Most Bougainvilleans are Melanesians though there are Polynesians on an outlying atoll that is part of the province. All are Christians of various denominations, with the Catholic Church having strong roots in the province. About 20 languages are spoken on Bougainville.
The principal regional issues in Papua New Guinea have concerned Bougainville, a mountain island, which is geographically, historically and culturally more closely linked to the western Solomon Islands.
Only in the twentieth century, under colonialism, did traditional social and economic links become modernized and oriented westwards. Bougainvilleans are black, a characteristic which is shared in the Pacific by only a few peoples in the adjacent Solomon Islands. For most of the colonial era, Bougainville was neglected, and Bougainvilleans have always claimed cultural and ethnic uniqueness.
Colonial neglect of Bougainville ended in 1964 when a huge copper deposit was confirmed at Panguna, in the interior mountains. Villagers opposed exploration and land alienation, emphasizing their feelings of separateness. This attitude was promoted by the nationalist Napidakoe Navitu movement which sought a referendum on whether Bougainville should remain within Papua New Guinea. The administration refused to hold such referendum, but in 1973 the island was allowed to have the first provincial government in the country as a concession to emergent nationalism. Pressure for secession continued. Almost all the prominent secessionists were Roman Catholics, and the Catholic Church was closely tied to the search for an independent cultural identity. Secession was sought both in defence of identity and in search of the material rewards of mining.
The province declared its independence on 1 September 1975, just two weeks before Papua New Guinea became independent. After six months the so-called Republic of the North Solomons effectively disintegrated. Although the two key issues that had contributed to secession remained, secessionist aspirations declined in the post-independence years as mining brought considerable wealth and rapid social change. However, despite growing incomes and access to services, concern increased over the environmental damage caused by the mine and there was resentment over the distribution of mining profits, the immigration of workers from elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, and other social problems. Secessionist sentiments were rekindled and resurfaced in dramatic form in 1989 when militant landowners opposed the Panguna copper mine. Since then the struggle for Bougainvillean secession has provided the strongest challenge ever to the basis and stability of the Papua New Guinea nation, and the most serious political and humanitarian issue in Oceania since the war.
Throughout the 1980s, women landowners near the mine site raised concern over a range of social and environmental impacts from the Panguna mine, and a younger generation of landowners challenged their elders, arguing that the compensation and royalty deals could not address the widespread social and cultural impacts of mining. Mounting grievances over mining in 1988 evolved into a more general pressure for secession. The police force was unable to end the militancy, a national government Peace Package was rejected, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) emerged, led by Sam Kauona and Francis Ona, and the mine finally closed in September 1989. In 1990 the national government announced a total blockade of goods and services to the province, a decision quickly followed by the unilateral declaration of independence of the Republic of Bougainville. By this time the BRA was in apparent control of much of the island, though in the northern island of Buka support for the rebellion was hesitant. An interim government was established on Bougainville, with Francis Ona as President. From then onwards an effective communications blackout largely limited information from the island, though there were health problems and the economy and other services were collapsing. Papua New Guinea and Bougainville leaders held talks on board a New Zealand ship, the Endeavour, off Kieta in mid-1990 which resulted in the Endeavour Accord.
The Endeavour Accord, which stated that services to Bougainville would be restored and that the long-term political status of Bougainville would be reconsidered, did not hold. Papua New Guinea troops landed on Buka in September 1990 and restored some semblance of government control, but not without force. Civil war was waged there for several months, and human rights abuses in various parts of the province were documented on both the Papua New Guinea and BRA sides. PNGDF (Papua New Guinea Defence Force) troops were supported by pro-PNG ‘Resistance’ militias, which led to fratricidal conflicts with BRA forces.
By the end of 1992 most of the north and centre of Buka and parts of south-western Bougainville were under government control. The area around the Panguna mine remained under BRA control and there was sporadic violence in the marginal areas. The Bougainville crisis contributed to increased conflict in the neighbouring Solomon Islands, as the Solomons’ police increased their military capacity to cope with cross-border raids by PNGDF troops in hot pursuit of BRA militants and civilian refugees.
Government forces entered the town of Arawa in February 1993 and in 1994 the government temporarily gained control of Panguna. Further attempts were made to secure a political resolution of the crisis and services were restored to more areas of Bougainville. A change of government in August 1994 led to Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan giving primacy to a peace initiative for Bougainville. A ceasefire was declared, a South Pacific Peacekeeping Force was introduced and a peace conference organized at Arawa. A Bougainville Transitional Government was established in March 1995, operating through eight local interim authorities but the Premier, Theodore Miriung, was murdered in October 1996.
It was not until 1997 that effective peace was restored to the island, following the Sandline crisis and the fall of the government of Sir Julius Chan.
By 1997, the conflict in Bougainville between the PNGDF and the BRA had come to a military stalemate, with the Papua New Guinea government unable to defeat the independence movement. The government of then Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan, fearing the war was creating divisions and mutiny in the PNGDF, and concerned about international criticism of human rights abuses by government forces, turned to a foreign corporation for assistance in recruiting mercenaries, purchasing military equipment and aiming to recapture the giant Panguna copper and gold mine (which had been closed by BRA activity).
The London-based corporation Sandline International recruited personnel from Executive Outcomes, one of a range of private corporations established by former military personnel to wage warfare on behalf of corporate backers or to protect key resource projects like diamond mines, oil fields or mining projects. Operating widely in Africa, Executive Outcomes sent African mercenaries, helicopters and weaponry to Port Moresby, in preparation for an armed assault on BRA areas and Bougainville villages.
The Sandline saga ended in failure, when the plot was revealed in the media and elements of the PNGDF led by Brigadier General Jerry Singirok rose up in protest and refused to allow the mercenaries to commence their operations in Bougainville. In March 1997, the mercenaries were captured at gunpoint by PNGDF soldiers and expelled from the country. The 1997 Sandline crisis was a significant turning point in Papua New Guinea politics, contributing to Prime Minister Chan’s loss of office in July 1997 elections and leading to peace negotiations to settle the Bougainville war.
The 1998 peace settlement opened the way for amendments to Papua New Guinea’s Constitution and from 2001 Bougainville was no longer a province of Papua New Guinea but an ‘autonomous political entity’. The adoption in December 2004 of a new constitution led to it becoming an ‘autonomous region’ with ‘higher autonomy’ within PNG. Although the majority of financial support for the new region continues to come from PNG, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) has wide-ranging powers over all but foreign affairs, defence and finance; it is moving towards financial autonomy and has a distinct status in terms of foreign aid.
In May 2005, Bougainvillean voters elected an autonomous government led by President Joseph Kabui, a former BRA leader who later engaged in peace negotiations with Papua New Guinea. The death of BRA founder Francis Ona in July 2005, apparently from malaria, will hamper the project of the Republic of Mekamui, the self-proclaimed government in central Bougainville, which refused to join the peace process in the late 1990s. Followers of Francis Ona, mainly in the mountains around the now defunct Panguna copper mine, have not been absorbed into the ABG, and remain a force of dissent. Bougainville will vote on its final political status by 2020.
Though the crisis did not fragment Papua New Guinea, it resulted in massive devastation in Bougainville. The economy disintegrated, hundreds of lives were lost, children missed years of education, communities and families were torn apart, new divisions and hatreds emerged and old divisions were rekindled and, almost a decade after the restoration of peace and regional civil authority in most areas other than around Panguna, problems of reconciliation remained. The extensive blockade of Bougainville, the refusal to allow the International Red Cross or medical supplies to enter for long periods of time, or to give journalists access to the island, and the difficulties placed in the way of Amnesty International led to considerable external criticism of the manner in which Papua New Guinea was seeking to resolve the crisis. The crisis disturbed relations between Papua New Guinea and both Australia and the Solomon Islands.
Despite cultural divisions, almost all Bougainvilleans are Melanesians and there are no significant regional antipathies. A Polynesian minority exists on outlying atolls north of Bougainville but does not experience discrimination. The principal challenge remains to establish a viable economy for Bougainville, and what role a mine might take in that.
The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) has faced ongoing problems with some supporters of the late Francis Ona in the no-go zone near the Panguna mine, who have refused to accept the peace process. This has been compounded by the activities of criminal elements, such as the alleged conman Noah Musingkuh, who has reportedly used Fijian mercenaries to train dissident militias in areas of the ‘Republic of Mekamui’.
While Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill insists that Bougainville should not separate, he agreed with the ABG in January 2017 to move towards an independence referendum. Together, they set up a Bougainville Referendum Commission and fixed June 2019 as the timeframe. A key issue will be the viability of any possible future independent state. The ABG counts on reopening the Panguna mine, although so far investors have been hesitant to provide the necessary commitments.
Another key concern is the environmental damage caused by the mine. The Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto was long the majority-owner until it divested its stake in 2016 of the company Bougainville Copper Ltd. (BCL) that managed the mine. Rio Tinto claims that it holds no responsibility for cleaning up the tailings and water contamination, despite its longstanding role, because BCL was abiding by local requirements at the time of operation. Critics complain that this stance is disingenous, given the considerable profits the company must have made and the scale of harm. During its 17 years of operation, the mine generated US$1.44 billion in total revenues, while it left behind contaminated water sources and a delta of tailings extending 15 kilometers into the sea.
Updated February 2018.