Reader response: beware of berating Bougainvilleans
20 Nov 2013|

Operation Belisi, Febuary 1998.Peter Jennings and Karl Claxton’s recent ASPI Special Report A stitch in time: Preserving peace on Bougainville represents an important—and necessary—attempt to move Bougainville to the centre stage of Australian foreign and strategic policy debates. Bougainville is due to hold a referendum on its political future between 2015 and 2020, and given Australia’s long-standing involvement and interest in Bougainville, and Papua New Guinea more broadly, we’ll be focused on the events that surround the vote. The Report represents a considered attempt to outline what Australia might do to mitigate a recurrence of conflict in Bougainville and to advance the development of the Bougainvillean people.

But the Report both overestimates Australia’s potential legitimacy and effectiveness in Bougainville, and underestimates the capacity and potential of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and its people.

As forcefully argued elsewhere, the Report glosses over much of Australia’s ambivalent (and potentially culpable) history in Bougainville, which undermines our legitimacy and how effective our assistance might be today. As the colonial power in Papua New Guinea we were responsible for generating many of the issues which triggered the conflict, most notably relating to the Panguna mine. During the conflict, our role in providing assistance to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNDGDF), particularly the Iroquois helicopters that were used to devastating effect, should be acknowledged. The Report is insufficiently circumspect concerning this history and the impact it has on Australian activities in the region. In light of that history, any Australian initiative in Bougainville must be designed in close consultation with, and deference to, the ABG and Bougainvillean people. We cannot force ‘solutions’ on Bougainville which may be met with resentment, or at worst, resistance.

In particular, the Report proposes that the Australian Defence Force cooperates with the PNGDF in Bougainville. This shows a misunderstanding of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, according to which the withdrawal of the PNGDF and demilitarisation of Bougainville was a requisite of the weapons disposal process. While the Peace Agreement does provide that the PNGDF can be deployed to Bougainville in response to natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies, or in consultation with the ABG, it’s unlikely that this would happen. If the PNGDF was to redeploy in any capacity (even an unarmed Engineering Battalion as proposed in the Report) this would likely derail the already slow weapons disposal process, and would probably be met by an armed response from hardline independence supporters.

The Report also underestimates the capacity of the ABG. It rightly observes that the ABG has faced severe capacity and funding challenges since its creation in 2005, that there is incipient corruption, and that development levels in Bougainville are low. Many of these challenges can be attributed to the sometimes rocky relationship between the ABG and the Papua New Guinea government, which has often proved reluctant to transfer sufficient powers and resources to allow the ABG to develop. The Report is correct that this relationship needs to be improved. But given the challenges it has faced, the ABG’s achievements should be acknowledged. It has overseen the rebuilding of schools, aid posts and roads, as well as the revival of the copra and cocoa industries. It has also facilitated extensive (and expensive) post-conflict reconciliation across Bougainville, most significantly in its southern regions and around the Panguna mine. While tensions remain, there are few other international cases where there has been a devastating conflict after which a population has been able to achieve significant reconciliation and avoid the recurrence of major hostilities. That the ABG and ordinary Bougainvilleans have done this with minimal outside assistance should be acknowledged in any Australian initiative. Accordingly, while Australian development and capacity-building assistance might be welcomed by the ABG and Bougainvilleans, we need to avoid berating them for their supposed shortcomings, and instead focus on their potential and achievements.

The report underestimates the resilience of the Bougainvillean people, illustrated by the innovative solutions they devised to survive during the conflict. By focusing on the performance of the formal institutions of government, the ABG and its administration, the report fails to sufficiently acknowledge the role of local leaders, institutions and practices. In villages and hamlets across Bougainville, local leaders continue to perform political, administrative and law and order functions, and family and clan groups continue to provide public goods and services. The Bougainvillean Constitution acknowledges the role of local leaders, and there are avenues for them to work with the ABG. As I’ve argued before, although the formal institutions of ‘state’ might be weak in Bougainville, the society beneath it is strong. While the Report contains a reference to empowering women and community leaders, as it largely proposes technocratic solutions to strengthen formal institutions and advance development, it overlooks this society’s potential and the role that it may play in developing and stabilising Bougainville in the future.

Joanne Wallis is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, where she also convenes the Asia-Pacific Security program. Image courtesy of Australian Civil-Military Centre.