in his side.
"The PNG cannot win our hearts because we cannot forget our loved ones. We cannot accept it, they killed us in cold murder. We have never experienced things like this in our lives, the only place where I saw similar things was on TV."
Bougainville's leaders are constantly being asked by their people why they have allowed the multi-national BCL and Papua New Guinea to not only steal their land, but to carry it away from the shores of the island. Why have they allowed the streams, rivers and seas to he polluted and stained with foreign chemicals, which pour unfiltered from the mine, poisoning the food chain, killing the wildlife, destroying the flora and causing long term illness and death to the people. The island was raped and poisoned for 20 years, the people and the environment left unprotected by Papua New Guinea. They failed to take action, so the people of Bougainville have taken it for themselves.
Bougainville's actions in this bid for independence have been defensive. This is a popular revolution which has grown out of an act of self-defence, unpremeditated, without financial or military support. Papua New Guinea has treated the people of Bougainville criminally. The Portuguese siege of Malacca in the 1700s was seen at the time by other nations as a barbaric form of war, and yet Papua New Guinea's siege against Bougainville in 1990 has been sanctioned by Australia and other 'civilised' nations!
By 1980 the people of Bougainville were deeply disturbed by the environmental destruction of the huge opencast mine; by the increasing plantation of Papua New Guineans in Bougainville, by cultural breakdown, by the lack of government funding and the growing political power of the Papua New Guinean state, built with Bougainville finance, over our own people and resources. In 1988 concerns raised by landowners and the Provincial government regarding the renegotiation of the mining agreement, and the vast ecological damage to the area caused by mining activities, were ignored by CRA and the PNG government. These unsuccessful attempts to correct the situation led to the open protests which developed in to violent protest and the subsequent closure of the mine. This led to the formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), with its main objective of defending the people against all foreign exploiters, including Papua New Guinea.
In March 1990 the PNG military and civil service were forced to withdraw from Bougainville, leaving the island under BRA control, and on 22 April PNG announced a blockade. In this vacuum, the people set up an Interim Government, whose main task was negotiation with PNG, On 17 May 1990, after PNG had cut all communications, the Interim Government declared UDI, seeking assistance from other sources to serve the people's basic needs. The use of the economic and social blockade demonstrates genocidal intent. Bougainville is a tropical island, a breeding ground for countless diseases. To deny the people medical supplies is to condemn thousands of civilians to death. The blockade is a form of germ warfare. It is highly illegal and inhumane. In June 1994, the BRA and the Interim Government signed peace agreements with PNG in the Solomon Islands. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the PNG undertook to allow the unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid. However, despite the agreement and several UN calls, the total blockade remains in force.
In this the sixth year of the longest and most destructive war in the South Pacific region since WWII, the human rights situation in Bougainville continues to deteriorate. These include the destruction of villages, rape, summary executions of minors, and the operation of concentration camps ('Care Centres'). In most areas schools, hospitals, and factories are closed. Some blame the BRA; most blame the Government, but the real culprit continues to be the past colonisation of lands without consideration for the indigenous. In the present blockade, the immediate victims are always women and children. Villagers have become the victims of disease and relocation into 'Care Centres'. Women die in childbirth, un-immunised children remain at risk from the simplest of curable diseases. After years of blockade, there is a lost generation.
The aftermath of colonisation, where a foreign political system is imposed, results in a state where some are systematically deprived of their rights to life, to security of person, to freedom of thought and expression, and the right to enjoy their ethnic cultures. This is the experience the people of Bougainville have endured under Papua New Guinea's domination. Bougainville is a tragic example of the consequences of an indigenous people being denied the right to self-determination, and the resulting human rights violations which so often typify subjugation by alien peoples.
The human rights violations perpetrated by PNG against the Bougainvilleans over the past six years are well documented by Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, the Australian International Development Bureau, Medecins sans Frontieres, reliable media interviews, photographic evidence and in documents collated by the Bougainville Provincial Government, and the Bougainville Interim Government.
In 1989-90 in Central Bougainville alone, over 6,000 village homes were destroyed by the PNG Defence Force, resulting in the displacement of 24,000 rural people. Villagers were herded into 'Care Centres', plastic tents in market places and on football fields. Today the above figures are much higher. There are now over 40,000 people herded into 'Care Centres' in areas occupied by PNG troops. In these military-run care centres, conditions are unhygienic, there is overcrowding, no freedom, very little food, and often, contaminated water.
|"We wouldn't stand idle and see our boys and innocent people being killed so we had to stand up and defend somehow, and it was then that we thought of forming a militant type organisation to contain what the security forces were doing to us.
"The Bougainville Revolutionary Army hold CRA entirely responsible for what has happened on the island. Because when CRA wanted to come in, there was a lot of opposition by the villagers, and also the amount of polluting and damage done to the environment."
- BRA Spokesperson
Women are raped and murdered in front of their own families, families killed, children shot, civilians detained, tortures, murdered, and dumped from helicopters at sea. Summary executions and torture have become a norm.
What started as a localised environmental protest has become a struggle in self-defence against racism and exploitation. PNG has conducted a crippling siege. Attempts at negotiation have resulted in broken treaties and re-invasion by PNG troops under cover of a ceasefire. The siege has had catastrophic results for the civilian population; no humanitarian relief or communication has been allowed to or from BRA controlled areas. The only activity on this once-prosperous island is hunting and gardening, industry lies dormant, towns deserted, the island has plunged back into the middle ages.
PNG's greatest weapon and worst shame has been the sacrifice of the lives of innocent people, with complete disregard for human rights conventions, the Geneva Conventions, and their own Constitution. The official approach, the indiscriminate killing, the use of excessive force, denials of basic needs such as food, clothing, and medical supplies, demonstrates an intent on the PNG Government's behalf to destroy the Bougainvillean population.
These policies constitute genocide under the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, Article 2(c) of the United Nations on Human Rights.
Bougainville Island has been under siege since 17 April 1990. During this time over 8,000 people, or 5% of the population, have died as direct result of the lack of medical supplies and facilities due to the blockade. Thousands of children have been unable to receive immunization as PNG troops have repeatedly burned supplies throughout the areas they occupy. All communication with BRA controlled areas has been cut. There is no economy. Farmers whose life savings are invested in cocoa plots have watched crops rot on the tree. They cannot pay other villagers to help clean them. The primary industry is choked and is 99% dead, as the jungle reclaims neglected areas. With few exceptions, no person or thing has been allowed on or off the island.
Bougainvilleans agree that environmental concerns cannot be disassociated from human concerns. "Environment" encompasses both ecological and cultural rights; the two are too often sacrificed side by side. Government tactics such as forced evictions and population transfers are part and parcel of development policies that, in the name of economic growth, justify ecological destruction and the dispossession of peoples. The intent of the perpetrators of this evil siege is to create disunity on the islands through suffering and death, to torture women and children into submission, to steal back the mining resources at the expense of society and environment, to own the people and their island.
The Solomon Islands form a distinct geographical and cultural entity. Bougainville was cut off for the benefit of colonial powers and merged with a people from far away, from a land with different culture and different aspirations. This error of the colonial past must be corrected in time and the people of Bougainville have taken the first step. It is time for all people of goodwill throughout the world to bring pressure on the government of Papua New Guinea to end this criminal medieval siege, to once and for all end the colonial exploitation of Bougainville and to recognise Bougainville's right to self determination.
The video 'Struggle', cut together by Dead Trees EF!, contains a 20 minute documentary on Bougainville. See 'Resources'.
South Downs EF! is organising a tour by Martin Miriori, possibly in September. Contact them for more details and up to date info on the situation.
Read 'Uprising Closes Mine Since 1988' in the EF! Journal, Eostar 1993.
Martin Miriori can be contacted at: The Bougainville Interim Peace Office, PO Box 1203, Honiara, Solomon Islands.
Urgent Funds Needed!
The author of the above article is planning a speaker’s tour in late September. Funds are needed urgently. Send cheques to South Downs EF! and we will pass it on. RTZ are based in the UK – Organise actions!