The Pacific is not ‘our backyard’

Ishmael Toroama, President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Photo: Autonomous Bougainville Government/Facebook

Is the federal Labor government so determined to block any possibility of increased Chinese influence in the Pacific that it is prepared to undermine democratic self-determination in the region?

It certainly looks that way.

The people of Bougainville voted in a non-binding referendum in late 2019 on the future of their homeland.

Given the choice between greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea and full independence, an overwhelming 98.3% voted for the latter.

While PNG and the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) have agreed to chart a path leading to full independence sometime between 2025 and 2027, the PNG parliament still needs to give its consent.

Some leading politicians in PNG are worried that secession by Bougainville will inspire other eastern provinces of PNG to follow the same path. They have indicated their opposition to granting independence.

The relative success of Bougainville's decades long struggle has been a source of inspiration for the West Papuan independence movement and cause for concern for the Indonesian government.

Just as alarming for the Australian government are China’s overtures to Bougainville to join its “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Earlier proposals by the ARB to nationalise the vast but shuttered Panguna gold and copper mine, part-owned by Rio Tinto, must have also rung alarm bells in Canberra.

Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, provoked a furious reaction from ARB President Ishmael Toroama when, after discussing expanded military ties with PNG Prime Minister James Marape on October 13, he declared: “As a witness to the arrangements that were put in place in respect of Bougainville more than 20 years ago, our job is to support Papua New Guinea. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Marles did not speak of an obligation to respect the wishes of the people of Bougainville.

Toroama interpreted it as a sign that Australia would back PNG if it reneged on its commitments, saying on October 14: “What we are witnessing right now is simply history repeating itself where the Australian Government throws its support behind the Government of Papua New Guinea to destabilise yet again Bougainville’s right to self-determination.”

Marles later told the ABC: “Australia’s role is to support the peace process and decisions around future arrangements which the parties have to negotiate.”

To understand Bougainville’s intense distrust of Australia is to understand its history.

Rio Tinto established the huge Panguna mine on the island in the early 1970s when Australia was still the colonial power.

From the outset, local landowners resented the mine for its social and environmental impacts and because they missed out on most of the income.

This provoked secessionist movements, both on the eve of PNG’s independence in 1975 and again in 1988.

The second uprising developed into all-out war in the 1990s, killing as many as 20,000 people.

Toroama said: “I would like to remind the Australian Government that it was they who instigated the Bougainville Crisis through their involvement with Rio Tinto when they suppressed the rights of the people of Bougainville.

“It was the Australian Government who trained and armed the Papua New Guinea Defence to wage war on the citizens of Bougainville and it was they who supplied gunships to wreak havoc and mayhem on Bougainville.”

Both Australia and Indonesia supported the PNG government, even as it ferociously repressed the independence movement.

Hostilities were finally brought to an end by the 1998 Bougainville Peace Agreement, and the 2019 referendum was one of its conditions.

The people of the Pacific have the right to determine their own path, and a future sovereign and independent Bougainville can establish diplomatic and trade relations with China or any other country as it sees fit.

Toroama said: “Geopolitics is the least of our reasons to become an independent sovereign nation. Our desire for independence is based on the marginalisation we as a people have received at the hands of the PNG and Australian Governments for more than half a century.”

Unwavering support for Indonesia’s continued brutal rule in West Papua and the determination that refugees from that conflict should not even puncture our consciousness, let alone seek refuge on our shores, are a further reminder that the people of Bougainville have good reason to be wary about the neo-colonial snake oil merchants in Canberra.

Bougainville is one of Australia’s neighbours, but it is most definitely not “our backyard”.

Progressives in Australia need to make that point clear and build a base of support for the right of the peoples of the Pacific to self-determination, free from interference, including from our own government.

[Sam Wainwright is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]