In 1988 war broke out on Bougainville.
Lying on the northern tip of the Solomon Island archipelago, it forms the easternmost province of Papua New Guinea, a nation of over 1,000 ethnic groups forged under the coloniser’s gun.
The war centred, at first, on a copper and gold mine in Bougainville’s Panguna region operated by a subsidiary of Anglo-Australian mining multinational Rio Tinto.
Following mass demonstrations, sit-ins, road-blockades, and a brutal government crackdown, a guerrilla force emerged, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), which called for the mine’s permanent closure. The insurrection against the mine transformed into a secessionist struggle that fused together complex and at times antagonistic interests.
Secession and the mine’s closure was opposed by Papua New Guinea’s government, an increasingly corrupt political institution dependent on mine receipts. The former colonial power, Australia, also opposed the uprising. It threatened to disrupt a regional balance Australia had promised to underwrite as the South Pacific’s self-appointed hegemon.
Dubbed “the Bougainville crisis”, the decade long war left up to 20,000 dead. Trauma and loss cast a heavy shadow over the island.
Many have reflected on its meaning and origins. Some trace it back to the 19th century, when the coloniser came. The missionaries arrived first, they were followed by Britain, Germany and finally Australia, which assumed control over the territories of Papua and New Guinea.
With them came the seeds for war.
First Contact - Further Context
Conventionally “the Bougainville crisis” is an expression that demarks a period of armed conflict which began in 1988, and formally ended in 2001, by which time up to 20,000 people had lost their life. The framing commonly used to gloss this process, states that customary landowners living in the region impacted by Rio Tinto’s expansive copper and gold mine, initiated a campaign of industrial sabotage. This was prompted after grievances over the mine’s socio-environmental impacts, and the sharing of benefits, went unheeded.
Industrial sabotage then triggered a sequence of events that resulted in the Papua New Guinean and Australian governments partnering in a military campaign marked by a range of gross human rights abuses. Out of this violence, a struggle for Bougainville’s independence emerged, pursued by guerrilla forces operating under the banner, Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001, formally ended this struggle, with the promise of devolved government and a referendum over independence.
In series one, an alternative framing of the crisis is offered. Drawing on theory consolidated in the analysis of elders from the mine impacted area in central Bougainville, it is argued the crisis in fact began in the 19th century when the numerous civilisations indigenous to Bougainville confronted external powers insistent on radically changing their way of life – a venture that continues today, often in more subtle forms. From this vantage point, the events of 1988-2001 were violent symptoms of a much deeper social crisis implanted by colonialism. And while the peace process itself ended armed violence, it did not end the struggle to resolve this deeper social crisis.
The idea that struggles to decolonise continue long after the formal ending of colonial empires is not a new one. Intellectuals from the global south have attempted to conceptualise this seemingly contradictory process through the concept of coloniality. Nelson Maldonado-Torres writes:
Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience.
On Bougainville the project initiated during the colonial period, which attempted to demean as primitive local ways of life, and induct people into a system of practices and values that emerged in Western Europe and was exported violently across the globe, remains alive today. It is a source of tension, critique and resistance. Understanding it is essential to understanding the Bougainville war as symptomatic of a deeper crisis.
Formally speaking, Bougainville’s sovereignty was first pierced by the German empire, which annexed the island and its many unique civilisations, following the signing of the Anglo-German Declaration in 1886. It was then subsumed within an Australian ‘protectorate’ after a brief military incursion by Australian forces in 1914. Alongside the introduction of colonial government imposed through often brutal displays of violence against unwilling communities, was the growth of a settler dominated plantation sector, supplemented by medium scale mining. Various Christian denominations grew in influence as well, following extensive missionary work across Bougainville.
While easy to forget under the weight of euphemisms commonly used today to detoxify the colonial period, what this historical process heralded was in effect, a complex long-standing siege directed against the economic, political, cultural, social, and spiritual pillars of local civilisations indigenous to Bougainville, that had emerged over thousands of years. The aim was to forcefully induct communities into a new way of life, that was deemed by the German, Australian and indeed British administrations, as civilised.
This new way of life itself was of modest age. While there is extensive debate over when and where capitalism emerged as a social system, it took root most persuasively in Western Europe during the seventeenth century, bringing about seismic change. Capitalism was then exported, often violently, during subsequent centuries, forming a social system that is truly global in reach. Its growth has been typified by a near singular focus on accumulating money through investment in market based enterprises.
On the one hand this has prompted revolutions in the productive forces available to humankind, on the other it has seen subjugated on a mass-scale human beings and the natural environment to the goal of profit, which many argue is leading to a terminal decline of the human species. This globalised process has been guided by a system of political governance dominated by managerial states – which range from liberal democracies through to authoritarian regimes – whose goal is to manage national and international resources in a way that allows the turbines of a profit oriented economy to continue without disruption, whether it be through suppressing labour strife or securing ‘free’ access to raw materials through military incursions abroad.
When the German, and then Australian governments, attempted to annex Bougainville to this emerging global political-economy, it precipitated a profound internal crisis on the island, whose effects would be felt most forcefully during the second half of the twentieth century. Societies indigenous to Bougainville, and Papua New Guinea more widely, were deemed backward, primitive, primordial, and steeped in savagery, by the colonial regime. This “backwardness” became the justification for introducing a set of political and economic practices that would plant on Bougainville the seeds of “civilisation”.
Bougainville’s rural population, who were confronted by an organised and coordinated attack by colonial powers wielding stigmatising and pejorative labels against a way of life they were proud custodians of, experienced a process of disorientation as their sensibilities, beliefs, knowledge, customs and skills, became defined as ‘primitive’.
Against this backdrop a sizable copper and gold ore body located in the Panguna region of the Crown Prince Range, was designated by the colonial administration as the means through which its Papua New Guinean colony would be rapidly inducted into modernity. For those living amidst the mine impacted areas in Central Bougainville, the siege on their way of life, and subsequent process of disorientation, was experienced in a particularly violent and condensed form – a matter that will be dealt with in more detail in series two.
But this is not a history marked by the colonial powers who determine the fate of its subjects, and a colonised people who are the passive receptacles of a destiny designed for them from abroad. Resistance, struggle and revolution, are instead indelible features of this confrontation, as communities on Bougainville defended their culture, resources and legacies from the corrosive effects of colonisation and coloniality. This struggle has occurred through everyday acts, women retaining their culture, customs and traditional practices, through to artistic celebrations of indigenous histories using song, theatre and art. It has also involved confrontations with colonial power, through mass mobilisation, protest, skirmishes with police, industrial sabotage, and armed struggle.
A motif that spans this period of struggle, from 1886 through to today, tying together its many threads, is land. Land on Bougainville is not a mere commodity; that is, an asset stripped of political, cultural and social significance, which can be freely traded on open markets like cotton or shoes. Land is steeped in meanings, that are essential to the integrity of local civilisations on Bougainville, and to individual identity. Sewn into landscapes are features and boundaries critical to ceremonies, family ties, personal belonging, rites of passage, and spiritual beliefs. Land is also the source of life, an asset that assures communities of their access to everyday life essentials – something markets cannot offer. Finally, it is the thread that connects communities alive today with their ancestors and future generations.
Therefore, land has been fiercely guarded on Bougainville, not simply as a monetised asset that communities can use to extract rents, but as a key rampart for reinforcing local sovereignty whilst under siege from outside forces. Land, of course, is also a core target for colonialism and coloniality, processes which aim to strip it of the many historically inscribed significances it enjoys locally, so it can be freely employed to build a capitalist economy, and establish the physical installations essential to government and public administration. Accordingly, in Bougainville, and in Papua New Guinea more widely, land has always loomed large as the flashpoint of colonial and anti-colonial struggle.
When plans were announced to establish a large-scale mine in Bougainville, with a raft of associated infrastructure, it brought the tensions that land is pregnant within this context to the fore, a matter that is the focus of series two. Series one will lay the foundations for a deeper understanding of the confrontation precipitated by the mine, by interrogating the violence of colonialism and coloniality, and the deeply personal sense of trauma and disorientation it inscribes into impacted communities. The series also captures the rich cultures of resistance and revolt that emerged in Bougainville too.
- Panguna Town
Chief Taruito begins.
‘I could have fun and bash one of you’.
‘You [Europeans] taught black people so many tricks on how to steal, how to lie. So many wrong things we accepted blindly’.
‘You mined my land like removing my intestines’.
Chief Taruito ceases speaking. He exits to another room.
There he seizes an old axe brought by the Germans - merchandise used to “purchase”’ land from the “natives”. To dispossess.
He approaches the project’s French Directors. Chief Taruito declares his intention.
The German axe will be used to chop off their feet.
Chief Taruito insists he is against violence. But the white man brought a war he cannot end. He is frustrated, confused, and exhausted.
‘Your forefathers came the same way you did’, Chief Taruito declares, ‘the ones who came after [the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville] destroyed me and my people’.
Chief Taruito continues ‘you bring your wars to my tiny home’.
‘I can’t think independently as you deliberately confuse me’.
"Your people lied to me tell me to chop down my timber. You made me act stupid in my own land. Are you people ashamed for lying and making me look foolish"
Chief Taruito continues.
‘You the so called Europeans, the white people started all this’.
‘The Chinese are now all over the Solomons’.
‘Your culture is setting ablaze the whole region now’.
‘I want to be me, not your imitation’. ‘I just want justice for the future generation’.
Paramount Chief Peter Garuai
- Pokpok Village
First came the missionaries. Then the colonial powers. Then WWII. Then mining. Then revolution. Then civil war.
‘Our life was not normal anymore’, Pokpok Island Chief Peter Garuai observes.
No permission was asked by the invading powers. No permission was granted.
When recalling this history of colonial and corporate occupation, Peter Garuai notes the ‘strong opposition’ mounted by communities on Bougainville.
Large-scale mining became the potent symbol of a much longer process of occupation and exploitation that was deaf to the will of those subjugated by civilizations that considered themselves superior.
‘They didn’t hear them, they didn’t listen to them’.
Like the colonial powers that preceded it, Peter Garuai argues, Rio Tinto entered Bougainville without permission. When the women rose up as the custodians of land in a matrilineal system, the riot squads brutalised them.
It was an existential struggle to save the land. ‘The land looks after us’, Chief Garuai observes, ‘and when we die, we go back to the land’.
The struggle continues today.
“The only people that are talking about the mine to reopen are the people that are centred around the ideology of the mine pit … this generation has to know they live on the land. They don’t live up on the sky, no”.
Michael Kuai speaks of Bougainville’s first contact with the colonial powers.
Force and co-optation were chief among the tactics employed to gradually assimilate communities into the political, economic, legal and cultural systems imported by the colonial regime.
‘Money was first introduced by the missions to the plantation workers’.
The colonial administration then made head tax compulsory for every individual.
Michael observes, colonial officers known as kiaps policed this demand.
Local agents called Kukurais and Tultuls were appointed to help kiaps enforce the laws and policies of the colonial administration.
‘The government was collecting shillings and every year one pound was collected from every individual ... But people who did not have one pound were taken to prison’, Michael notes.
‘It was the kiap themselves [who took people to prison]. Because the Kukurais and the Tultuls were saying, this man did not pay. This one did not pay’.
The emerging colonial power structure eroded political systems indigenous to Bougainville.
‘The chiefs ... were very much undermined by the Kukurais and Tultuls. They lost their powers … They were scared to speak because the kiap was of a different skin colour’.
White Man’s Sweet Talk
- Pokpok island
Soon after the war erupted in 1988 Australian military advisers worked with their counterparts in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force to rout the rebellion. It was decided a military blockade would be placed around Bougainville.
Nothing was permitted in. Not even medical supplies or surgical equipment.
Under the darkness of the blockade, music became a platform for an expansion of consciousness and a sharing of experience.
In this song performed by Peter Garuai, he traces the war back to the first contact with the white man.
“My grandfathers … were blinded by the white man’s steel knife. They were blinded by the white man’s sweet talk”.
The lyrics are a reminder that it was not just force which the colonial powers used. Racial prestige and material incentives played an equally important role in the effort to assimilate communities into a way of life set out for them by the colonial regime.
Songs from Paruparu
- Site Village
The Paruparu community perform three songs.
The first song speaks of a solidarity shared across the island bound to the rich natural bounty communities are blessed with. It is the same natural bounty that has seen Bougainville become the target for a wide range of external forces.
The second song centres on a mysterious helicopter flying overhead. Helicopters have an ambiguous place in local memory.
They flew in the surveyors and construction teams who came to initiate the Panguna copper and gold mine.
Later when the mine was shut down, Iroquois helicopters supplied by Australia were used as gunships to strafe and terrorise villages.
The final song repeats two poignant lines, that speaks of a turbulent history grounded in ‘sweet-talk’ and exploitation.
“Company, company, company, company, they call us and they lure us. They call us and they lure us, and then they dig and dig”.
‘I find particularly deplorable your reference to the “colonial system imposed by Canberra” and “Canberra colonialism”. You must be aware that these are terms of opprobrium and offence’.
- Donald Cleland, Administrator of Papua New Guinea (1954-1966)
Uplifting a 'primitive society'
‘...[I]mprovement in the well-being of the people in a primitive society means change, and change disturbs customs and the way of life. The tendency of the indigene has been to cling to the past, to tradition, to special beliefs and to oppose the unknown’.
This is the pronouncement of a World Bank mission to Papua New Guinea. It is quoted approvingly by Donald Cleland, Administrator of Papua New Guinea (1954-1966), in a letter to the Bishop of Bougainville, Leo Lemay.
This came after Lemay had rebuffed Cleland’s concerns over the alleged anti-mining activities of a Catholic Priest. Bishop Lemay claimed instead the tensions on Bougainville resulted from the colonial system.
Cleland warns Bishop Lemay:
“The importance of this project [Panguna mine] is very great and involves many important considerations for the Territory's economic future, considerations which far exceed in scope and significance the narrow parochial considerations of Bougainville district”.
Cleland rejects the notion Australia is a coloniser, ‘these are terms of opprobrium and offence’.
A Papua New Guinea in our image
The Australian Minister for Territories, Charles Barnes, was often resented for his frank and paternalistic tone. But his words provide some of the most candid examples of how Australia conceived its colonial mission in Papua New Guinea during the post WWII period.
‘These people have never been humbled like those of many other undeveloped countries. They have never known starvation’.
‘I suppose people suggest that they could be left in this sort of happy situation, but we must not forget the disorder, the massacres and fights between so many different tribes and clans hostile to one another over centuries, nor the diseases, malaria and so on which have decimated the population’.
‘You cannot guarantee isolation to a community in the world today’.
“So this is our endeavour - to advance them/in the pattern of our own advancement because our advancement has been successful, whatever the theorists might say”.
‘So why not go along the way that we have found so successful in developing Australia as a developed country if you look back over the last couple of hundred years’.
‘As regards the attitude of the people they are anxious for Australian investment’.
Bougainville had an especially important role in this vision pronounced by Barnes.
‘The District's fertility, its magnificent timber resources and the possibility of large mining development held out the prospect of early spectacular progress’.
However, ‘to realise these prospects, the willing enthusiastic support of the people would be essential’, Barnes observed. He had ‘no doubt that this would be given’.
You can't stop progress
‘Government would certainly help them [Bougainville landowners] to get other land so that they would not be deprived of capacity to grow sufficient good’.
These are the words of David Hay – who replaced Donald Cleland as Administrator in 1967 – Australia’s chief colonial officer in Papua New Guinea. They are contained within a memo penned to the Secretary of the Department of Territories. It sets out talking points for public statements relating to Rio Tinto’s planned mine on Bougainville.
Land is a fungible commodity, in this view, and a financial asset. For communities across Bougainville land is identity, family, ancestors, god, life, future.
‘It is surely wrong to try to deprive people of the benefits of progress ...’, Hay writes.
He then asks rhetorically:
“Should a minority, however much we regret that some changes in their way of life are involve, be able to veto a project which will be vitally important to the future of the territory?”