A recent decision by a more sympathetic Papua New Guinea Parliament to grant autonomy to Bougainville followed by a referendum on full autonomy may well bring peace to the troubled island of Bougainville.
Located in the Melanesian archipelago between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Bougainville is an old civilization, in excess of 25,000 years, and is rich in both natural resources and culture. Technically, Bougainville belongs to the Solomon Islands group but was politically divided from the Solomon Islands as a result of a British, German and United States trade-off known as the Anglo-German treaty on Samoa in 1889.
Reading the Treaty of Berlin in Samoa, 1889
This treaty allowed Germany to retain the administration of Bougainville and the north-east quarter of New Guinea.
In 1942 the advancing Japanese army occupied Bougainville until it was recaptured by the United States army in 1944. Subsequently, it was made part of the United Nations Trust Territory of Papua New Guinea and returned to Australian administration.
US Army photograph of a Japanese landmine on Bougainville
Left: Japanese searchlights clutter a Buin creek in Bougainville. Right: Children cutting grass near abandoned Japanese bunkers in the school grounds at Buka Passage.
In 1965 at Panguna, huge quantities of copper were discovered. Bougainville Copper Ltd. was formed with Conzinc Rio Tinto in conjunction with the Papua New Guinea Government to mine the copper. Local protests about the loss of land began in 1969 and in 1989 the Bougainville people destroyed pylons forcing the mine to stop productions.
The Papua New Guinea Government responded by sending the police and eventually the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. The local people responded by forming the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a bloody conflict was carried on which resulted in the estimated loss of life of 10,000 to 20,000 Bougainville people between 1990 and 1996.
Papua New Guinea troops on patrol in Bougainville
It was in 1997 that the first signs of peace began to emerge largely as a result of a more sympathetic Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. Eventually a truce monitoring group comprising unarmed military and civilians from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu were invited to the island where they still remain. A Bougainville transitional Government was established and talks directed towards a referendum on independence began.
The prospects of a permanent and lasting peace on Bougainville now look very promising. Certainly, the atrocities that have been committed cannot be overlooked but again they must not be allowed to interfere with the peace process. This is the first opportunity that the Bougainville people have had to be masters of their own destiny. One can only hope that the future for Bougainville will be a bright one.