Peace deal splits Bougainville independence movement

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Peace deal splits Bougainville independence movement

By Norm Dixon

A "permanent and irrevocable cease-fire" between the Bougainville Interim Government/Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BIG/BRA), the Bougainville Transitional Government and its armed "resistance" militias, and the Papua New Guinea government was signed on April 30 at a gala ceremony in the island's capital, Arawa.

Two thousand Bougainvilleans (including 500 traditional leaders), the foreign ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Fiji, and a United Nations representative, watched the opposing sides snap arrows and spears to symbolise the end of fighting in the nine-year war. The war caused as many as 12,000 deaths through violence and a military blockade of the island.

The cease-fire is the first stage of the peace deal made at the January 23 meeting in New Zealand, known as the Lincoln Agreement after the army base where the talks took place.

A Peace Monitoring Group will oversee the cease-fire. It now consists mostly of Australian troops following New Zealand's relinquishing of its leadership of the force to Canberra, citing "financial" constraints, plus a smaller number of New Zealand soldiers and token contingents from other Pacific countries.

Lincoln set down that a "phased withdrawal" of PNG troops will begin, followed by a "free and democratic" election to install a "Bougainville Reconciliation Government". The election must take place before December 31.

The parties agreed that another round of talks is to take place before the end of June to address "the political issue" (diplomat-speak for the question of independence).

The participation of a majority of the BIG/BRA leadership in the peace deal has resulted in a very public split in the independence movement. BIG President Francis Ona has denounced the deal, while BIG Vice-president Joseph Kabui, BRA Commander Sam Kauona and the BIG's international representatives, Netherlands-based BIG secretary Martin Miriori and Australia-based Moses Havini, support it.

Ona expressed scepticism about the first round of talks in July, and subsequent meetings, because he felt the issue of independence was not adequately addressed. Comments by PNG PM Bill Skate last August and again in March that independence for Bougainville is "non-negotiable" deepened Ona's concern.

Ona also opposes the participation of Australian troops in the peacekeeping force. He says that the Australian government's backing of the PNG government's war on the island, and its arming and funding of the PNG Defence Force, mean that Australia cannot be neutral.

On April 17, Ona attempted to rally opposition to the impending cease-fire by calling a meeting of Bougainvillean leaders in the village of Pakia, near the closed Panguna copper mine in central Bougainville. Most chiefs and the Kabui wing of the BIG leadership boycotted. Around 200 people attended.

Ona presented a document that demanded an indefinite postponement of the cease-fire, recognised Ona as the leader of independent Bougainville, demanded the complete withdrawal of the PNGDF from the island and characterised Australian troops as "not very neutral or impartial". While there are conflicting accounts of the outcome, it appears that few present endorsed the document.

On May 1, Ona issued a statement declaring: "Australian defence involvement in peace monitoring duties and maintaining the cease-fire will not be entertained and must be condemned outright ... How genuine is Australia's commitment to peace on Bougainville when it has hidden motives and will be executing them under the guise of peace?"

The hidden motive, Ona said, is "to allow and guarantee the quick and safe return of the mining giant Rio Tinto to the huge Panguna mine". Ona declared, "should any foreign soldiers enter" areas controlled by his supporters, "they will be committing acts of provocation".

According to the May 2 Sydney Morning Herald, Ona told reporter James Woodford, "I have issued an order to shoot on sight. The Australians are not welcome."

On May 3, Ona challenged the Kabui wing of the BIG/BRA to organise a "properly conducted, internationally supervised referendum on independence". Ona accused Kabui of negotiating with PNG without "authorisation from me or my government" to "compromise the issue of independence for Bougainville for mere services within the framework of the PNG constitution.

"Mr Kabui has allowed himself to be manipulated by outside influences to forget about the sacrifices Bougainvilleans have made for the last 25 years in their struggle for self-determination and independence."

Ona concluded by describing the cease-fire as "the work of consultants and their foreign governments and multinational corporations ... Long-lasting peace on Bougainville will only be achieved if and when the people's right to self-determination, including independence, is addressed."

On May 1, Kabui announced that "Francis Ona has left [the BIG cabinet] with no choice but to move a vote of no confidence in Mr Ona and remove him from his symbolic office of president".

On May 3, Ona announced that he had dismissed all BIG/BRA leaders who took part in the signing of the cease-fire, as well as international representatives Miriori, Havini and Mike Forster.

Responding to Ona's criticisms, a joint statement issued by the BIG, BRA and the Australian-based Bougainville Freedom Movement on May 3 said that the goal of participation in the peace process is "to bring about self-determination for the people of Bougainville". They said they were "deeply saddened" by Ona's reported threat to shoot members of the peace monitoring group.

"We believe that there is time for Francis Ona to reconsider his threats and attend the ongoing peace process. If he does, he will see that Bougainvillean leaders also share the concerns his spokespeople expressed about the political future of the island and about mining decisions."

The statement called on the Australian government "to remember at all times the 'neutrality' it claims for its role in Bougainville. Australian support is welcomed on the condition it does not override the rights of the Bougainville people's authority to determine and shape their own future."

Whereas Ona sees the talks as a surrender of the gains made on the battlefield, Kabui and Kauona see them as formalising the gains to secure the withdrawal of PNG troops and move towards an act of self-determination.

"We won the war. We [showed] we are somebody to be reckoned with. We can put on a fight. That is why we did successfully in the negotiations", Sam Kauona told SBS's Dateline program on March 28. "If a fair hearing is not given to the Bougainvillean people, then we would turn against Papua New Guinea ... If the situation calls for it, we still have arms in our hands."

On May 4, the Bougainville Freedom Movement's Vikki John, in response to a Sydney Morning Herald editorial that falsely claimed that only Ona was committed to independence, pointed out:

"The people of Bougainville still have a desire for independence and the fact that this objective is being pursued in the peace process rather than militarily does not alter this reality ... Kabui, interviewed on ABC-TV news during the cease-fire celebrations said, 'Independence is still the heart of the Bougainville issue' ... The people of Bougainville have won the physical battle and are now pressing the terms for independence at the negotiating table."

In March 1997, the Chan government, unable to defeat the BRA militarily, resorted to apartheid-linked mercenaries to overcome the rebels. This triggered a rebellion within the PNG Defence Force, followed by an uprising by the people of Port Moresby. As a result, PNG could no longer continue the war. War-weariness and disgust at Chan's use of mercenaries led to his defeat at the polls.

On May 13, Miriori held a briefing in Sydney. He said the BIG/BRA will continue to try to mend the rift with Ona. He claimed Ona exerts "very little influence. Even his own village of Guava is divided ... He has marginalised himself."

Miriori rejected suggestions in the establishment press that relations between the two rebel camps could degenerate into armed conflict.

Miriori said the next stage of the peace process — talks scheduled in Arawa in June to discuss the "political question" — would not proceed unless the withdrawal of PNGDF troops had begun. Nor would the BRA give up its stored weapons until then.

A failure by PNG to withdraw its forces would create "serious implications" for the peace process, Miriori said.

"For meaningful elections for the Bougainville Reconciliation Government to take place, there has to be an environment that allows them to be free and fair. If, by September, the PNGDF has not been withdrawn from the island, there cannot be an election", Miriori said.

Miriori told Green Left Weekly that the future of the Panguna mine is not part of the peace process. It will be for the people of Bougainville alone to decide "once the political settlement is achieved".

On independence, Miriori said that the BIG/BRA's position is that "the people must decide. We are not compromising in any way on the issue of independence. We are trying to create an environment where the people themselves make the final decision ...

"A referendum is our bottom line. We believe the peace process, starting with the Burnham agreements, the Lincoln Agreement, even the cease-fire, almost guarantees that such a democratic resolution must be achieved."

Miriori reiterated that the cease-fire came about because "the war has been won by the BRA. This was why PNG was forced to come to the negotiation table."