Australian soldiers 'fighting on Bougainville'

Issue 

By Ana Kailis

Australian soldiers are now on combat duty on Bougainville, according to reports from Radio Free Bougainville.

This follows the September 6 admission in parliament by defence minister Senator Robert Ray that Australian troops would be deployed to the island.

Ray insisted that Australian Defence Force personnel on Bougainville are there "to assist with the restoration of communication and to assess requirements for infrastructure repair".

However, according to Radio Free Bougainville, on September 10 the first contingent of Australian combat soldiers arrived in Buka, the small island north of Bougainville occupied by PNG troops. Two days later, Australian and PNG soldiers were involved in an ambush of members of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army at Donsiro village, eight kilometres from Loloho army base.

The radio listed by name five Australian soldiers it said were involved.

"The Bougainville Interim Government and the BRA Command consider Australian troops' involvement in the Bougainville war as highly provocative", said Moses Havini, international political representative and human rights advocate for the Bougainville Interim Government. "Can Canberra continue to mislead the international communities that the Bougainville war is an 'internal matter' for Papua New Guinea, while it has been sending Australian service personnel and now combat troops to Bougainville?"

Senator Ray's office has not responded to a request for comment on the charges of Australians being involved in combat on Bougainville.

The deployment of Australian troops comes at a time when the PNG government is suffering a financial crisis. Fuel companies and other suppliers have refused further credit to the government.

As a result, much of the PNG Defence Forces' weaponry was unable to be used last week, including patrol boats and the Iroquois helicopters donated by Australia. Troop movements were also frozen and pilots and support staff with the Air Transport Squadron were told to pay their own fare home.

Drops of fresh supplies and ammunition to soldiers on Bougainville were halted. Angered by lack of payment of their "Bougainville risk allowance", 17 soldiers just returned from Bougainville stormed an army pay office in Port Moresby. The PNGDF claims morale on the island is being maintained.

The PNG government has since agreed to pay debts of $14 million to suppliers.

The government has claimed insufficient funds have stalled peace talks with the BRA since January. Yet millions of dollars have been channelled into the war against Bougainville over the last five years.

"We have taken the claim of insufficient funds by the Wingti government to mean that there has been no commitment to the peace talks on their part", Moses Havini told Green Left Weekly. "Now that the money is available for the talks, the PNG government has no excuse not to participate."

The Interim Government of Bougainville has confirmed that over $A150,000 has been provided by the Catholic Church in the Solomon Islands to fund the talks. Australia has offered to host preliminary meetings in Cairns. At this stage, however, the PNG government has not responded to the offer.

The Australian government's military involvement contravenes the right of the Bougainvillean people to determine their own affairs.

This involvement fits with Paul Keating's well-publicised advice to the US government not to let a poor human rights record get in the way of trade and investment. For the Keating government, economic interests far outweigh any human rights considerations. On Bougainville, these interests are to ensure that the Panguna copper mine, in which mining giant CRA has a 54% share, is reopened.

"There is no doubt", Moses Havini told Green Left Weekly, "that the Australian government has little regard for human rights in the surrounding region. This is proven by its continuing support of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and PNG's occupation of Bougainville."

According to Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, summary executions, population transfers and use of chemical weapons are some of the human rights violations being carried out by the PNG Defence Forces. In March, a UN commission on human rights called on PNG to begin negotiations with the interim government and to allow international observers on the island. No response from the PNG government has been received.

"The Bougainville conflict is now an international issue, and both Papua New Guinea and Australia should be ashamed for continuously misleading the international community", Havini said.

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