War in the Pacific: legacy of a copper mine

Bougainvilleans have fought six years to save their land and environment and seek independence from Papua New Guinea

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A WAR festers in the southern Pacific. It is the first in this ocean basin since World War II, and, at six years, has lasted longer.

The conflict on the small island of Bougainville involves traditional landowners, rebellious islanders, the remote governing authority of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Australia, a former colonial power. At the center lies a theme echoed in many parts of the world: an indigenous people's struggle against economic exploitation by global industrial interests.

It is also about independence. The Bougainvilleans want to be united again with the Solomon Islands, with which they are culturally and racially allied. Ripples of this desire for independence are spreading. Other small islands around PNG, and one section of the PNG mainland, are talking about uniting to form an independent federation of Melanesian states.

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The war began six years ago when the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) - made up of various island landowners and their supporters - succeeded in forcing the shutdown of a tremendously profitable copper mine owned by an Australian mining interest. In retaliation, the PNG Defense Forces (PNGDF) threw a blockade around the island. But this has not prevented a handful of BRA boat captains from running the blockade to bring in supplies from the Solomon Islands. (In the rebel stronghold, right.)

The conflict raises difficult questions for Australia, which from 1919 until 1975 had control over PNG. Now its largest aid donor, Australia, is inadvertently funding this war at a time when it is trying to integrate itself into the economically vibrant Asia-Pacific region. Peace talks have begun, but have shown little sign of success.

Wars over the Solomon Islands tend to be dramatic. Fifty years ago, in the climax of a bitter campaign over the Solomons, Allied forces shot down the plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, over Bougainville. His body was recovered sitting upright against a tree, his left hand still clutching his Samurai sword, according to Japanese accounts.

The remnants of that war have found a new use: The BRA, armed at first with crossbows and axes, has fashioned homemade guns using ammunition salvaged from World War II wrecks.

When the Panguna mine was first proposed in the 1960s, many Bougainvilleans were distrustful of it. The mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd., a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto Australia, whose largest shareholder is the enormous London-based RTZ Corp. Roads, port facilities, power generators, the town of Arawa, and workers' housing were built, along with health, educational, and sporting facilities.

Many traditional landowners, however, felt they were being insufficiently compensated by the mining company. They also had grave concerns over increasing environmental damage. Francis Ona, now the leader of the BRA, walked out of a meeting in 1988 at which an environmental impact report, commissioned by the PNG government, was released. He called the report a whitewash.

The BRA initially tried various forms of civil disobedience. But when negotiations failed, it turned to sabotage. Riots broke out in the northern part of the island. The mine closed May 17, 1989, and Mr. Ona declared an independent Republic of Bougainville. A month later, the PNG government announced a state of emergency, and in July, helicopters arrived from the Australian government.

Official reports say 2,000 people have died in the war itself, and many others from a lack of medical care. In what has been called the St. Valentine's Day massacre of February 1990, the bodies of five people were dropped off at sea from an Australia-donated helicopters flown by the PNGDF.

An Amnesty International report last November said both sides have committed human rights abuses. It found that the PNGDF had been murdering and torturing suspected opponents. But BRA members reportedly have committed serious abuses too, including summary executions, torture, and rape. The report said that although the PNG government had claimed to have investigated alleged violations by its troops and punished those responsible, official findings have never been made public. There has been little evidence of judicial or disciplinary proceedings against soldiers suspected of human rights abuses.

This puts Australia in an awkward position. It has given substantial amounts of aid to PNG since its independence. In 1993-94, PNG will receive an estimated $249.3 million in aid, one-quarter of Australia's total foreign-aid bill. Only last year strings were attached to the aid.

AN Australian congressional delegation traveled to PNG recently to assess the situation. Its report, released June 8, said that Australia should allocate $7.3 million over the next several years specifically for health and education projects in Bougainville - if the peace process continues. This would be a substantial increase over the $3.6 million earmarked for the island since 1991. The Australian delegation concluded that a military solution is not possible.

There are signs that both sides are tiring of the war. Talks between high-level officials of the PNG government and the BRA took place on the Solomon Islands in June, but were cut off by the government.

PNG Foreign Minister Sir Julius Chan announced in June that he was trying to get other small Pacific island nations to help form a Pacific peacekeeping force to calm things down and start a cease-fire process.

In a related development, the South Pacific Forum meeting in Brisbane on Aug. 1 will for the first time have Bougainville on its agenda. This move was prompted by PNG's wish to discuss the formation of a peacekeeping force.

``The situation in PNG-Bougainville does give us more cause for optimism than we've had for some time,'' says Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.

Political developments just ahead could open new lines of communication. The Solomon Islands' government is up for a vote of confidence soon. If Solomon Mamaloni, a former prime minister sympathetic to the plight of Bougainvilleans, is elected, it is felt that supply lines to Bougainville might be expanded. And in PNG, the government of Prime Minister Paias Wingti also faces a vote of confidence in the next few weeks. There is tension between him and Foreign Minister Chan, who more strongly supports peace talks.

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