Bougainville’s independence vote: Australia’s headache

The astounding Bougainville vote for independence in November 2019 would not have come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Bougainville’s history with PNG and their colonial master, Australia, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

The 98.31 per cent in favour of leaving PNG saw PNG’s Minister for Bougainville Affairs, Puka Temu, pleading to Bougainvilleans to, ‘Allow the rest of PNG sufficient time to absorb this result.’ Never has a such a decisive vote attracted such an indecisive statement.


When it ran it as a colony, Australia ruled PNG with an iron fist, plundered its resources and deliberately kept it in backwardness. Bougainville was subsumed into PNG by Australian sub-imperial, geo-political fiat. What PNG – and Australia have not absorbed in the last forty years of the twentieth century and the past twenty years of the peace process is that Bougainvilleans have never regarded themselves as a ‘province’ of PNG.  

Today, the Australian government still exerts undue political influence in PNG through its foreign ‘aid’. Fully one-third of Australia foreign aid goes to PNG, or over $500 million every year. That is at the baseline, net of the contributions for warehousing asylum-seeking refugees on our behalf.

In 1988, when the Bougainville rebellion began, Australian aid to PNG totalled $275 million per annum, or about 16 per cent of all PNG’s income and 70 per cent of its total foreign aid. It is now about 8 per cent of all the nation’s income but still 70 per cent of its foreign aid. By 2003, the Australian Government demanded that Australian public servants, judges and police staff the PNG state, as a requirement of receiving this aid.

By 1989, Australian investment accounted for 45 per cent of all foreign investment in PNG’s mining, manufacturing and services. In 1991, Australian companies owned 67 per cent of the nation’s economy. By 1993 Australian companies had nearly $4 billion worth of investments in PNG. Another $1.6 billion was invested by Australian companies in 1994.

Behind such anodyne statements lies the mailed fist of Australian colonial history, neo-colonial control of PNG since 1975 and a propensity to use military solutions.

After rebellion broke out on Bougainville, in late 1988, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, said, ‘From a purely self-interested Australian regional security perspective, the fragmentation of PNG is something we see as being a very unhappy development in regional security and stability and one which we would like to see avoided at all costs.’

What Evans meant by ‘at all costs’ was Australia became the major arms supplier to PNG to put down the Bougainville rebellion and at the cost of 10,000 Bougainvillean lives.


Build a mine in your neighbour’s yard

First prospected in 1961, the copper and gold mine at at Panguna, near Guava village, on the island landowners call Mekamui, was imposed by the Australian Colonial Administration and Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA), the corporation that later became Rio Tinto. Such was the lack of any understanding of Bougainville in the 1960s by the ACA and CRA that they ‘bought’ the land from men, whereas Bougainville is a matrilineal society. Men, when they marry, move to the wife’s family’s village. And rather than one ‘owner’ of the land, as in the West, there are several layers of ‘ownership’ and ‘rights’ to land access on Bougainville. 

As documented by Yauka Aluambo Liria in the Bougainville Campaign Diary, the plans to establish the mine were fought by the landowners from 1964 onwards.

The visit of Australian External Affairs Minister, Charles E Barnes, in mid-1966 led to further deterioration of relations between Bougainvilleans and the colonial administration. Minister Barnes told villagers at Kieta that the project would benefit PNG ‘as a whole’. This appeal to nationalism fell on deaf ears as Bougainvilleans were not PNG nationalists. Their loyalty did not extend beyond their clan or district, and they could not understand why they should make the sacrifice of their land so that PNG might benefit. In the wake of Barnes’ visit, more and more local people refused CRA employees access to their land. The mine was closed in 1989 due to the Bougainvillean rebellion, and remains a source of tension, its access road being routinely blockaded by Bougainvillean women.


Sub-imperialism and secession

The PNG nation-state was a colony constructed by British and German imperialism, and Australian sub-imperialism, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bougainville, its easternmost island, lies 960 kms from Port Moresby and was tacked onto Australia’s mandate over PNG during the First World War. However, its people are ethnically and culturally closer to the Solomon Islands, across the Shortland Strait, than to the rest of PNG. Even PNG refers to Bougainville as the North Solomons Province.

After the decolonisation process began, in the 1960s, Australia had to come up with a solution that would allow it to continue carry on exploiting the region’s resources. In the 1980s, Australian journalist Rowan Callick wrote in the Australian Financial Review that ‘PNG has, since the early days, lacked the capital to meet its development aspirations. The colonial power, Australia, had failed to bequeath it the infrastructure or skills it needed.’

The Panguna mine was the colonial authority’s ‘solution’. 

With CRA pushing ahead with construction of the mine in violent opposition to landowner protests, a secessionist movement began in September 1968. A group of twenty-five elected politicians and undergraduates from Bougainville called for a referendum on Bougainville’s status in PNG. The colonial administration established a squad of riot police to Bougainville in 1970 to intimidate and repress the secessionists. 

While these tactics worked for a few years, the secessionist pressure built up in the run-up to PNG’s formal declaration of independence from Australia, on 15 September 1975.

On 1 September, MPs from Bougainville declared independence in response to the PNG Government removing decentralised provincial government from the Constitution. The colonial administration responded by sending in the Pacific Island Regiment, with Australian officers commanding PNG soldiers. The new Prime Minister, Michael Somare, negotiated with the Bougainvillean leaders for even months before Bougainville re-joined PNG under a system of Provincial Governments.

As it turned out, this solution could not stop a social explosion on Bougainville – it only delayed it until 1989.  In the long run, the imposition of the mine at Panguna built fertile soil for secessionist ideas to grow in.


A New Panguna Landowners Association

By the mid-1980s, a younger and more educated generation of landowners, such as Perpetua Serero and her Francis Ona, became frustrated with the scale of the environmental destruction caused by Panguna’s tailings, by the pitiful royalties paid to the landowners by CRA and by what they saw as a weak Panguna Landowners’ Association (PLA). Under their leadership, the PLA initiated a campaign of militant action to secure a better deal.

Mining at Panguna has led to a mountain of waste of waste. being dumped into the nearby Jaba and Karewong rivers, killing off animal and plant life in and around the water. This led to an ecological disaster and a food crisis in the local subsistence economy.

Perpetua Serero, the new President of the PLA, said: ‘We have become mere spectators as our earth is being dug up, taken away and sold for millions. Our land was taken away from us by force: we were blind then, but we have finally grown to understand what’s going on.’ She would die in June 1989, from an asthma attack, before the war of secession began.

After CRA rejected the PLA’s demands for meaningful royalty payments to all landowners and for environmental compensation, the situation escalated into a guerrilla war. Bougainville raised the banner of independence in May 1990 with a unilateral declaration.


Faced with the Australian government’s role in the Bougainville war, socialists and solidarity activists in Australia, campaigned to back Bougainville’s right to secede. 

In 1993, the annual conference of the Waterside Workers Federation, part of today’s MUA, and the NSW Labor Party branch both called for the lifting of PNG’s blockade of Bougainville.

Then in January 1994, workers at the Port Kembla Grain Terminal voted unanimously to support a ban on exports to PNG. The bans were in protest at the atrocities being committed by the PNGDF to recapture Bougainville. They led to the delay of a grain carrier, the Goplai, bound for PNG with Australian grain.

Pressure began to build up within the union movement such that Foreign Minsiter  Gareth Evans met Martin Ferguson, then the President of the ACTU, in order to overcome the threat of more union bans over the issue.

By May 1994, six Trades and Labour Councils had backed a resolution calling for a trade ban on PNG. More than 300 delegates at a 1994 NSW Teachers’ Federation Council unanimously supported a ban on PNG trade and lifting the naval blockade.


There are three reasons why the PNG government didn’t allow independence for Bougainville in 1990 and throughout the 1990s until today.

Firstly, the PNG Government was a partner of CRA at Panguna, owning 19 per cent of the mine. The mine’s closure saw the government lose 17 per cent of its yearly income and 40 per cent of PNG total export revenue. PNG’s cash-strapped economy needs all the revenue it can get.

Secondly, because the PNG nation is an artificial creation, its rulers fear that successful secession by Bougainville might inspire other areas of PNG to secede – including Manus, New Britain and New Ireland, which together provided over 70 per cent of PNG’s export earnings at the time. With the opening of the giant Lihir gold mine in New Ireland in 1995, the PNG government had even more reason to stamp out secessionism, as it owned 30 per cent of that mine at the time.

The third and final reason why PNG wouldn’t grant independence to Bougainville is that its major backer – Australia – doesn’t want the disintegration of the PNG nation state, for its own strategic military and economic designs.

In the aftermath of last year’s referendum, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne could only re-state what the PNG prime minister had said: ‘As Prime Minister Marape stated yesterday, under the Agreement, the outcome of the Referendum is non-binding and will be subject to consultations” between PNG and Bougainville governments.’  Bougainvillean independence was not guaranteed. Delay would be the order of the day from both PNG and Australia.

Minister Payne added: ‘Australia looks forward to continued productive engagement between the two governments.’ Behind such anodyne statements lies the mailed fist of Australian colonial history, its neo-colonial control of PNG since 1975 and a propensity to use military solutions. Bougainvilleans and their supporters in Australia need to beware.


Image: outside the Panguna mine, Flickr

Tom Orsag

Tom Orsag is a freelance journalist, builders' labourer and member of Solidarity.

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