Hope for peace in Bougainville while West Papua endures

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Jacqui Joseph is a Bougainville voter looking to have her voice heard (screenshot via YouTube).

Voting that started on Saturday 23 November, in the long-awaited referendum over independence for formerly war-torn Bougainville, has seen great shows of reconciliation and optimism.

That is in contrast against the crisis and violence still going on in the neighbouring territory of West Papua.

Bougainville and West Papua both have overwhelmingly Melanesian populations and culture. They are restlessly subordinated as provinces of two other states, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia, both unwilling to let go of their rich minerals deposits. Demands for self-determination and democracy have met with violent suppression and over many years have seen armed insurgency.

Bougainville's long war

North-east of the big island of New Guinea, the independence movement on the island of Bougainville, since Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, is a well-worn story. As a PNG province, it blew apart over the big open-cut Panguna mine, producing copper, silver and gold. Cultural frictions began over workers brought from “mainland” PNG, environmental destruction and demands of landowning villages wanting larger royalties.

A resistance group, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) fought campaigns against PNG forces, in alliance with other local militias, and against militias aligned with PNG. The confused struggle raged over a decade from 1988, aggravated by conflicting clan loyalties and forcing the shut-down of the mine.

Ugliness of the conflict

The death toll between 10,000 and 20,000 spelt out the ugliness of the conflict. The attempt by the PNG Government to import mercenaries, with armed helicopters, was stopped by Australia, but it demonstrated the chances of an even worse bloodbath.

The story told by one young woman from Bougainville, a student, ten years ago, stands for many histories of destruction and personal loss. She recalled as a child fleeing with her family in actual fear for their lives. She was picked up off the beach in dead of night by a PNG navy patrol boat and taken to safety; but then to a difficult upbringing away from Bougainville, unable to return there for ten years, and the pain remained.

Strong hopes: Where's the catch?

Bougainville this year presents a better picture. An eventual settlement in 2001, with an international peace-keeping force deployed, set up the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) with special status within PNG. The deal pre-set the referendum with close to 200,000 entitled to vote, to choose between full independence or a negotiated, expanded autonomy within PNG.

A “yes” vote for independence will not be final, only triggering a negotiation on separation with the PNG Government. Will internal forces in PNG still cause the Government there to reject independence or demand impossible terms?

Business interests want the Panguna mine reopened. The company, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), points out that it was contributing 44 per cent of PNG exports before its closure. The original investor, Rio Tinto, has pulled out, leaving the Bougainville and PNG governments with over one-third of the shares each, the remaining 27 per cent held by “public and institutional investors”. The Autonomous Bougainville Government has talked about reopening the mine but still withholds its licence due to fears of starting a new conflict.

Music, embraces, predictions

During the voting, members of rival armed groups and PNG soldiers were embracing one another in acts of reconciliation. With decorations and music at polling stations, the vote was scheduled for two weeks to 7 December, results to be announced before Christmas. Media observers agreed that after nearly 20 years of mostly peaceful coexistence, it was a positive mood, with a strong vote for independence most likely. Bougainville is ethnically different to the rest of PNG, more like the Solomon Islands and voters favoured having full economic independence: with or without mining.

Aloysius Laukai, proprietor and editor of the commercial radio station in Bougainville, New Dawn FM, says all parties have been promoting reconciliation and good relations. He thought the vote would be for independence, but was cautious about what form it will take after the negotiations with PNG — maybe a form of autonomy in close association.

As for the Panguna mine:

“The mine will have to come later.”

Waliagai Olewale, Bougainville Regional Manager with the PNG National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), likewise has reservations. She said reporting remained difficult, fighting off claims that her outlet will be biased towards the greater autonomy option, not independence. She recounted problems with intimidation or violence against journalists, and difficulty getting access and information from the Commission running the poll.

Sean Dorney, the former ABC Pacific Correspondent and long-time PNG resident, warned there was no guarantee of a trouble-free outcome, or any return to mining:

I expect there will be a strong vote in favour of independence. The PNG Parliament then can accept or reject independence for Bougainville. A rejection would almost certainly trigger trouble. I can’t predict what the majority of Members will do but an acceptance of the referendum result would be the most sensible course. Apparently the share price of BCL has jumped but there is no way I can see that BCL will be allowed back.

Trouble in Western New Guinea

Independence supporters in Western New Guinea, most commonly called West Papua, enjoy no such niceties as a referendum. The last “consultation” there was the infamous “act of free choice” in 1969, which saw community representatives pushed into supporting a union with Indonesia. The Indonesians told foreign powers including Australia and the United States that owning West Papua was important to them, completing their own independence from the Dutch – their "merdeka".

What followed was unabated Indonesian colonisation through migration and settlement, exploitation of natural resources, suppression of protest and the independence campaign, usually under a blanket of censorship or internet shut-downs. Outside news media are generally not allowed in.

A different Merdeka

The independence movement has persisted with demonstrated community backing and gets out its own news and information, especially using smartphones. Using the commonly spoken Indonesian language they have taken over the word "Merdeka" for their cause.    

Pacific states at the United Nations have tried to get West Papua recognised as eligible for independence, against Indonesian diplomats who can block any listing. In the West Papua population census of 4.4-million, 20 per cent are Islamic, suggesting the scale of penetration by Indonesian migration, especially in coastal centres.

'Indonesia's Palestine'

“West Papua is Indonesia's Palestine. It is a military occupation and closed country”, says Octavianus Mote, from the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). The resistance has seen military and police attacks on demonstrations, mass arrests and documented mass killings. Since last year protests have increased, with actions by West Papuan students in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities, and several outbreaks within the territory itself. In remote places opposition activity including armed attacks on Indonesian industrial sites is classed as a 'low-level insurgency'.

Late last year a serious incident in the Nduga district, in the centre of West Papua, saw a reported 31 Indonesian construction workers killed by insurgents.

Further west near the Puncak Jaya mountain an army detachment hunting for the commander of a guerrilla group, Goliat Tabuni, were reported to have killed seven people.  

A West Papua support organisation has this year revived demands for justice over the massacre on Byak Island in 1998, producing eye witness testimonials, in book form and audio, including music. At least 150 were killed.

The independence campaign has to deal with indifference or strong resistance at government-to-government levels. Indonesia says its participation in “security” arrangements for the Asia-Pacific, like sharing in the expanded Manus Island naval base, depends on keeping the status quo in West Papua.

It is like the decades of Indonesian occupation in East Timor, raising the same question: will Jakarta's will continue to be prioritised over West Papua's desire for Merdeka?

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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